“Merry Christmas, deputy speaker,” “joked” Philip Hammond after announcing he was freezing taxes on alcohol, making a festive bottle of whiskey about £1 cheaper for thirsty MPs. In the same breath, he increased the price on white cider – cheap, high percentage alcohol which is mostly bought by low-income people.
The upshot: if you’re rich enough to drink in pubs and buy nice booze, we’ll help you support your drinking habit. If you’re one of the 19 million people living in poverty, we’ll make it as hard as possible for you to access alcohol.
The overt elitism in these measures is unfathomable. His comments on “vulnerable people” “cheap alcohol” and “so-called white cider” intentionally or not evoked images of the homeless population – currently standing at a quarter of a million people in the UK – and reinforced the idea that the privilege of not living on the streets gives us a right to dictate how they should spend their money.
Hammond did mention homelessness in his Budget – for about a minute, if that. He pledged £25m to tackle the problem, compared to the £10bn he’ll spend on helping people who want to buy a home.
Apparently, as a young person, home ownership is my dream. While I don’t doubt it must be nice to not be held hostage by exploitative landlords and have some semblance of security for my future, much higher on my list of dreams is to live in a world where the very basic of human rights – to have a roof over one’s head – is assured to every citizen.
I live in Hackney, one of the top ten boroughs of London with the highest levels of homelessness. In interacting with rough sleepers the number one issue people express is a lack of empathy from the public. They are ignored, mocked and abused for begging for spare change – an indignity no one should have to suffer. But a real attempt to tackle homelessness is non-existent in mainstream politics, where people who are out of work are vilified and homelessness is stigmatised and “othered”, despite the fact that one in three families are a month’s salary away from losing their home.
When Philip Hammond spends most of the hour-long Budget talking about investment in technological innovation, cutting taxes for people in work and abolishing stamp duty for first-time buyers – which currently forces those privileged enough to buy a home to make a contribution to society which could help fund solutions for the most vulnerable – it’s little wonder most of us don’t think of homelessness as a serious issue. And when the Chancellor’s first allusion to those living in poverty is around increasing the cost of cheap booze and cigarettes, it’s no surprise that voters’ view on homeless people is that they’re lazy, drunk, and unwilling to help themselves – so why should we?
Corbyn, to his credit, made the point in his response that the Chancellor’s lip service to the issue of poverty and homelessness was beyond inadequate, and faced heckling from MPs and silencing from a Tory Whip while doing so.
This is not surprising. It’s in the Government’s interest for us to ignore the realities of the least fortunate in our society. We’ve made it almost impossible for people without a fixed address to vote, and while the population remains desensitised to the issue through cruel representations of homelessness and promotion of an individualistic rhetoric, there will be no one to advocate for the people most in need of our support, yet least represented in the public eye.
Let’s not forget that it was young people who up until recently were ignored by political parties based on the assumption that we wouldn’t vote. Now young people have a voice, and as a result we can rub our hands in greedy glee at the idea of our favourite Sauvignon Blanc sticking at £7 a bottle, paying less taxes, and having to contribute nothing to the country’s economy when we buy a house for hundreds of thousands of pounds. But now it’s our responsibility to push unpopular agendas on the Government, forcing them to tackle an issue even more pressing: that people are dying on our streets because we won’t give them a safe place to sleep.
This isn’t a case of one thing or another. Supporting the most vulnerable in our society helps everyone. And even if looked at through the most cynical of lenses, it’s more cost-effective for the Government to house people experiencing homelessness than it is to deal with the consequences.
But this should be irrelevant. Our basic humanity should kick in here – fellow humans should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, no matter what their circumstances. If we don’t want people turning to cheap cider to stay warm, the answer isn’t increasing the price – it’s helping them get to a point where they no longer need it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies