March 17
Why are people living in poverty in Britain today? The chair, Des Coles opened the debate, at which 35 people heard three excellent speakers. Des referred to the UN definitions of poverty and some statistics. In 2015, 4.5 million people were in poverty in the UK and more than 1 in 4 children. There are more than 30 times as many food banks now as in 1989. Lorraine Buchanan, the chief executive of Woking Citizens Advice spoke first. She has been in post for a year, previously being a housing case worker. Maybury and Sheerwater wards in Woking are two of the most deprived wards in Surrey, she said. Families where one person is working can be in poverty as they can be very low paid on or near the minimum wage and on a zero hours contract. It is very difficult to manage the household income when you don't know what your income will be. Often they simply cannot pay their bills. Couples need £110 per week. You only get tax credit if you work 24 hours a week. Even if you are working more than 40 hours a week in a low paid job you will struggle. A single person on benefits is entitled to £73.10 a week. Caring can be a full-time job but carers do not get paid as such. People with mental health issues struggle. Under the benefit reforms, if a person is sanctioned they lose their benefits immediately. A person can appeal but this can take more than a year. People die waiting for their appeal with their income cut off. A significant life change such as losing your job, developing mental illness or losing your partner can plunge people into poverty. It can happen to us all. Will Forster, leader of the Liberal Democrats on Woking Council and also a Surrey county councillor spoke next. He was brought up by a mother on benefits but there are not many people with similar backgrounds who are key decision makers. Politics needs to be more representative. Most people who are in poverty work. Tax credits are a ridiculous idea. We need better paid more skilled jobs so there is no need for it. One in five children have food insecurity in our country, nearly the highest in the developed world. Woking has two food banks. The U.K. Is particularly unequal as a society and Surrey's richness hides the poverty here. Pyrford is just the other side of the railway track to Sheerwater. Pensions have risen since 2010 but child benefit has not. Last week there was a change in the provision of free school meals raising the threshold in the whole of the UK except in Northern Ireland. If you are a care leaver you have less than a 10% chance of going to university. From established homes you have a 60% chance. We need to start asking uncomfortable questions. Sarah Goddard is from Christians Against Poverty and employed by Christ Church as a debt adviser. Her team will go and visit people in their homes and help them apply for benefits. Their central office in Bradford will negotiate with their creditors. People deeply in debt often have other issues. With other churches they run a job club and Fresh Start an eight week course for people with addictions. She quoted the case of one person they help who is in her 50s and living on the single allowance of £73.10. After bills this leaves her £29 a week food, toiletries and presents. She needs to go into the library to do her benefit applications online but could not afford the bus fare so they help her with that. She has learning problems and received two letters about meetings. She thought she only needed to go to the second of the meetings and went there but was sanctioned for four weeks for not attending the first. This sent her finances into meltdown. Being part of a caring supportive community makes a huge difference for people on benefits. The meeting was now opened up to those present. The point was made that most of the benefit bill goes on the old age pension. Yet this is not enough to support live in carers. People who cannot support themselves need to
Lorraine Buchanan addresses the audience, with Will Forster first left, Des Coles second left and Sarah Goddard first right. supplement the pension through their savings and then by taking equity on their house. Council care homes have all been closed. People are now dependent on private provision where staff are very low paid. The system is breaking down. Asked about provision for people of faith Sarah spoke about Christ Church, a community of 500 people, with a network of people that can help. Communities are a great help but are people willing to talk about their difficulties and seek help within them? In poverty it is easy to lose contact with friends and family. The social care system is not funded well enough. Lorraine told us how the CAB is open to all. People are embarrassed to be in poverty and some come in with bags of unopened letters. Often their family is the last to know their situation . The CAB used to have an emergency fund supported by funding from the Mayors charity but recent mayors have chosen different charities and funds have dwindled. Byfleet has its own charity and the CAB sees few people from there and the Lions have a fund to help with heating. Why is poverty not a greater priority in politics? There was little attention paid to it in the manifestos in the last election. Brexit has been sucking up all the attention. While some workers are in poverty shareholders are taking bigger profits and less money is coming into the government because of tax avoidance. The government is leaving the problem to charities. We need to challenge the causes of poverty. While in some regions benefits may be adequate down in the south east they do not stretch to cover expenses. Someone who had been to Nairobi talked about poverty there. Most of the problem is down to politics. People in poverty do not vote. It is why in this country the Labour Party was formed, to give voice to people at the bottom of society. The position of the established church was questioned and it was felt that generally it is rather comfortable but there are groups within it looking at ways of transforming society. Questioned about Universal Credit there was a general acceptance that it was a good idea in principle but the devil is in the detail. It was an idea originally put forward by the Centre for Social Justice and it was designed so that a person would never be better off not working. One of the main problems will be in the changeover period in October this year. People on benefits will not receive any income for five weeks but this could stretch to eight weeks. Those with mental health problems will have difficulties coping with a monthly budget. Denmark was regarded as being a as a much fairer system where most people are prepared to pay higher taxes for a better benefit provision. Finland is trying a basic income which everyone receives. Yet globally we are living in an unsustainable way. Every government department is sending people to the CAB. They are busier than ever. As a charity they are looking to plug the holes the Government is leaving. Their partner agencies are being reduced. By making people claim on the phone or the Internet people at the bottom are being excluded. A lot of the CAB's time is spent filling in forms applying for grants. Societies that are more equal are happier. Poverty needs to become a priority. If we tell our politicians this is a major priority then they will listen. It is up to us.