This is part of the second of two special reports. ITV Granada Correspondent Daniel Hewitt investigates the rise of in-work poverty in the North West of England. You can watch the first report here.
The Conservatives have, on more than one occasion, tried to pass off evidence regarding the negative impacts of their policies as ‘anecdotal’ or as politically ‘biased’.
Conservative MP David Morris has attempted to deny the accounts of rickets and children going hungry because of poverty, saying claims are from schools ‘with links to leftwing group Momentum.’
Of course this approach also entails attempting to discredit dedicated public servants and constituents who dare to criticise government policies that are causing harm.
A report by ITV earlier this week showed teachers at more than one school explaining that they had to wash their pupils’ uniforms because their families couldn’t afford to pay the electricity bills. The report was very widely shared on social media.
West End primary school reported that teachers sometimes gave coats and shoes to pupils whose parents could not provide them.
Meanwhile, a local GP spoke of treating children for rickets, a condition not seen commonly in the UK since before the development of the welfare state.
It’s clear that welfare provision is no longer adequate in alleviating absolute poverty, which is usually seen in only in developing countries. The welfare ‘reforms’ have systematically reduced the amounts provided for people to meet their basic living costs, such as for food, fuel, clothing and shelter.
However, Morris, who is the MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, responded to the reports by posting a call for social services to investigate on Facebook. He wrote: “These claims are not those being experienced by myself or the jobcentre in the area and I would urge anyone affected to book an appointment with the staff at Morecambe jobcentre to assess if they are receiving all of the benefits they are entitled to.”
Morris added that the claims “always seem to emanate from the same primary schools and Ash Trees surgery in Carnforth”.
Dr David Wrigley of Ash Trees Surgery issued this comment on Twitter:
“As a senior GP partner at Ash Trees Surgery (mentioned by my own MP Mr Morris in his statement) I can categorically state we have NO links to Momentum as he has stated. I would ask Mr Morris to provide solid evidence of this accusation or withdraw his remark.”
The Morecambe and Lunesdale Labour party said in a statement that Morris “does not see what is happening on his own watch because on the rare occasions he is here, he refuses to engage with the community and attacks teachers and doctors for being ‘politicised’.”
A spokeswoman for the party said: “In the age of the internet, MPs should use social media to establish meaningful dialogues with their constituents.
“For a long time now, Morris has blocked and banned from his Facebook page those who voice their concerns regarding things that happen in our constituency and speak out about the government’s policies, which he supports. However, Mr Morris has gone beyond blocking and banning his aggrieved constituents and now frequently accuses those who criticise him of being trolls or part of coordinated campaigns against him, often using parliamentary privilege to do so.”
The spokeswoman added that Morris was “yet to provide a shred of evidence to back up his accusations and continues to refuse to acknowledge the genuine concerns of his constituents”.
Morris later told ITV: “I’ve not got issues with the report that you’ve run, I’m just questioning the validity of it … [the schools featured] have very strong links to Momentum, and to be quite frank, all the indicators from Ofsted say that the child poverty at that school is absolutely no different to any other in the country.”
Actually, that last part should worry him, because it indicates a widespread problem at a national level.
As for ‘questioning the validity of it’, well the Conservatives do that with every single piece of research that shows their policy in an unfavorable light. Yet study after study have found pretty much the same thing: that people don’t have enough money to meet their most fundamental needs, including many of those in work.
The Conservatives have closed many Sure Start centres, despite the fact that the Sure Start programme was a groundbreaking success. A commitment to supporting families in the early years of their children’s development shouldn’t have been revolutionary, but it was. When the Labour government announced Sure Start in 1998, the programme was targeted at the poorest 20% of wards in England. From there it grew into a network of 4,000 children’s centres across the country, each dedicated to improving the life chances of young children and the wellbeing of families.
The children’s centres offered employment support, health advice, childcare, parenting help – unified service delivery designed to prevent isolation and, ultimately, to reduce the gaps between rich and poor children which, as a growing body of evidence shows, often go on to define lives.
Now, after almost 7 years of Tory government, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like were a prime minister to announce a new, universal service designed to reduce poverty and inequality. Instead, the current government seems happy to reverse the social progress made by the Sure Start programme.
By April of last year, nearly a quarter of all Sure Start children’s centres had closed; 156 centres closed in 2015 – almost twice as many as in the previous year. This is unforgivable and tragic because Sure Start worked. A study by Oxford University revealed by the Department for Education just before Christmas was the most detailed ever conducted on the impact of children’s centres – and it found the centres benefited parents and families who regularly attended classes in poorer areas, contributing to less disruptive home lives, better maternal mental health, and improved social skills among children and adults.
