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“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.” These words from Disraeli's 1845 novel 'Sybil' could have been written for Norwich MP Chloe Smith.
It is ironic that Ms Smith, Economic Secretary to the Treasury and formerly a Conservative Whip, cites Disraeli as a politician whom she greatly admires, as she has just exemplified the division of which her idol wrote.
The government's changes to working tax credits (WTC) which are scheduled to take effect in April, mean couples currently working for 16 hours a week must increase their hours to 24 (with one partner working at least 16 hours) in order to continue to receive WTC. Failure to do so will remove up to £4000 a year from families who are already, by definition, low earners. Most families who find themselves in this position would gladly increase their hours if the work was there to be undertaken.
The organisation Working Families carried out a survey of employers representing a quarter of a million employees to ascertain their responses to a request from employees for more hours of work. It found that only 17 per cent of employers were able to say with confidence that they could meet such a request. A further 33 per cent said they might be able to offer some hours, but not the eight required to meet the new minimum, while another 17 per cent said it was "unlikely" or "impossible" that they could accommodate such a request.
Earlier this week, David Crausby, the MP for Bolton North East, which is an area of higher than average unemployment, challenged Chloe Smith about the effect of these changes on many of his constituents who are part time workers. Her response was to suggest that they could look for the extra hours at the Nissan factory in Sunderland where the Japanese car company has just announced a major new investment.
That a government minister should display such risible ignorance of the geography of the country in which she is a legislator is in itself worrying. But the underlying indifference to the realities of life for so many of her fellow citizens who live in the post-industrial north goes beyond not knowing that Sunderland is 150 miles from Bolton. It has its roots in a carelessness about the 'other' and about experiences which differ very greatly from the comfortable circles in which government ministers move.
It is very difficult indeed to imagine the ambitious Ms Smith – at 29 years of age, the youngest minister in the government – being either so careless as to the difficulties or needs of her former colleagues at Deloitte Touche, for example, or so blasé about the criticism she has faced since making this damaging and revealing error, if those slighted had belonged to the influential and government-supporting stratum of society.
It would seem that little has changed in some quarters since Disraeli's analysis of the society of his day. Chloe Smith is described as a “rising star” in the Conservative party. If negligent indifference to the hardships and worries of so many voters is a mark of what is admired in the party and career structures of our legislators, we are in even worse case than I had feared.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet