Tag Archives: bedroom tax

The Queen’s Speech

P1000347It’s been just over 3 weeks since that most shocking of election results. It wasn’t so much that Labour, the party I was supporting, lost, but the consequences of that loss. No repeal of the bedroom tax, another assault on those with the least with a reported £12bn cut to benefits, creeping privatisation of the NHS, no lifting of the gag on charities to “speak truth to power” while private lobbyists and big business continue to wield undue influence. I felt sick, and then I felt angry, and then I realised that I needed to harness that energy, join with others, and do what I could to challenge inequality and help those most in need. So it was great to find 100 people at the constituency Labour party meeting two weeks later, all feeling the same thing

What happens now? I reckon we need to be active on two fronts. Firstly, people are in genuine need. Current policy is making life tough for many, and there are equally many ways we can get involved to help. What is going on in your community that you can join in with to help those in need? We had Baby Basics in church this morning, talking about how they provide clothes, nappies and toiletries for vulnerable new mums and babies who have nothing – asylum seekers, teenage mums, those fleeing domestic violence. And anyone in Sheffield can sign up as a Fairness Champion, to commit to tackling inequality across this city. I’m sure you can find examples where you live.

But equally, we need to challenge injustice where we find it in the legislation that will be put before us over the next parliament. Like a stuck record, I keep saying that we can support food banks, but we must continue to denounce the fact that food banks even need to exist in 21st century Britain. So I thought it would be worth looking at the Queen’s Speech, to see what a Tory-only government looks like. As I see it, what are the challenges that lie ahead, the challenges to justice and equality?

The speech starts well, promising to “help working people get on”, and “new opportunities to the most disadvantaged”, and to “provide economic stability and security at every stage of life.” I think we’ll be coming back to these promises later on. I’m really keen to get beyond the sound bites and look the legislation that is actually being proposed.

Take, for example, the legislation put forward “to help achieve full employment and provide people with the security of a job”. This refers to the “full employment and welfare benefits bill”. The main purpose of this bill is to lower the benefit cap (the total a non-working family can receive in benefits) from £26,000 to £23,000 a year and to freeze most working-age benefits for two years. Not so much of the opportunities for the most disadvantaged there, then. Instead, an arbitrary cap on income for many whose expenditure will continue to rise. Support for young people will also become much more difficult to access.

The government’s attitude to welfare seems to be unchanged. Despite the fact that by far the biggest spending on welfare goes on pensions, the speech promises to “secure the real value of the basic state pension”. Not that I want to knock pensioners, but it is funny how welfare reform never quite reaches this far. Meanwhile, that other huge chunk of welfare spending, housing benefits, is not mentioned at all, except that it will be included in the benefit cap above. No plans to tackle exorbitant rents, poor housing or exploitative landlords. Instead, the government offers housing association tenants the right-to-buy their homes. The fact that the government doesn’t own these assets which it seems so determined to sell doesn’t seem to matter. This is the government’s answer to the housing crisis, despite the fact that under previous schemes, newly built replacement housing doesn’t keep pace with the number of houses sold. And we’re still not getting anywhere near “new opportunities to the most disadvantaged”, who wouldn’t be able to afford to buy their homes anyway.

The plan that people working 30 hours a week on the national minimum wage would not pay income tax is a good one. It does seem ludicrous that a minimum wage is set which is then subject to income tax. This will be done by raising the income tax threshold. Now, here comes the science. Raising the income tax threshold does not help the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society. They are already not paying tax! But it does help everyone else – including those who are already well-off or rich, because they end up paying less taxes too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, I’m just saying it’s not a measure to help those who are really poor.

There’s a lot of reading between the lines to be done, as far as I’m concerned. Take the promise of providing 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds. This is clearly linked to working 30 hours on the minimum wage above. But providing 30 hours of childcare doesn’t mean you can work for 30 hours, unless we are expecting 3 and 4 year olds to take themselves to nursery? And another thing! This isn’t free child care! It is places in nursery schools. Since when was nursery simply free child care? I’m not sure what the fully-qualified, Ofsted-inspected nursery teachers will make of that. Credit to my friend’s blog for pointing this out.

make tax fairPresumably, this is going to cost money, which apparently we don’t have, and it’s unclear where we’re going to find it, as the Queen’s Speech also promises “no rises in income tax rates, value-added tax or national insurance for the next five years”. Nor does it offer any measures to tackle tax dodging, despite this being a manifesto promise.