Just 4 months ago, Learndirect, the UK’s largest adult training provider, blamed the government’s austerity programme for its failure to meet the education regulator’s minimum quality standards.
Morris claims that “all the indicators from Ofsted say that the child poverty at that school is absolutely no different to any other in the country.” However, Ofsted don’t provide evidence of variations in levels of poverty in their annual report at all. The only comment made by Ofsted relating to poverty was an acknowledgement that schools under-performed and had some difficulty improving their educational standards in areas with acknowledged high levels of deprivation.
It was noted that there is a correlation between high levels of deprivation and educational under-performance, but there was no comparison undertaken between the levels of deprivation in each Local Authority area. So Morris’s reasoning there is fundamentally flawed.
In fact the National Education Union commented on the latest Ofsted report – produced this month – saying: “[…] Ofsted as the Chief Inspector of Education should take Government to task over this. Teachers can do what they can do within schools but it is Government that is missing child poverty reduction targets, presiding over increases in poverty and failing to produce a decent industrial strategy.
Conservative ministers wanted to remove a statutory duty to publish levels of UK household income as part of the welfare reform, since 2013, but have been forced to accept, after a battle last year with the House of Lords, that the material deprivation measures should remain protected. The Conservatives had cynically argued for changing the criteria of childhood poverty targets in a way that did not relate to family income. However, poverty IS related to a lack of income that is necessary to meet basic needs.
The government wanted assessments which reflected traditional Conservative prejudices. They wanted to include ‘the number of households with parents in long-term relationships and households where parents were addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling for example.’ Yet research shows that substance misuse is not correlated with poverty.
The government suffered a defeat in the Lords after peers pushed through an amendment forcing the Conservatives to retain four established indicators, including income, which use official statistics to track and monitor relative and absolute poverty.
It’s difficult not to see the Conservatives’ original proposed changes to what was an anticipation of worsening child poverty figures as a cynical move. It was at the time widely perceived as an attempt to mask the impact of equally widely anticipated cuts to tax credits and to other forms of essential welfare support.
Poverty and social exclusion: social immobility
The government has attempted to defend its commitment to improving social mobility for the most disadvantaged people, despite the recent resignation of the entire social mobility commission board, but when pressed, Conservative ministers struggled to name any proposals recommended by the body that had been adopted in the past year. The Conservatives have consistently failed to acknowledge, despite all their rhetoric about ‘meritocracy’, that social mobility is a product of favorable and accommodating economic and social structures. The austerity programme that was aimed disproportionately at the poorest citizens has not facilitated social mobility. Instead it has extended inequality of opportunities, as well as widening material inequality.
In his resignation letter, Alan Milburn says:
“The need for political leadership in this area [social mobility] has never been more pressing. Social mobility is one of the biggest challenges facing our country today. It is not just the poorest in society who are losing out. Whole communities and parts of Britain are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. The growing sense that we have become an “us and them” society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation. As the commission’s work has demonstrated, the 20th-century expectation that each generation would do better than the last is no longer being met. At a time when more and more people are feeling that Britain is becoming more unfair, rather than less, social mobility matters more than ever.
While the government seems unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda, I have been heartened that others in civil society – from local councils to major employers – are actively embracing it. So I will be establishing a new social mobility institute, independent of the government and political parties, to take forward the practical work that is needed to make a reality of my belief in a fairer, more open, more mobile society in Britain.”
As an emblem of this government’s antipathy to genuinely improving opportunity, it is forecast that record levels of child poverty will be reached on its watch; the inevitable product of savage cuts in support for low-income working families by around a thousands of pounds a year and those cuts made to people out of work, including disabled people – the cuts that are funding expensive tax cuts which benefit the most affluent.
Many charities have complained they have been silenced from criticising Conservative social policy despite the fact they are hugely damaging.
The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill – a controversial legislation introduced in 2014 – heavily restricts charities and other organisations from intervening on policy during an election period. However, the legislation has been used to effectively stifle legitimate criticism of damaging policies.
Earlier this year, for example, the Prime Minister launched an attack at the British Red Cross after its chief executive claimed his organisation was responding to a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in hospitals and ambulance services. Theresa May accused the organisation of making comments that were ‘irresponsible and overblown.’ Yet the British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Physicians and Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, had all issued warnings about the increasing pressures on health services.
It’s not the only time the Conservatives have tried to gag charities for highlighting the dire impacts of their policies. In 2014, Conservative MPs reported Oxfam to the Charity Watchdog for campaigning against poverty. I guess the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had better watch it, too. What next, will they be reporting the NSPCC for campaigning for children’s welfare?
