This weeks’ budget unveiled a naked, brutal assault on the most vulnerable in society. Our poorest children and young people.
According to Nelson Mandela, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
George Osborne’s budget oozes contempt for children audacious enough to be born into poverty. Rather than throw them a lifeline to break the cycle of disadvantage, he kicked the escape ladder from under their feet. Knowing what it feels like to live from hand to mouth should be a prerequisite for the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer.
What differentiates human beings from animals is our ability to empathise. Without it, we can’t access compassion and a sense of fairness and justice. Without ever experiencing hardship, it’s difficult (though not impossible, see Tony Benn) to comprehend that poverty is not a life choice. That many people, through no fault of their own, or sheer bad luck, end up in crisis. Many work hard to escape the cycle but find the odds stacked so high against them that they become paralyzed by hopelessness and despair.
According to the institute for fiscal studies, the budget will leave the poorest 10% of families around £800 a year worse off with the next 10% seeing their income slashed by £1,100 annually. Child poverty is expected to soar in the coming years due to relentless welfare cuts. George Osborne also abolished grants for the poorest to go to university and with them any hope of a better future.
Meanwhile the richest 10% will see their family’s income reduced by just £350 a year while inheritance and corporation tax is also reduced. This week Kevin Farnsworth, a researcher from York university, revealed that, at the same time as the government is making 12bn in welfare cuts, taxpayers are handing businesses £93bn a year in hidden subsidies (this doesn’t include legacy costs of bank bailouts for 2008-09 and other crisis measures, which are estimated to have cost £35bn in 2012-13). That’s more than £3,500 from each household in the UK. You don’t have to be Carol Vorderman to do the maths.
I can’t help but see alarming resonances between today’s austerity Britain and the austere Victorian era so evocatively chronicled in Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times”.
I read the book at a time of prolonged recession in Ireland, which didn’t end until the 90’s. I discovered a hook upon which I could hang and articulate all the observations I’d accumulated, through the prism of a working class child. How society is structured, the divide between the classes, how the haves gain at the have nots’ expense. The unfairness and inequality, the powerlessness in the face of the enormous state machine constructed in such a way as to grind you down and spit you out when you become a burden (old, disabled, poor). The way espoused ideology of governments indoctrinate children, through educational constraint (“fact” not corrupting “fancy”), social segregation (private boarding schools) and a cycle of disadvantage and poverty (welfare cuts to the poor and subsidies to the rich).
My father, a self employed builder, would take myself and my three siblings with him on Saturdays in the hope that seeing he had little mouths to feed might shame business owners into paying him the wages he was owed. Some left him for months without paying, others never paid at all, but there was nothing he could do. He had no recourse to justice. Even as a child, I remember feeling incredibly proud of my father’s dignified integrity but at the same time furious at the bosses who claimed not to have the means to pay, while standing next to their brand new Mercedes.
In contemporary Britain, the big bosses plead unfairness at having to pay their fair share, threatening to take their business elsewhere at the first sign of a brown envelope marked HMRC. The Mercedes’ have been replaced by private jets and tax free houses in Belgravia Square.
If my parents’ fate befell me in today’s austerity Britain (or Ireland), working 2 jobs, as they did, would not be enough to shield my child from the indignity of a food bank. During the lean years, clothes were sourced in charity shops (before it was cool) and the hand me down system worked for my elder sister (but not so much for my younger siblings). But, we were never cold or hungry.
The rampant deregulation of industry over the years is crippling society and driving, even those in employment, into poverty. Between 2002 and 2011, energy bills rose by 44 percent and water by 21 percent, while incomes of poorer households fell 11 percent over the same period.
A Report published this week by the Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) revealed that 70% of customers and 14% of small businesses are being overcharged by the big 6 energy companies. This is not breaking news and the espoused solution is a red herring.
Urging people to switch providers is not the answer. Dealing with the root cause, wanton exploitative practices by the big 6 is the only sustainable solution. It is unacceptable to shift the burden onto the individual customer to change provider every time energy companies move the goal posts. Just like the banks, no sooner have you switched provider to get a better rate, than the rate changes and you’re back to square one.
Meanwhile, with the eyes of the world diverted to Greece this week, the European Parliament dealt democracy a crushing blow. TTIP (see earlier blog) is stolen, like a thief in the night, ever closer into our midst. But hey, at least we can seek solace in some quality TV. I’m off to watch one of the “Benefits Britain” spin offs. Tonight, it’s “Too fat to work” (for the benefit of my overseas readers, this programme exists. I'm not making it up). I'm looking forward to the day when Channel 5 commissions a series entitled, "Too rich to pay taxes". I won't hold my breath.
*I’ve been commissioned to examine the rights (or lack thereof) of children in Britain. It’s a medium term project, which will be published in a couple of months. If you have any personal experiences or stories (relating to education, health, including mental health, access to justice etc) do get in touch. You can contact me directly through my website.