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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Moving the goalposts

The sense of deja vu described in the last blog, sent me scurrying to retrieve my work notebooks from 1990-1995. In those books are the texts of many of the talks I gave round the country about the impact of poverty. A poverty that was still being felt, and indeed deepening,  in Bradford a decade after the early 1980s recession. The title for this blog came from a section of a talk for a church conference where I was describing the 'poverty of power'. 

I wrote: 'There are few votes in poverty. Yet the impact of political ideology has hit those in impoverished circumstances extremely badly. An example is the 1986 Social Security Act which has caused, and still causes, untold hardship. The very legislation which is meant to provide a safety net, no longer does so. I'd like to tell two stories. The first to illustrate that lack of a safety net; the second to illustrate the feelings of powerlessness experienced by people with few financial resources to cushion them, when politicians move the goalposts....'

The second story that I told at that conference is the one that came to mind when hearing about the planned policy to cap rent and benefit levels in the latest Welfare Bill.

The story concerned one of the young single Mums who was a regular attender at the community project I had helped to found in 1988. Unusually she was one of the few people who had managed to keep her little family out of debt. One day she came to the centre in great distress, clutching a letter that she had received from the local Council, threatening her with eviction for non-payment of the 20% of the Community Charge (commonly known as the Poll Tax). which she like everyone else on benefit was then obliged to pay, regardless of the poverty of their income. 

This debt had occurred because the government had changed the rules. Instead of people on income support (the very baseline benefit that in effect constituted the poverty line in the UK) being exempted from the local tax, everyone now had to contribute at least 20% of that charge. This was in effect a cut in benefit which drove people below the poverty line. Rather than go cold, or hungry, or not replace her children's shoes for the winter, this Mum had defaulted on her Community Charge payment.

An additional misfortune for this Mum was that Bradford at that time had a new Council Leader. He planned to cut the Council Budget by £50m and was determined to reduce the debt that people had with the Council. The Housing Department were expected to issue eviction notices to persistent defaulters. Hence her eviction notice. Through the centre we were able to find the money to write off her debt, but what about all the others without that support?

So there was a single parent, once debt free, and then put into a perilous position because of a change in the national social security legislation and a change of Council Leader. Reader, that Council Leader was Eric Pickles, now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Thirty years on from the brave world of Margaret Thatcher and Eric Pickles 'Thatcher experiment' in local government, we see the goalposts being changed once again. This time it is benefit and rent caps, potentially evicting families from high rent areas of cities. Rents they have no control over, and a policy they cannot influence. 

The House of Lords are doing their best, but as I said yesterday, the Coalition has no fear because their rhetoric of 'unfairness to those hard-working people who pay their taxes' is serving its purpose well. The irony is that the 'hard-working tax payers' will pick up even bigger bills down the line.

 Ideology clearly trumps learning.

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