The Oxfam campaign that sent the Conservatives into an indignant rage and to the charity watchdog to complain was an appeal to ALL political parties to address growing poverty. Oxfam cited some of the causes of growing poverty in the UK, identified through meticulous research.
The Oxfam poster that caused a storm among the Conservatives
Conservative MP Priti Patel must have felt that the Conservatives are exempt from this appeal, due to being the architects of the policies that have led to a growth in poverty and inequality, when she said: “With this Tweet they have shown their true colours and are now nothing more than a mouthpiece for left-wing propaganda.”
I’m wondering when concern for poverty and the welfare of citizens became the sole concern of ‘the left-wing’. That comment alone speaks volumes about the indifference and prejudices of the Conservatives.
Another Conservative, MP, Charlie Elphicke, branded the campaign post as a: “shameful abuse of taxpayers’ money,” while Priti Patel went on to accuse Oxfam of “behaving disgracefully.
Therese Coffey, used a favorite Conservative response and accused Oxfam of using: “anecdote to create alarmist generalisations.” Since when is empirical evidence ‘anecdotal’? The increasingly remote Conservative government also label everyone who challenges their ideology and spin on policy as ‘scaremongers’.
It’s impossible to discuss poverty without reference to its root cause, and that invariably involves reference to government policies.
Ben Phillips, Oxfam campaigns and policy director, responded:
“Oxfam is a resolutely non-party political organisation – we have a duty to draw attention to the hardship suffered by poor people we work with in the UK.
Fighting poverty should not be a party political issue – successive governments have presided over a tide of rising inequality and created a situation where food banks and other providers provided 20 million meals last year to people who could not afford to feed themselves.”
“This is an unacceptable situation in one of the world’s largest economies and politicians of all stripes have a responsibility to tackle it.”
Oxfam are far from alone in their concern about the rise of absolute poverty in the UK. Around the same time, medical experts wrote an open letter to David Cameron condemning the rise in food poverty under this government, stating that families “are not earning enough money to meet their most basic nutritional needs” and that “the welfare system is increasingly failing to provide a robust line of defence against hunger.” There have been further cuts to welfare, including both in-work and out-of-work support since 2014, which means that the situation can only have got worse.
Many charities have said that the UK government has violated the Human Right to food. Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) recognises the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing. The UK has signed and ratified the Covenant, and in so doing is legally bound by the ICESCR, in particular, the human right to adequate food.
According to the Just Fair Consortium report, welfare reforms, benefit delays and the cost of living crisis have pushed an unprecedented number of people into a state of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK.
Further research by Oxfam has revealed the extent of poverty among British children, with poor families taking drastic measures to survive. What kind of government is concerned only about stifling critical discussion of its policies, and not about the plight of the citizens it is meant to serve? This is a government that attempts to discredit the accounts of people’s experience of the suffering that is directly caused by this government.
By blaming the casualities of government policy, by imposing coercive ‘behavioural change’ programmes on the poorest citizens – which indicates the government has loaded the responsibility for poverty on individual citizens – and by trying to discredit anyone that champions the rights of the most vulnerable people, the government has abdicated its responsibility to ensure citizens can meet their basic living needs. Their survival needs.
Malnutrition is becoming commonplace
In 2014, I wrote an article about the rise in hospital admissions relating to malnutrition. Diseases associated with poverty, which were common during the Victorian era had almost vanished with the advent of the welfare state. Now we are seeing them again.
NHS statistics indicated that the number of cases of infectious illnesses such as cholera, whooping cough and scarlet fever have almost doubled within five years, with a rise in other illnesses which indicate severe malnutrition such as scurvy, rickets. People are more susceptible to infectious illness if they are under-nourished.
Scurvy is a disease associated with pirates who have been stuck at sea for long periods – it has increased by 31 per cent in England since 2010. This is caused by a lack of vitamin C and is usually due to an inadequate diet without enough fresh fruit and vegetables.
Figures from January 2014 from the NHS indicate that there were 833 hospital admissions for children suffering from Rickets – a condition which is caused by a lack of Vitamin D, from 2012-13. Ten years ago, the figure was just 190.
The disease, which causes softening of the bones and permanent deformities, was common in 19th century Britain but was almost eradicated by improvements in nutrition. The body produces vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun, but it’s clear that adequate diet plays an important role, too, since the decline of Rickets happened at a time when we saw an improvement in the diets of the nation as a whole.
It is thought that malnutrition is the main cause, children are most at risk if their diet doesn’t include sufficient levels of vitamin D.
