Poverty, deprivation and inequality in Tory Britain

“File:Marcus Rashford 2018-06-28 1.jpg” by Кирилл Венедиктов is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Dear Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 

Mr Johnson, the time has come for you to step out of the cosy bubble of denial in which you exist. It is the citizens of this nation who gave you power based on your election manifesto. We expect you to make decisions that are beneficial to all, not just one section of society.

In the last general election just over a year ago, you schmoozed the people of traditionally Labour-voting constituencies in the old industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the North of England. To the amazement of many, possibly yourselves included, the Tories secured their vote. Then you promptly did as you always do, turned your back and betrayed them. You have not delivered on your manifesto promises, especially for the people in the constituencies you turned from red to blue. They are now suffering worsening levels of deprivation and hardship and the number of families who fall into the category of absolute poverty is increasing exponentially. But this is not confined to just the North of England, it’s the same across the UK, where we are seeing deepening levels of poverty, food insecurity, homelessness and reliance on charities to cover the most basic, fundamental requirements for an acceptable standard of existence. Things are so bad that UN aid organisation, Unicef, is to provide food aid to the UK for the first time since its inception 70 years ago.

You may deny it, but we can all see that Conservatives have spent the last decade destroying our societies and hopes for a better future. You’ve removed the security nets, by reducing budgets for local authorities, decreasing funding for essential services, reforming the benefits system and placing the country into austerity measures. Vital services are now chronically underfunded and under resourced. All of which have serious and irreparable consequences. 

Sure Start Centres

Let’s take a look at just one example: Sure Start Children’s Centres. This Labour introduced initiative provided a raft of much needed services to families in their own communities. Usually, these centres were built beside primary schools and catered to the families living within walking distance. They took on many functions, including prenatal midwifery, post-natal baby clinics, family health care, parental educational courses and stay-and-play for babies and toddlers. The latter providing social interaction for new parents at what is often a very challenging time. The centres also brought in services from the local authority, offering benefits help, general advice and information. Those families, mine included, who used Sure Start Family Centres, found them to be most beneficial. They were especially successful in socially deprived areas and where there were many families new to the UK. Overall, it brought communities together. Neighbourhoods which had lost their sense of unity began to become communities once again as parents met one another when visiting the centres, formed friendships which extended to their children and fostered a sense of belonging.  In 2009 there were 3,600 centres with an annual budget of £1.8 bn.  It’s now estimated that since 2010 two thirds of all Sure Start Centres have been forced to close. Those that remain have suffered from huge cuts to their local authority annual budgets, reducing the amount and quality of the services they offer.

This decimation of local children’s services is in direct correlation to the year on year increases in the number of children who become ‘looked after’ by the state. On 31 March 2010 there were 64,400 children in the care system. In 2020, this figure had increased to 80,080. Many of these children have been removed from the care of their birth parents because of financial struggles and the myriad of issues that essentially stem from poverty. If your government were to increase the financial support provided to families, I’m sure that the number of children taken into care annually would fall.

Welfare Reform and Austerity policies

As soon as the Conservatives came to power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, their government began to seek ways in which to reduce the national deficit, caused by the ‘credit crunch’ and subsequent recession of the late noughties. Ten years on, we can all see how the brunt of the savings were made and how they have been severely detrimental to those citizens and their families with the lowest incomes.             

The Tory government introduced a series of new legislation under the banner of welfare reform and austerity policies. Well aware of the devastation these changes to state benefits would cause, they tried to hide as much of this as possible. Where they couldn’t hide the truth, they instead tried to soften the blow of these policies. How? With a propaganda drive that demonised benefit claimants, labelling them as ‘cheats’ and ‘scroungers’. The media was encouraged to run stories on families who claimed benefits. They were portrayed as living a comfortable and luxurious life funded by the taxpayer which angered the nation and justified reducing the rate of standard benefits for working-age adults to 60 per cent below the basic standard of living.

Tories have introduced and passed legislation which has caused the poor to become poorer and the rich to become richer, the results of which have caused poverty and deprivation to become more commonplace and widespread across the UK. The worst affected are those who were already socially and financially deprived, with families worst hit. A recent article in the Big Issue estimates:

 “There were 4.2 million UK children living in poverty in 2019, according to Government figures. That is estimated to be 30 percent of kids in the country, or nine for every class of 30 pupils, and it is double the poverty rate of pensioners”.

In 2018 The UN sent Philip Alston, a special rapporteur on poverty, to the UK to carry out an investigation into the rising numbers of people living in absolute poverty. When the report was released, what did the government do? They did their best to hide his damning findings. It would have been a disaster had this information made it to the evening news at 6pm and the front pages of the tabloids.

