Sometimes you can get the unvarnished truth even from social-democratic member of parliament.The Labour MP for Wigan,Lisa Nandy wrote the following in the 6 February edition of The Guardian. It’s worth regurgitating.
This week I initiated a parliamentary debate to assess the government’s record on poverty. Too seldom do ministers consider the human cost of the choices they make, and nowhere is this more stark than in the place people go to seek help – the welfare system.
The lack of compassion in the system is breathtaking, demonstrated by two of my constituents who were sanctioned for attending family funerals, despite notifying the jobcentre. But just as breathtaking was the response from some MPs during the debate.
I talked about a man with learning difficulties who was sanctioned for being four minutes late, even though he can’t tell the time. A Conservative MP urged me to consider that “it is important that those who are seeking employment learn the discipline of timekeeping”, although he didn’t seem remotely troubled by a colleague who joined the debate 45 minutes late and proceeded to back his cause.
But examples such as this aren’t “anecdotes”, or “accidents” of the system as another Conservative MP implied. This is the system. The Department for Work and Pensions website tells us that people can be sanctioned – as a couple with young twins in my constituency were, for giving up a zero-hours job that didn’t even cover the bus fare to work. The minister insists this is not the case. Who is right and who is wrong? In reality this family, whose children are living on a tin of beans and a few potatoes a day while the parents go without food for days at a time, have little chance of finding out.
Like the man paid just one penny for an entire month after he missed an appointment at the jobcentre because it was closed, the system is designed to confuse people, trip them up and wear them down. It’s what Bobby Kennedy called “another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men … This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.” This indifference, inaction and slow decay is built into the system.
It has created an ever-widening disconnect in our society between the haves and the have-nots. This was clearly illustrated during the debate when I referred to the return of Victorian diseases like scurvy – whose incidence has doubled in five years – one Tory MP pointed out that carrots and potatoes are perfectly affordable, echoing the comments of a Tory peer whose view that “poor people don’t know how to cook” was widely publicised last year.
It’s five years since David Cameron promised not to balance the books off the backs of the poor. What a joke that now seems. On any measure, half a million more children are in poverty than in 2010, when tens of thousands used to rely on food banks. Now it’s a quarter of a million and rising, and the numbers of people admitted to hospital with malnutrition have reached a seven-year high.
Yet we know exactly what the real causes of poverty in Britain are. They’re built into our economy – too few jobs that provide security, a sufficient income and rising living costs. Some countries like Denmark have chosen to address these root causes. Others like Finland compensate for them through the tax and benefits system. This government chooses to do neither, and instead blames individuals for their predicament. No wonder then that the UK is one of only four countries in recent years where there has been an unprecedented increase in material deprivation among children. As Unicef said: “It is no accident … it is possible to make better choices.” Before this debate, I thought “broken Britain” was the government’s analysis. Five years later it’s starting to look like David Cameron’s manifesto.