“Securing the future of the NHS” is another empty promise unless it is accompanied by some funds. I agree that access to GPs and mental healthcare needs to be improved. I also know people who work in both these services who are working way beyond their contracted hours, in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. To genuinely attempt to get this right will require money, time, patience and proper consultation with those at the sharp end. I particularly like the comment on Have I Got News For You that increasing the number of GPs may be incompatible with reducing immigration!

But we really see Cameron following in Thatcher’s footsteps with his plans to “reform trade unions”. This amounts to making conditions for a strike ballot far tougher than those any elected government has ever needed to reach. Conditions which the TUC predicts will make it almost illegal to strike. Nice to see what it really means to help working people get on, by removing their right to withhold their labour, while low-pay, zero-hours contracts and other exploitative working practices continue unchecked.

The government will continue with its plan to expand academies and free schools, despite the lack of evidence that free schools in particular actually do better in the long term. Despite appearing to bring control of education closer to communities, in effect it actually centralises it, taking schools away from local authorities and bringing them under central government authority. I’ll leave you to decide if this is good or bad.

I read the Queen’s Speech with a profound sense of disappointment at how small Great Britain seems to have become. So much of what is proposed focuses only inwards, and the outward looking legislation is diminishing. Our relationship with the EU is to be renegotiated, and then we will decide whether to stand with our European neighbours or to stand apart. Although he backed off from proposing legislation, Cameron still insists on a discussion about whether we continue to hold ourselves accountable to others on the issue of rights, or whether we will decide to be accountable only to ourselves. The plan to “modernise the law on communications data” is a revival of the micro-managing snooper’s charter. I’d like to see “extremism” better defined before we get to the legislation. Disagreeing with governments is healthy, spying on your citizens is not.

It’s good to see climate change getting a look in. The government pledges “effective global collaboration…to combat climate change, including at the climate change conference in Paris later this year”. I’m also pleased to see measures to increase energy security. It would be good if this included more investment in renewable energy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies, so we can be liberated from our dependence on gas, coal and oil. Fracking is not the answer.

I hope we can lead the way to effective action on climate change, and I hope we can “continue to play a leading role in global affairs”. But the rhetoric on Europe alongside our abdication of responsibility for the refugee crisis in the Med means Great Britain is starting to look very small indeed.

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Bishop of Sheffield to Mr Cameron

The Bishop of Sheffield posted a brilliant blog on 11th May, following the election. It’s so good, I’ve reproduced it all here. You can find the original on the Diocese of Sheffield website.

The Prime Minister will not be short of advice as he appoints the Cabinet and prepares the Queen’s Speech.  There is a particular bible story about accepting and weighing advice that I would suggest it might be helpful for him to read and ponder in the first days of the new government.

It’s a story about transition.  King Solomon has died.  All the tribes of Israel have gathered to make his son, Rehoboam, the new king.  But there is widespread discontent.  A delegation comes from the northern tribes, requesting an easing of their burdens.

Rehoboam has a choice to make and he asks for three days to reflect.  He consults two sets of advisors.  The first group, his father’s counsellors, advise him to listen to the people, to be their servant, to reach out to the disaffected and lead from this foundation.

The second group, his own contemporaries, give opposite advice.  Discontent should be met with harshness.  The burdens on the north should be increased still further.  The new government should start as it means to go on.

Reheboam makes his choice.  It is a fateful one.  He listens to the younger, harsher, more strident voices.  A few years later, the kingdom is divided, at war, impoverished and in chaos.

I have no doubt that David Cameron will receive both sorts of advice in the coming days.  There will be those who counsel him to reach out to the whole nation, to connect with the disaffected, to listen to the people and to be their servant.  But there will be those who see the Conservative majority as a mandate to fulfill and go beyond the manifesto commitments, blind to the risk of increasing the burdens of those who already bear the heavy load (of sickness, disability or the struggle to find sustainable employment).