Low incomes, unemployment and benefit delays have combined to trigger increased demand for food banks among the UK’s poorest families, according to a report commissioned by the government and released in 2014.
The report directly contradicts the claim from a government minister that the rise in the use of food banks is linked to the fact that there are now more of them. It says people turn to charity food as a last resort following a crisis such as the loss of a job, or problems accessing social security benefits, or through benefit sanctions.
The review emerged as the government comes under pressure from church leaders and charities to address increasing prevalence of food poverty caused by welfare cuts.
The report was written by food policy experts from the University of Warwick, and it was passed to ministers in June 2013 but had remained undisclosed until February 2014, creating reasonable speculation that the government suppressed its findings.
Examining the effect of welfare changes on food bank use was not a specific part of its remit, and the report is understood to have undergone a number of revisions since early summer, ordered by the Department for Food and Agriculture and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The researchers found that a combination of rising food prices, ever-shrinking incomes, low pay, increasing personal debt, and benefit payment problems meant an increasing number of families could not afford to buy sufficient food.
In a letter to the British Medical Journal, a group of doctors and senior academics from the Medical Research Council and two leading universities said that the effect of Government policies on vulnerable people’s ability to afford food needed to be urgently monitored.
The group of academics and professionals said that the surge in the number of people requiring emergency food aid, a decrease in the amount of calories consumed by British families, and a doubling of the number of malnutrition cases seen at English hospitals represent “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action”.
The health specialists also said:“Access to an adequate food supply is the most basic of human needs and rights”.
The authors of the letter, who include Dr David Taylor-Robinson and Professor Margaret Whitehead of Liverpool University’s Department of Public Health, say that they have serious concerns that malnutrition can have a long-lasting impact on health, particularly among children.
Public spending in food stores fell for the first time on record in July 2014, putting the UK recovery in doubt at the time. Such a worrying, unprecedented record fall in food sales indicates that many consumers evidently had not felt the benefit of the so-called recovery.
Yet Conservative ministers have repeatedly insisted that there is no “robust link” between the welfare reforms and rising food bank use, while the welfare minister at the time, David Freud, claimed the rise in food bank use was because there were more food banks and because the food was free.
The Department of Health figures showed that the number of ‘bed days’ accounted for by someone with a primary or secondary diagnosis of malnutrition rose from 128,361 in 2010-11, the year the coalition came to power, to 184,528 last year – a 61% rise over five years.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence classes someone as malnourished if they have a body mass index of less than 18.5, have suffered the unintentional loss of more than 10% of their weight over the last three to six months, or if they have a BMI under 20 and have unintentionally seen their weight drop by more than 5% over the previous three to six months.
Worryingly, four out of five people who needed inpatient hospital care because of malnutrition were admitted as an emergency, which suggests their health had deteriorated significantly in the days before they were taken into hospital.
Not enough health and social care professionals have the time or knowledge to correctly identify malnutrition.
Stephen Dalton, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals, said: “Our members take malnutrition seriously. Good nutrition is a fundamental human right our citizens can expect, and vulnerable, particularly older, people are most at risk of serious consequences if denied basic compassionate care. At a time of unprecedented demand on health and social care we need to be alert and will take seriously any reliable evidence of basic care not being delivered.”
Time and time again, when challenged and confronted with overwhelming empirical evidence of the terrible harm that their austerity policies and welfare ‘reforms’ are inflicting on citizens, the government simply deny any ‘causal link’. They say that the increase in absolute poverty, malnutrition and hunger, deaths and distress are unrelated to their policies, which they also quite ludicrously claim to be ‘working’. Anyone who tries to raise debate on the matter is labeled a ‘scaremonger’ or a ‘marxist’.
With no sign that the government are going to emerge from behind their basic defence mechanism of collective denial – nor are the Conservatives remotely interested in investigating a clear correlation between their blatant attacks on the poorest citizens via their draconian policies and the terrible hardships people are suffering – we do have to wonder what the real intention is underpinning their intentionally targeted austerity programme.
In a very wealthy first-world democracy, it is absolutely unacceptable that anyone is left hungry, malnourished and in absolute poverty.
Increasing numbers of people are living in absolute poverty. This is because of the governments’ austerity programme, depressed wages and the steep rise in the cost of living over the last few years.
Disgraceful Conservative MPs that continue to deny this in the face of consistent and overwhelming empirical evidence from a wide array of sources for the past five years at least, are not fit to represent their constituents, nor are the Conservatives, with their crib sheet strategies of denial and dismissal, and techniques of neutralisation, fit to run this country.
If the government refuse to listen to citizens and to prioritise the basic living conditions and needs of the public, it really is time for it to go.
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