Changing the mood music of politics: Let’s get angry about poverty and refuse to stand by while papers demonise the poor

I remember the feeling of sadness when I saw these figures from a Scottish Lib Dem freedom of information request. In Christmas 2015, 26,320 adults and 11,200 children were homeless. Those figures are up 8% and 16% respectively in two years. As the party’s housing spokesperson, I wanted to highlight this and, as the photo shows, the story was picked up by the Sun. I said:

It is absolutely heart-breaking to learn that more than 11,000 children were homeless last Christmas. It is intolerable that the number of families without a permanent roof over their head continues to rise.

Across the last three Christmases, 100,000 people were homeless, almost a third of them children.

We judge the strength of a society by how it looks out for its most vulnerable. These figures are a stain on the national conscience.

The Scottish Government have failed the children and families who don’t have stable warm home at Christmas. Many will have been in temporary accommodation but that it hardly a suitable or sustainable way of tackling homeless in the long term. The failure of the SNP to deliver on their previous social housing promises has undoubtedly contributed to this situation.

That is why the Scottish Liberal Democrats will continue to press SNP ministers to get a grip of the housing crisis and increase the number of homes for social rent.

11,200 children would almost fill Scotland’s concert venue, the Hydro. It’s about a fifth of the population of the town where I live. For each of these children, homelessness means insecurity, disruption and uncertainty that limits their life chances. They could be placed anywhere in their local authority area and moved to another part of it at a moment’s notice. Imagine what that feels like to a young child. Being taken away from your familiar surroundings, school and support networks is hard enough once, but what if you have to wait months or even years for a permanent home and are constantly moved. Add to that that you may not be actually accommodated in a house, but in a hotel or hostel, sharing facilities with others. Read this family’s account in the Sun last week, of being made homeless after their father lost his job as a forklift truck driver because of a back injury.

We are one of the richest countries in the world. We should be able to ensure that everyone has a warm and permanent home. If we put our minds to it, we could solve the housing crisis and with it make people healthier, happier and out of poverty. It’s not enough to say “but we’re building lots of houses over the next five years, look” as the Scottish Government is doing. We need a sense of collective urgency about this to stop the lives of over 40,000 people being made intolerably difficult. We need to understand the reality of homelessness, recognise that it could happen to any one of us and push our politicians to deliver solutions.

Sadly, in the same edition of the paper as carried this story, the Sun decided to run an opinion piece demonising a couple, who they named, for claiming benefits for their large family.  Criticising the “limitless sponging”, the paper rages that “measures to crack down on the feckless can’t come soon enough.” Frankly, I have no problem paying taxes to make sure that people are fed, clothed and have somewhere to live. I loathe the way the media stirs up resentment like this. Anger should be focused on successive governments for failing to tackle poverty and inequality, not on the most disadvantaged people in our society.  When we see people being picked on and shamed like this, we need to call it out.

Part of the vital job of changing the mood music of politics must be to stop this demonisation of poor people and create an environment where all can flourish.

 

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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18 Comments

  • I am all for a well funded support network to support people who are temporally out of work, or for those people who due to illness cannot work.
    What I am not in favor of is the expectation that some people have that they can have the same lifestyle on benefits as can be had on medium to high salaries, that in my opinion is not what the welfare state is for. Safety yes, luxury no, so if that means having to live in reduced circumstances compared to the average working person, then, so long as people are safe and basic needs are met, job done by state.

  • But we are nowhere near that. And what happens when unemployment goes through the roof as Brexit really begins to bite.

    We also need to tackle this assumption that if people are out of work, they must be somehow to blame for that. Getting a job can be really difficult and we don’t give nearly enough in the way of meaningful support to do that.

  • I agree with your sentiments, Caron, and with the comments made by Willie posted earlier. I speak with some experience as a Trustee of a food bank (which continues to have growing referrals and demand) not a million miles from Edinburgh.

    But Liberal Democrats really have to face up the fact that the issue is much more than changing the mood music. It requires a well researched evidence based comprehensive policy which will involve strategies on employment practices as well as housing issues and welfare – and especially having the courage to face up to consequential public expenditure and re-distribuition.