The Prime Minister’s speech on the steps of Downing Street on Thursday moved clearly in the first direction.  David Cameron spoke of one nation and sought to connect more deeply with those who had voted for other parties, with the people of Scotland, with the regions.  He promised to bring our country together, to help working people and give “the poorest people the chance of training, a job and hope for the future”.

Much of this rhetoric is encouraging but now it needs to be supported and backed up with action.  That action needs to be taken swiftly to begin to draw the United Kingdom back together again and begin to build for the future.  The choices made in the next few days about priorities and plans for legislation in the next year are critical.

So here are some suggestions for a big, open offer from Mr Cameron to every part of the United Kingdom, and especially to those who voted for other parties.

  • Make an early, concrete and clear commitment to safeguarding the environment and to leadership in the key climate conferences this year through the appointments you make and in the Queen’s Speech.  Action on climate change is integral to economic growth.
  • Abolish the bedroom tax.  It hasn’t worked.  It has generated more resentment than revenue.  Repealing it would demonstrate a capacity for change and to think again.
  • Promise an early review of benefits sanctions as part of the ongoing reform of welfare.  Sanctions cause massive hardship.  They are responsible for a significant number of people needing foodbanks.  They are tangential to the main welfare reforms.  In the meantime suspend sanctions for families with children and people suffering from mental ill health.
  • Encourage the Living Wage as part of growing a sustainable, strong national economy.
  • Take a long view of constitutional reform.  Acknowledge the concern revealed by the election outcome.  Entrust it to some kind of independent commission which has time and space to think.  Don’t rush the key decisions which will affect the whole future of the United Kingdom.
  • Revisit the Big Society ideas, if not the language.  Place active partnership, between national and local government and the faith and voluntary sector, front and centre again, not as a replacement of government initiative but complementary to it.  Make sure there is clear leadership for these ideas at Cabinet level.
  • Accelerate the provision of truly affordable housing and prioritise this as part of investment in the future.  Protect and strengthen social housing provision to ensure that everyone has access to a decent home at a price they can afford.
  • Reach out to the English regions as well as to Scotland in swift and tangible ways.  In particular make investment in the northern powerhouse a key priority for the first two years of the new government.

The word Minister means servant.  A Prime Minister is called to be one who serves the whole nation.  If Reheboam had listened to different advice the whole story of Israel would have been different.  I hope that David Cameron will take a moment to read and ponder his story: to listen to all the people, to lighten burdens, and to build one nation, for the benefit of all.

+Steven Sheffield

(The story of Reheboam’s choice is told in 1 Kings 12)

It’s not over yet

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that I’m gutted about Thursday’s election results. I don’t claim that this blog is unbiased, just that I write aware of my bias. I’m still coming to terms with the idea that we will have to live with the bedroom tax, the gag on charities, welfare sanctions and food banks for another five years.

The initial feelings of bleakness have passed. But I don’t want to let go of the feeling that something is profoundly amiss. That we cannot let this go. That we must do something. I had the same conversation with strangers in a café on Friday morning and with friends in church today.

I think it will take time to work out what that something is that we must do. But today I wanted to say something about democracy. Election day is the beginning, not the end of the democratic process. We don’t only hold our government to account once every five years. We call them to account every step of the way. A democracy means we have the freedom to speak out about the things that concern us, so we must use this freedom to champion the good and call out injustice.

We’re not all going to agree about what that might mean. But in a democracy, we have the space to debate what matters to us. There is a place for everyone to have their say. We may not like what people have chosen, but we damage democracy if we say that people cannot be trusted to choose well.

However, I do believe we can say that people have not necessarily had the best information. Facts and figures are lost in a swamp of spin and distortion. Who can untangle the truth about what really happens to people who are trying to claim disability benefits or look for work when your only information comes from hysterical newspaper headlines? The carefully collected and presented research from groups such as Oxfam and the Joint Public Issues Team barely get a mention in our media.

