Tory MP Heidi Allen’s tearful response to Frank Field’s House of Commons speech about the effects of poverty in our country was a tough watch. It was during a debate on the government’s new benefit, Universal Credit (UC). I make little comment on UC because I don’t know a great deal about it, other than to say the principle is a good one. The wider issue is about poverty itself, which, it may surprise Ms Allen, has been around for a very long time. I know because I have spent almost all of my professional life working with people from the lowest incomes. If she had done my job, she’d have probably started crying and never stopped.
Whilst I definitely came across the feckless and idle, more often than not the people I met were in poverty through little or no fault of their own. Whether they were poor because of a lack of education, because of addiction, because of a chaotic upbringing or simply due to the absence of social mobility – or even a combination of some or all of these conditions – poverty was real. It is one thing to hear report on the telly where people are choosing between eating and keeping warm, sometimes failing to do either, it is quite another to see it.
When George Osborne made his cynical distinction between strivers and skivers, it was on the basis of a false premise. No one seriously goes onto benefits as a career choice because generally speaking they are inadequate. Unless the benefit claimant is able to source income in addition to benefits, such as working whilst getting benefits or, in the case of lone parents, having your working partner move in with you without telling anyone, a life of benefits is not a good choice. (Luckily, such frauds are much easier these days as the DWP chooses to go after easy hits rather than major prosecutions but that’s something for another day.)
I have visited the most squalid places you could ever imagine. Damp, dimly lit, freezing cold, filthy dirty, tiny little flats where people raise children and whose children look like extras from Oliver! and eating cheap rubbish from frozen food stores. If you imagine any type of poverty, I have seen it all, here in Bristol, much of which is now hidden behind the hipster invasion that further tears apart the fabric of our city.
Heidi Allen fought and failed to choke back the tears and there were further words of sympathy from those who hold the reins of power. But still tax credits are frozen, still the minimum wage is £7.50 a week, still more people are getting drawn into poverty.
As we said, poverty has always been there. Yesterday’s debate told us nothing new. And what will happen as a result will be nothing new. It will be nothing at all. UC is not the problem: it will be for many the answer. The implementation must be properly done and properly funded and that is where many of the problems are today. If Ms Allen were to get out more, she might understand that what made her cry yesterday was nothing new or unusual.