The year 2020

2020 has been a year none could have predicted. It has been a year where some might say you, Prime Minister, have come undone. You see, despite your best efforts to hide the true scale of poverty and deprivation, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought it to the fore. No longer can you hide from the truth. Our once prosperous and secure nation is on its knees and crumbling.  Where parents could once confidently raise their children in the knowledge that they would do better than they had, they now genuinely fear for the future. The divide between the haves and have-nots is widening year by year, unpicking the social improvements made in the UK since the introduction of the Welfare State in 1948. We are beset on all fronts by poverty, deprivation and inequality. Much of this is your doing. Over recent months the media has been full of reports and articles providing a wealth of alarming figures and statistics. Although the chancellor introduced and extended the furlough scheme for those forced to stop work until the threat of infection has lessened, the pandemic has seen many small businesses fold, leading to massive job losses. New claims for Universal Credit rose by 1.7 million between February and May this year. This equates to there being approximately 4.2 million households in receipt of Universal Credit in May. Universal Credit claims are made per household, regardless of whether that consists of a single adult, a couple, a single parent or a family with children. Essentially, this means that far more than 1.7 million people have been plunged into poverty. Did you, Mr Prime Minister, admit that your government’s policies had been flawed? No, you exhibited the most outrageous and frankly disrespectful behaviour yet. During PM’s Questions on 16 June, when asked about the increasing poverty levels in the UK, you did not tell the truth when informing the speaker and the house that, “absolute poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this government and there are hundreds of thousands – I think 400,000 – fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.”

In the days and weeks to come, you faced the full fury of the country. The leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, instantly refuted your statement and demanded a retraction, as did many charities and organisations who work so hard across the UK to help those families and individuals who are struggling to make ends meet. In particular, the End Child Poverty coalition promptly made a complaint about your ‘selective, inaccurate and misleading’ quotes on child poverty, which was upheld by the Statistics Authority.  Yet rather than being apologetic and admitting the information you offered was incorrect and not reflective of the true depth of the poverty issues, you remained recalcitrant. In response to Starmer’s demand, you replied, “I’m happy to point out to my learned friend that actually there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation.” This was blatantly untrue and you were caught out. Donald Hirsch, a Loughborough University professor of social policy said, in relation to child poverty, that since the “start of Tory-led administrations in 2010-11, the figure has actually risen by around 100,000.”

More from East Midlands Bylines:

This year saw us all living under restrictions. I doubt there is an individual in the country who hasn’t felt the effect of the changes to our lifestyles and freedoms. On 20 March, at the start of the first lockdown, schools in the UK closed and they remained closed until the beginning of the new academic year in September. This meant that all children, except those of key workers and those who had an allocated social worker, were at home all day every day. This increased the levels of food insecurity as families found they couldn’t afford to feed themselves and their children three square meals a day. Parents were forced to forgo one or more meals a day to ensure that their children had enough to eat and were not going to bed hungry. Rishi Sunak agreed to place a £20 a week temporary uplift onto all Universal Credit claims from April, theoretically providing an extra £1000 per year in benefits. Yet what he didn’t take into account was that this increase would push many above the benefit cap limit and that they could possibly end up losing more than they gained.  This just isn’t good enough when the United Kingdom is one of the world’s six wealthiest nations. 

Marcus Rashford

It has taken Manchester United player, Marcus Rashford, to stand up and make enough noise for the government to finally take some action to help those citizens you have impoverished. In under a year, he has achieved more to combat child poverty than any politician has in the last 25 years. In collaboration with the charity Fareshare, his own team of dedicated campaigners and his mum, Rashford has succeeded in securing £15 per week in food vouchers for every child who receives free school meals during the school holidays, throughout 2020 and into 2021. 

Mr Prime Minister, as a mother of two children, I was disgusted by your failure to support the most needy young people in our society. At the crucial House of Commons vote on the issue, you and your party whips worked to ensure the naysayers would win. The news left many families scared and anxious. However, to the surprise of many: restaurants, cafes, catering businesses and charity organisations picked up where you had failed. Over the autumn half-term break, thousands dedicated their stock, time and effort to ensuring no child in their area would go hungry.        

It took a petition and a huge amount of news coverage and media pressure for you to finally U-turn, back down and grant this lifeline to the 4.2 million children living in poverty. Marcus Rashford succinctly summed up the situation: “This is not politics, this is humanity.” He added, “These children matter. These children are the future of this country. They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.”

A new year

2020 is over, it’s the first day of the new year. 2020 saw the world unexpectedly thrown into the chaos of a global pandemic.  Our lives in the UK changed and things will never be quite the same again. It is in times such as these, that a country needs a strong, unified, competent and inclusive leadership. One that takes decisions based on the good of the whole nation. Sadly, we all know that this cannot be provided by you.

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