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So, this is a call to fight for democracy. For us to continue what our votes started and keep holding our MPs and our government to account. Get in touch with your MP. Let them know what matters to you. Speak up for truth and justice. Don’t let things go unchallenged. Tell the stories of people who don’t normally have their voice heard. The disenfranchised, the marginalised, those without power because in Britain today money is power. A good place to start would be to share Church Action on Poverty’s real stories of people on benefits, not the Channel 4 version.

We might have picked ourselves up from the devastation of Friday morning. But don’t forget how that exit poll made you feel. We’re going to need to remember, because we have a long journey ahead of us.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9 seemed appropriate: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Value in Politics?

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I love this picture that has been floating round social media. This little girl’s reaction to David Cameron seems to sum up so succinctly many people’s reaction to his party’s idea that children in year 7 should retake the SATs they took in year 6 if they’re not up to scratch. #headdesk seems entirely appropriate.

Since when did SATs become a test you had to pass? We abolished the 11+ because it set children apart and labelled some as failures at too young an age, and now it seems to be back. The Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan might say that children are already set apart by this age if they are not achieving expected levels in Maths and English. This says something positive about the predictive power of SATs tests, but no amount of retesting will change this. If someone is struggling with Maths and English at 11, chances are they will be struggling at 16 too. Instead of labelling children as failures and focusing on re-sits, perhaps more creative, more constructive programmes could be implemented to support children. The whole measurement becomes meaningless anyway, when we remember the previous education secretary required every child’s scores to be above average.

We have become entirely embroiled in the numbers here, there is no sense of the individuals involved – not their needs (special or otherwise), or personalities, or desires, or gifts, or even really their futures. Just reaching that magic level 4 at the end of KS2. It’s like benefit sanctions – the human misery doesn’t matter, just reducing the claimant count. Or the bedroom tax – no matter that there are no smaller homes to move into, the housing benefit bill must come down.

It’s not that there isn’t merit is spending less on benefits, or measuring progress in schools. But these things should not be an outcome in themselves. What is the point unless life is made better for all of us? There are better ways of spending less on housing benefits, by better control of rents and private landlords, but this way isn’t quicker or easier and affects the rich not the poor. There are better ways of helping people into work other than cutting off their income, but these involve a bit of time, attention, understanding and money! Taking resits in year 7 seems unlikely to improve opportunities for children struggling at school.

These policies only make sense when considered in a vacuum, without the messiness of actual people’s lives. But, given that politics is about people, I’m looking for policies which, at their heart, value people’s humanity.

At the core of my understanding of where faith and politics combine is discovering the intrinsic value of every person. For the Christian, humans are made in the image of God, there is something of God in every person. Every one of us is valuable simply because we are human. It is an intrinsic part of who we are. It is not a function of our productivity, or our utility. It is not dependent on our capacity to think, or to love, or to pass KS2 SATs. It is our essence. And it should be reflected in all our interactions between each other and the state.

Why I can’t sanction sanctions

Emergency use onlyWhat happens to people who get their benefits stopped? Have you ever actually sat down and thought about what really happens? Or are the consequences unfortunate but unavoidable, so you don’t think about them? After all, sanctions are a justifiable way of making sure people aren’t defrauding the system, right?

Well, no. Benefit fraud is a different thing altogether and involves court cases, paying the money back and going to prison. Just over a year ago I was giving debt advice to a couple with young children who were sentenced to prison the week before Christmas.

Let’s look at what I’m really talking about. What bothers me is the growing gap in the numbers between people in work and people claiming unemployment benefit – known these days as job seekers allowance (JSA).

Not everyone who doesn’t work claims JSA. Some people are too unwell to work and they (should) receive a different allowance. Other people live in households which have other income and aren’t entitled to JSA. In theory, in an ideal world, this should cover everyone.

Recently, the number of people in work has been rising. We can have a debate about the quality of these jobs, and employment versus self-employment, but that’s for another day. However, government figures show the number of people receiving JSA has been falling faster than the number of people in work has been rising. It’s perfectly clear that they haven’t all started claiming the allowance for those too unwell for work as the furore over changes to this benefit shows. And neither you nor I believe they’ve all moved into households with other income.

