The Queen's Speech: a reality check

By Bernadette Meaden
May 19, 2016

Watching the Queen’s Speech was like observing the behaviour of an absentee landlord who, having allowed a property to fall into disprepair, puts up some bright new curtains and stands back, waiting for the cold and miserable tenants to express their gratitude. The gap between the country spoken about in the Queen’s Speech and the country in which many of her subjects now live was so wide it felt almost unbridgeable.

Here are just a few examples of that gaping chasm.

 “To tackle poverty and the causes of deprivation, including family instability, addiction and debt, my government will introduce new indicators for measuring life chances.”

The reality is that we can expect the biggest increase in child poverty for a generation, thanks to cuts and freezes to social security benefits. The government is attempting to almost ‘rebrand’ poverty, by constantly associating it with alcoholism, drug addiction, or other factors which can be seen as personal shortcomings, and little or nothing to do with income. They want us to think that poverty is about anything except money, whilst they steadily take money from the poorest families.

Just to add insult to this injury, the speech continued,

“Measures will be introduced to help the lowest-income families save, through a new Help to Save scheme”

The idea of the lowest income families being able to save would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragically out of touch. When there is a seven week wait for a first payment of Universal Credit, when even low-income working parents can have their benefits sanctioned, and when Hardship Loans are now fully repayable, Universal Credit seems almost deliberately designed to put people into debt. Saving, for the lowest income families, will be an impossible dream. Staying out of debt will be quite an achievement.

“My government will support aspiration and promote home ownership through its commitment to build a million new homes.”

In the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis, a commitment to build new homes is essential.  But if homes are to be built solely for the fortunate people who can afford to buy, they will not help the growing numbers of people who cannot find anywhere to live. Last year, tenant evictions reached a record high, with over 170 people per day being evicted from their homes by bailiffs. Housing charity Shelter blames a lack of affordable housing and "short sighted welfare cuts".  The word ‘homelessness’ did not appear in the speech, so we can only assume it is not a major concern for the government.

“My government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance. Prison Governors will be given unprecedented freedom..”  

A press release from the Ministry of Justice explained this meant that legislation would be passed, “enabling prisons to be established as independent legal entities with the power to enter into contracts; generate and retain income; and establish their own boards with external expertise.” This is the ‘academisation’ of prisons. How long before we have profit-making prisons, bidding for contracts and undercutting conventional businesses by employing prisoners on very low wages? Or governors  paying themselves and their friends inflated salaries, as we have seen with academy chains?

Meanwhile, the reality in our prisons is that in the last year there have been six murders and a hundred suicides, with soaring rates of self-harm. With 7,000 prison staff cut since 2010, prisoners are increasingly being warehoused, with serious mental health needs going unmet. 

And whilst the speech assured us that Mr. Cameron’s government will “continue to bring the public finances under control so that Britain lives within its means” it will also “act to secure the long-term future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.”

This means committing to future spending which has recently been calculated at £205 billion.   Now with that kind of money, the government really could “tackle poverty and the causes of deprivation”. If it chose to.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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