    To its credit, at the time, the Asquith Government post 1908 began to grasp this nettle as especially did the Attlee Government post 1945 (the latter despite the parlous state of the immediate post war British economy).

    To tackle the issues effectively will require a major rethink and courage by Liberal Democrats and a reversal of the mindset that was apparent between 2010 and 2015.

  • The Sun doing humanity; truly 2016 is a strange year. As to poverty its easier to blame the poor than help them, but there but for the grace of god go you and I.

  • Peter Martin 28th Dec '16 - 3:02pm

    @Caron,

    You ask:

    “…what happens when unemployment goes through the roof as Brexit really begins to bite?”

    As a sovereign country, in charge of its own currency, the UK can have just about any level of unemployment it chooses to have. The trade-off is between economic activity and inflation. If the economy runs too hot we have too much inflation. If it’s too cold we have high levels of business failures and unemployment. So the trick for government is to steer a sensible middle course. It’s not just how much Govt spends, it’s where it spends it. It can safely spend more in NI or Scotland without causing the inflation that the same amount of spending might cause in London or the SE of England.

    This is true whether or not we have a Brexit. Providing we don’t lurch the other way and join up to the euro that is! So Brexit doesn’t make any difference?

    Well yes it would. It will either make us richer or poorer. We’d either have higher paying jobs or lower paying jobs. Or maybe it won’t make much difference. That’s just my opinion. It’s all arguable. But it won’t affect the level of unemployment. That’s entirely in our own hands.

  • Caron,I truly struggle to see how, even if Libs were in power, you would raise the money you need to start, never mind complete all the programmes for which the party campaigns.
    More money for the NHS, maybe the additional 2p tax would be accepted.
    More for social care, from where?
    More for housing, from where?
    More for welfare benefits, we already have one of the most generous government funded benefit systems in Europe, again, where do you find the cash?…we have record debt.
    You could cut foreign aid in half, that would give you an extra 6 billion! and rising a year. Still not enough for the Libs spending plans, but it’s a start.

  • While there is undoubtedly always more needing to be done to mitigate the effects of Westminster rule, the Scottish Government should not look to the Lib Dems, the party of the bedroom tax, for advice on housing and homelessness.

  • Posy Kestion 28th Dec '16 - 4:38pm

    Such levels of poverty and homelessness are indicators of an economy which is inefficient and probably rigged.
    In 2012 the Bank of England reported that Quantitative Easing had boosted stocks and bonds by some 26% or about £628 billion of which about 40% or £251B went to the richest 5% of households [from R.Frank CNBC 14/09/12].
    All the homeless in Scotland could be housed for less than £3B. [Say 13,000 houses @ £218,000 = £2,834,000,000].
    Doing something like this would also have the significant economic benefit of putting money into the “real” economy where it would increase aggregate demand and stimulate the economy which in turn increases the tax base. [“Oops Fairy” Tax loopholes not included]
    This is a “Both/And” matter and not an “Either/Or”matter.
    We need to move general assumptions which accept the current dominance of finance over goods and services transactions and the dominance of investment income over wage/salary income and take actions such as housing and communication development to achieve this and show its benefits..
    When these are in sustainable equilibrium, our economy will be reasonably efficient and our society reasonably sustainable.
    Why not try action on both?

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Dec '16 - 5:27pm

    I think we should be able to end winter homelessness, at least. It shocks me when I see people sleeping on the streets in winter.

  • Eddie,
    I agree, but sometimes that is because for various reasons people are unwilling or unable to accept the support that is available to those who are currently street sleepers.

  • “What I am not in favor of is the expectation that some people have that they can have the same lifestyle on benefits as can be had on medium to high salaries, that in my opinion is not what the welfare state is for.”

    Looking at the income based benefits only, you may well be surprised at how low your income needs to be to have any kind of state support. I would definitely bet more on the occurrence of the situation where a low-medium salary person asking what sort of benefits they can claim (and being told they earn too much) than a person on benefits expecting to live a lifestyle of someone on a medium-high salary.