No, people are no longer counted as claiming JSA because they have had their allowance stopped. And here is the key phrase I read on a discussion thread, and which continues to buzz round my head – “people are no longer counted”. These people don’t count any more – they’re off the JSA figures – who cares if they’re actually working or not.

So – what actually happens when your income disappears. It usually happens without notice. Most people will tell you they went to collect their money as usual to find it was not there, with no other warning. A sanction can last four weeks or eight weeks, but can be as long as 26 weeks or 104 weeks. Yes, that’s right – 104 weeks – that’s two years, a nice piece of government obfuscation there.

Now, let’s remember this is happening to people, not just numbers. What do you do when suddenly you have not money? You can’t put any more money on your gas or electricity meter – many people without a wage coming in have to use pre-pay meters. Let’s hope the weather is warm. You won’t be able to switch on the oven, but then again, chances are you don’t have any money to buy food. And if it goes on too long, you might not even have a cooker if you’d “bought” it from somewhere like Brighthouse and are paying back in instalments because you could never get that sort of money together up front. Keep the doors and windows locked so the bailiffs can’t get in.

You can’t top up your phone, so you can’t call anyone to see what’s gone wrong or how to put it right, and you don’t have the bus fare to go into town to sort it out. Your rent should still be paid by housing benefit, but this is often incorrectly stopped as well*. Then there’s water rates, TV licence, bedroom tax and council tax, all unpaid and stacking up arrears, penalties and further potential visits from bailiffs.

So what can you do? You could borrow from family and friends, if they’ve got anything they can lend you. But this can only be a temporary fix and will have to be paid back for the sake of family harmony. Likewise, you could go to a foodbank, but again, this is only a short-term solution if your sanction is a long one, and you’ll have to say no to the fresh veg they sometimes offer because you’ve nothing spare to put on the meter for the hob. You could try a payday lender (if you aren’t already struggling with previous loans). You’ll probably get one, but it’s hardly a good solution because even when/if your money is restored, there’s nothing spare to make the repayments anyway. Mind you, it’s an option more and more of us are turning too and personal credit in the UK continues to rocket. You could try a doorstep lender like Provident – at least they accept repayments in smaller amounts, but these seem to go on forever. But better than an illegal lender, a though which has crossed your mind. A Credit Union loan would be a better option, but (as yet) these aren’t available soon enough – you’ll need to be a saver for several weeks first in most cases.

If only there were hardship payments available to tied you over until the end of the sanction period – as least to put money on the meter and food on the table. What? You mean there are such payments? Why did no-one tell me about them?** Meanwhile, we’re all hungry and the last resort might be shoplifting, just so there’s something to feed the kids when they get home from school tonight.

 

After I wrote this blog but before I posted it, I read this article, which echoes some of my themes above and shows that sanctions don’t help people back into work anyway. Who’d’ve thought?

* see the Emergency Use Only report (pictured), p116

** see the Emergency Use Only report, p42 and p111

Solving food poverty in Liverpool

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I spent this afternoon at a really interesting conference organised by Can Cook searching for solutions to food poverty in Liverpool. There is so much amazing work going on in the city to support people and help them, from a comprehensive network of food banks to initiatives in schools and communities to help people learn to cook and make nutritious meals on a budget. Many of us at the conference are shocked at the increasing numbers of people relying on food aid – the number of people accessing Trussell Trust foodbanks has tripled this year. How did we come to this in the 7th richest nation in the world in the 21st Century?

Even those of us who work in food banks know that they can and should only and always be emergency support for people in crisis, and should not become embedded in our culture. Thinking long-term, I’m impressed by the cooking projects in the city, teaching skills, building community, providing resources. Equipping people is necessary if we want to tackle poverty. Lots of us would like to see the tinned and dried food provided in a food bank food parcel added to with fresh food, and some food banks have successfully incorporated fresh food into what they give out. The idea of food aid + was described by Can Cook. They have asked chefs to create 10 meals with just 15 ingredients, and suggest we could ask for these ingredients to be donated by the public in the same way that food items are donated now. I foresee logistical difficulties, but it sounds good in principle.

