Fool Britannia

DayBritainChangedApril1

I’m alright, Jack. Most of the tax and welfare cuts in what today’s Guardian calls “a new social order” do not directly affect me. Hooray! The “bedroom tax”, introduced today, robs 14% of housing benefit from those in social housing with one spare room, and 25% for two or more spare rooms. Not me. Nor am I among the two-thirds of those hit by the tax who are disabled. I am not affected by the lowering of the household income cut-off for eligibility for Legal Aid. I do not claim Council Tax benefit, so will not be affected by the system that administers it being transferred from the Government to the already financially strapped local councils.

Not being disabled, I am not affected by the disability living allowance being scrapped next Monday, and nor will it affect me that written applications for the benefit are replaced by face-to-face interviews. As I am not currently receiving benefits, or tax credits, I will not notice when, next Monday, they do not rise in line with inflation for the first time in history. Nor do I live in the London boroughs that, from 15 April, will cap welfare benefit. (The other boroughs will follow in July and September, by which time I do not expect to be a welfare claimant, but you never know in this economy, do you?)

The changes to the regulation of the financial industry do not affect me directly today. Nor does today’s unpopular handing over of NHS budgets to “local commissioning groups” made up of doctors, nurses and other practitioners affect me directly today.

So, it would be easy for me to be smug – my life goes on as normal. But I’m not smug. I’m f—ing furious, and deeply worried. These latest changes, particularly to benefits, and much more broadly to the NHS, are on the face of it designed by the nasty ideologues in the Conservative government (I think we should stop calling it a Coalition) to save money. Simple as that. The “under-occupancy penalty” (the Bedroom Tax), which some are optimistically and wishfully calling this government’s Poll Tax, will – we’re told – save £465m a year. Even if this is true – and I tend to disbelieve anything that comes out of George Osbourne’s mouth – that doesn’t count the cost. The cost to lives, to dignity, to pride, to social cohesion, and, if I may be airy-fairy for a moment, to the general mood of the nation.

Attacks on benefit claimants, the poor, the out of work, the disabled, the sick, are easy to tot up as net gains. But – and here’s where every single one of these cuts affects us all, even people who live in gated communities and have second homes in the country – I don’t personally want to live in a society where the worst-off are treated with corner-cutting contempt. This is the seventh richest nation in the world. In the world. And yet a report commissioned by the TUC predicted that by 2015, almost 7.1m of the nation’s 13m youngsters will be in “homes with incomes judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living”. This report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about poverty makes depressing reading, too.

The National Housing Federation – the independent body representing 1,200 English housing associations – calculates that the Bedroom Tax risks pushing up the £23bn annual housing benefit bill. Its chief executive said the tax would “harm the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.” (It will hit 660,000 households with each losing an estimated average of £14 a week. And if you think that £14 isn’t much, then you have no empathy, or have lived a charmed life. Hey, maybe you’re among the cherished 310,000 who will gain today because of the scrapping of the 50p tax rate.)

There are simple social equations here. Either you believe in society or you do not. Either you link the experience of the poor to the experience of everybody else, or you do not. If you do not live in one of the 3.7 million low-income households whose council tax benefit is cut as of today, then you do indeed seem to be alright, Jack. And if you can step back from the bigger picture – from “breadline Britain” as it’s been branded – and still not care, as it doesn’t affect you directly, then you are a better person than I am. I don’t want to live in a country where new food banks are being opened every week. Caroline Spelman, when she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described food banks as an “excellent example” of active citizenship. I describe them as a crying shame.

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The amazing Trussell Trust, the charity which runs the UK’s main food bank network, now have 325 running across Britain. They say that in 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide; n 2012-13 they anticipate that this number will rise to over 290,000. God bless them. But their good works should not be necessary. Charity should be a safety net, not part of our social infrastructure.

So, take a look around you, at your immediate circumstances, on this most unfunny of April Fools Days. If, like me, you are unaffected, directly, today, by the latest cuts, then slap yourself on the back, and hope that you are not affected by them, directly, tomorrow, or the next day.

Then walk out of your front door, and look down your street; look at the streets you walk past tomorrow on your way to work, if you have a job, and wonder about the people who live in the houses you pass. Are they affected, directly? Some of them will be. Even more of them will be affected indirectly. We are all affected indirectly, right now.

This government is run by people who do not think about or care about how other people are getting on. They truly believe, as if it were a religious creed, that if you fall by the wayside, it’s your own, lazy fault. If you’re not an “entrepreneur”, if you don’t do three jobs, if you haven’t saved, then you’re a shirker, or a sponger, or a waste of space. If you agree with this creed, sleep well. If you don’t, then you’re alright by me, Jack.