Spring Statement: starving the children to pay off the mortgage

By Bernadette Meaden
March 14, 2019

As I listened to Phillip Hammond’s self-congratulatory assessment of the UK economy yesterday, I thought of the words of John Ruskin, born 200 years ago: “That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings…”

Our government is clearly not of this opinion. It pursues policies which don’t nourish but starve, which nurture ignoble instincts, and which needlessly create misery.

If I were a cartoonist I would portray Philip Hammond proudly brandishing a gleaming and perfectly balanced set of accounts, whilst standing atop a mountain of misery. Yes, the deficit is down, but schools, NHS Trusts and other public services have deficits aplenty. Yes, employment rates are high and rising, but in-work poverty is rising faster. The government, which can borrow very cheaply, may be borrowing less, but many households are drowning in a sea of debt, using high interest credit simply to survive. Mr Hammond was like a parent boasting he'd paid off the mortgage early, having starved the children to do so.

The Chancellor recited streams of statistics which, in his view, were evidence of just how well we are doing as a country. And yet he also said, “in response to rising concern by Headteachers that some girls are missing school attendance due to inability to afford sanitary products, I have decided to fund the provision of free sanitary products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year.” 

How could he physically say this sentence and not realise that it completely undermines his claim that we are prospering as a country? How on earth can a country be thought to be doing well, when significant numbers of young women  are unable to afford items fundamental to their human dignity? When poverty is hindering their access to education – a problem we used to associate with the developing world.  Anyone with any imagination or empathy would see ‘period poverty’ not as a problem existing in isolation, but as an alarming symptom of a destitution that should never be seen in a country doing as well as Mr Hammond says it is.

The day before the Spring Statement, a piece of evidence from the Work and Pensions Committee encapsulated the mindless nature of this government’s inhuman approach. In its report on the benefit cap, the Committee reported “instances of families left with so little their children are being taken into care because of neglect.”  It is difficult to overstate the sheer stupidity and cruelty of this. A policy designed to harness the resentment of ‘hardworking taxpayers’ in support of social security cuts is destroying families, for the sake of trivial sums of money, and incurring much greater costs as a result. We can’t put a price on the trauma and devastation caused to children and parents, but even in financial terms, this (and all the other cuts causing havoc in people’s lives), make no sense.

And although the government has it in its power to make people’s lives happier, it is even now, in the face of all the evidence of the suffering it has caused, determined to make them more miserable. The benefit freeze continues, Universal Credit rolls out relentlessly, driving people into foodbanks and homelessness, and local authorities are forced to increase Council Tax to fund vital services. Council Tax is highly regressive, hitting the poorest hardest, so this is just one more way of deepening poverty and entrenching inequality.

The Spring Statement was further proof that for this government, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur concluded, poverty is a political choice. It continues the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and ignores the human consequences whilst keeping its eyes on the all-important balance sheets.

Perhaps one day they will realise the truth of what Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but Life”. But by then it will be too late for the children who are having their health and their education damaged by the unnecessary poverty and hunger they are living in now.

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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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