But I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter. It does not answer the question ‘how did we come to this?’ The bottom line is that people are relying on food aid because they do not have enough money to buy food to feed their families. And sometimes people don’t have enough money to buy gas or electricity to cook said food or warm their homes. This is what we need to address. The reasons are varied and complex, including debt, benefit delays, benefit changes and sanctions, the rising cost of living, and not least new pressures on household budgets from the bedroom tax (sorry, withdrawal of the spare room subsidy) and council tax contributions. But as someone said this afternoon, one of the reasons is certainly not national poverty. The UK is a rich country, and the problem is inequality.

I read with horror that David Cameron has recently given a speech saying that austerity is the new normal.  Austerity is a big con, and a façade for the deliberate shrinking of the state. While services are being cut and support for the vulnerable in society is being removed, there is still enough money in the treasury for tax cuts for the richest and for businesses. People with mental health problems and disabilities find their benefits are stopped for failing to jump through enough hoops, while businesses are happily avoiding paying between £45 and £100 billion in tax jumping through as many tax loopholes as their accountants can find, according to Church Action on Poverty.  Where is the commitment to a Living Wage, so that people who are in work can actually afford a reasonable lifestyle without relying on state or food bank top ups?

The most striking comment of the afternoon, for me, was a remark about free school meals, during a presentation about the School Food Plan. In schools where universal free school meals were piloted, levels of attainment across all economic backgrounds improved. In other words, even children who might be expected to be well fed already benefitted from free school meals. But even more strikingly, the biggest improvements were observed for the poorest children. Not surprising, you say, but actually, these were the children who were already entitled to free school meals. So it wasn’t the introduction of free school meals which made the difference for these children, but the universality of the benefit. This is a demonstration of the difference that can be made when we truly work together for the good of all, for the common good.

Hard-working taxpayers

I’m growing to really dislike the phrase “hard-working taxpayers”, especially when it’s used to  talk about how much money they will apparently save because of some scheme or other.  I came across it again while I was reading an article about the devastating impact of the Bedroom Tax on residents in Liverpool.  I expect I will feel moved to write about that outrage at some stage, but for now, I want to concentrate on the claim from the DWP that “This reform will save hard-working taxpayers almost £1bn”

Let’s be clear. No reform of any sort will “save” any taxpayer any money at all.  Taxpayers will still be paying exactly the same amount of tax, and even if the “reform” saves any money (which, in this case, I sincerely doubt), it will just be spent on something else.  Personally, I’d rather pay for cohesive social communities than Trident.  The current economic deficit means that it will be a long time before any reduction in Government spending has any chance of leading to tax cuts.

But this aside, I still have an issue with the phrase “hard-working taxpayers”.  It conjures up an image of people working their fingers to the bone only to have all their money taken away by the taxman.  I exaggerate, but let’s think of tax differently.  It is our contribution to the common good, our citizens’ commitment to one another.  It is one of the ways we have a share in our common humanity and support each others’ wellbeing.

And please let us remember that not everyone who works hard pays income tax.  There are plenty full-time carers, homemakers and community volunteers who do not receive any remuneration for their work.  And there are many who work hard but at low paid jobs who do not reach the income tax threshold. (This is another bugbear of mine, when politicians raise the tax threshold and then claim to have helped the poorest. No. The poorest weren’t paying tax anyway because they are poorly paid on low hours or zero-hours contracts.)

Actually, even the unpaid and low paid are still busy paying taxes every day – VAT, fuel duty etc.  These taxes have been steadily rising while income tax has been falling, yet these taxes are hidden from sight and have a greater impact on the poor than the rich.  And so to talk about raising tax thresholds to take people out of tax is nonsense, it only applies to income tax.

So let’s get away from this image of the hard-working, hard-pressed, poor old burdened taxpayer.  Instead, why not rejoice if you earn enough to pay income tax and can contribute to those things you have benefitted from, and which have enabled you to earn as you do? And let’s value people and companies who feel the same and want to contribute their fair share. I’ve come across some websites which are trying to quantify which companies are good taxpayers.  One is Tax Ticked and the other is Fair Tax, which was flagged up by 38 degrees last week.  I can’t vouch for their content – see what you think.