‘Let them eat cake’

As government spending cuts push an increasing number of households into financial difficulties, George Austin calls on Church leaders to speak out for those affected

My grandmother was born in 1876 in Bury. Her parents signed her birth certificate with an X so were clearly illiterate. By the age of five she was working in a cotton mill sweeping out under the looms, a dangerous work that brought death to many little children. At fourteen she was herself ‘driving four looms’, helping her parents to feed and clothe the family.

I was born in 1931, by which time the worst of this had gone but there was still the Depression. One of my earliest memories as a child brought up in that Lancashire mill town is seeing a line of men in shabby clothes standing forlornly outside a blackened building in the centre of town. I asked my mother why they were there, and was told they were out of work and queuing for the ‘dole’, their weekly unemployment benefit.

The Depression

The country was in a deep depression and poverty was all around. We lived in a lower middle-class area with slums nearby on one side and council flats on the other, and this was reflected in those boys and girls I saw daily in the classrooms of my elementary school.

There were some who wore clogs and bedraggled clothes, and a few who carried with them that strange sour-sweet smell of the unwashed. Ready to move on from primary education we sat for scholarships to the High School. There were three or four scholarship places with free education, with several more ‘exhibitions’ which paid half the fees. The remainder, provided they reached a certain level, could pay for this better level of education, while the rest had to go to the Central School from which advancement to higher education was well nigh impossible.

Medical treatment

Illness brought financial demands which often could not be met by the poor, for a doctor’s appointment was always preceded by a request for a payment, small but too much for those struggling to buy food and clothes for their (often many) children.

When the National Health Service came into being (and if I remember aright with much opposition from the medical profession), it provided free medical treatment for all patients with whatever illness. This proved to be one of the most beneficial decisions ever made by a British government. Now it is in effect to be privatized and we must wait to see what effect this will have, with firms buying the privilege of healing the sick for their own profit. After all, it is now difficult to find an NHS dentist following similar decisions by previous governments.

But today (or at least tomorrow) the poor face greater dangers as a result of the government’s comprehensive spending review. The Shelter campaign over Christmas 2010 highlighted this, claiming that ‘every two minutes someone in this country faces the nightmare of losing their home.’ But as the government prepares ‘to slash housing investment, there is no question this will increase in the coming months’.

Shelter points out that cuts in housing benefit threaten to force people out of their homes, and they forecast that 270,000 households will be put into serious financial difficulty, that 134,000 households are likely to be evicted or forced to move, 21,000 of which are pensioners, and that no less than 54,000 children will be pushed far below the poverty line, in families having to survive on less than £100 per week.

They say that more changes too are to come in the Welfare Reform Bill. Making things worse for the poor, one London Council has announced that those in employment will be given priority for council housing over the unemployed. Must they then live on the streets?

Rising unemployment

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in the last quarter over 20% of 16- to 24-years-olds were unemployed, with a total in this age-group alone of 951,000, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992. The total number of all unemployed has reached 2.3 million, again the highest in the period since 1992. There must surely be psychological damage bringing feelings of failure and uselessness to many young people, not to mention those older people who have lost jobs they enjoyed over many years.

According to The Times, the head of a government think-tank has warned that cutbacks were happening ‘faster than voluntary groups could fill the gap’. Senior Tory David Davis has suggested that the departure of Andy Coulson meant that the coalition had ‘lost the only person who understood the issues that mattered to ordinary people’. Now Cameron and Clegg will have to see ‘beyond their own history’ – that is to say, beyond their privileged background and sheltered experience.

There is surely an urgent need for a voice, strident if necessary, from the Churches. Recently, with the proposal to sell the public lands of the Forestry Commission to private ownership, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined other celebrities is signing a letter objecting to this, and rightly so.

But it is surely time for the leaders of all the Churches to forget any doubts they might have about ‘interfering in politics’ and to speak out for those likely to lose their homes, for pensioners and those on benefits who will be driven towards poverty by governmental decisions.

We await this with baited breath but without too much hope. ND

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