    Wanting to be able to afford a house, food and utilities is not a “life of luxury” and yet many will struggle to do so over the next year.

  • DJ, can’t agree with your statement, right now we still have support for housing food and amenities for those who need it
    I do not claim it is to the level that they may want, e.g. I work with some young people who refuse to accept a bedsit because they would like a one,or two bedroom flat. It is about managing expectations and reality. Very few young people under twenty five will get anything other than a small bedsit or very small flat. Truth is if they are single that is all they need. It would be great to be able to offer more,but reality bites.

  • DJ & Tynan

    I think some of the disagreement over support for the financial support for the working population may be a timing issue. There was a time when I have periodically played with the government tax credit calculator and there was a time when a couple with no children could still receive TC when earning over £80k, those days are long gone support drops off at much lower levels now.

    The pendulum in levels of support doesn’t help the public understand what is being cut when the axe swings.

  • Mark Robinson 29th Dec '16 - 2:37pm

    I think what is often missed is the economic case for solving this problem. Not only would it be a massive stimulus for the economy, it would literally save billions in future welfare payments and lost potential in terms of human capital.

    I’ve just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) that illustrates perfectly the multi-generation impact of multiple “Adverse Childhood Experiences” has had on the working poor in America. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the rise of Tump of the deep-rooted problems in post-working class societies.

    If anyone has read this, I’d very interested to know if they can recommend a UK written equivalent?

  • “I think some of the disagreement over support for the financial support for the working population may be a timing issue.”

    It will also in part come down to location, though not so much national things such as tax credits. I can only realistically speak about my own constituency but it’s not always a case of bedsits for single people rather floor space, and for those being extra choosy it usually is about the flat being on the ground floor and in a likeable location (usually meaning close to support networks or the area they know) rather than number of bedrooms. Don’t get me wrong, I have also met people who once supported quickly forget they were extremely vulnerable not so long ago and don’t come across as grateful (not that they necessarily need to do so) but this is not common in my experience. The latest version of the benefit cap has jumped from perhaps a reasonable policy to something that impacts on far too many far too harshly.

    Considering support is determined so much by your local constituency’s capability we should remember that when the government was speaking about extra support it could give to local councils the vast, vast majority of those helped were Tory voters whether they had been hit hardest by the cuts or not. It’s touched upon here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/11/300-million-tory-councils-favouritism-cuts-government-adult-social-care.

  • Yes true enough. Don’t mean to state people should be grateful for support they are entitled to and aspiration should be encouraged in everyone, just occasionally we need to br careful of raising expectations, if more money can be found, or what we have can be used more effectively lets all make sure that it happens.

  • Peter Martin 29th Dec '16 - 8:40pm

    @ Tynan,

    You write “we have record debt.”

    That’s not really true. For most of the last 200 years the debt/gdp ratio has been higher.

    http://www.economicshelp.org/wp-content/uploads/blog-uploads/2012/06/uk-debt-gdp.png

    And what about the assets of the UK? Accountants don’t just look at debts. They look at those debts in relation to annual incomes and those assets too. The total “debt” level is 90% of annual income. That’s like someone on £50,000 (after tax) having a mortgage of £45,000 with an interest rate of something like 2%. Sure they might wish not to have it but they are hardly going to lie awake at night worrying where the repayments are going to come from. Especially when the house is currently valued at £500,000 !

    I despair of well meaning people like Caron with her call to “get angry”. If anger was ever going to fix poverty it would have been fixed years ago.

    The real problem is much more subtle. Like Tynan, most of us are somehow convinced that we we have economic problems which really don’t exist at all. It’s not really Caron’s or Tynan’s fault. We are all very much misled on questions of deficits and debts. Until we start to reject the silly arguments that we are all “living beyond our means” etc etc we are never to going to be able to tackle the problem of poverty effectively.

    Some right wing politician will always ask the same question as Tynan asks: “More money for the NHS…..More for social care, from where?”

    Until we understand that it’s not about money, it’s about the available resources in the country, we aren’t going to ever get anywhere.

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