Leading Article: Ministering to the poor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
UNTIL the 17th century, monarchs washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. The ceremony, expressing the sovereign's concern for all citizens, had its origins in the Last Supper, when Jesus bathed his disciples' feet. He told them: 'If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.'

Would it be appropriate, in this time of recession, to restore the practice in a modernised form? Since Britain is a democracy, the Cabinet and Opposition frontbenchers could take on the task. Abandoning their limousines, senior politicians could travel by public transport, if they can find it, to seek out the poor and, with all due humility, lave their extremities. It would be particularly instructive for Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, as he considers benefit cuts, and for those involved in Labour's policy review.

Such an act of solidarity seems impossible in an era when two sections of society - the poor and the political elite - are so out of touch. Poverty is taboo. Raising the issue wins the Tories no votes and tarnishes Labour's rosy image as a party of success. As a result, the poor were barely mentioned in the run-up to the election last year.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reducing poverty is the feeble representation available to the poor. They are a fragmented group and include homeless teenagers, single-parent families and elderly people. Until the poor are mobilised, politicians are unlikely to support their interests adequately. An occasional riot will reveal their rage, which more often is turned inwards and characterised by depression and demoralisation. In Cabinet, they have no advocate. They are dispossessed politically, economically and socially.

Statistics tell the story: in the Eighties the poorest 10 per cent of the population saw their real disposable income fall by 6 per cent while the average household enjoyed a 30 per cent rise. A report to be published today by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux highlights the inadequacy of income support for people facing years of unemployment. An adult aged over 25 is expected to live on pounds 44 a week, while his partner survives on pounds 25. Meanwhile, the great council-house sale has left the less well- off in deprived estates with the worst housing stock, cut off physically from prosperity and often, following the demise of transport subsidies, unable to travel.

Tinkering with social security is unlikely to resolve their needs. Those on benefits will be lucky to escape without cuts, given the budget deficit and high unemployment. A buoyant supply of jobs, which prevented the creation of an 'underclass' during the Fifties and Sixties, is likely to be the only answer for the poor of working age. They will need training, since the market in unskilled labour is fast disappearing. Child care also is essential. Single-parent families cannot dig themselves out of the mire without that support.

One of Her Majesty's ministers should be given the task of representing the needs of the poor in Cabinet. Just as real meaning could be restored to the Maundy Thursday ceremonies, so politicians could replace their empty gestures with fruitful action.