Posts Tagged poverty

Low earners continue to lose out under Labour

We know that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider under Labour; and that Islington is one of the communities most affected by this polarisation.

Now the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that despite the recession, which might be thought to act as an equaliser, it’s still the poorest who are being hit hardest. The minimum cost of living, calculated at the level where you can participate in society rather than simply survive, is rising at twice the rate of inflation. And that means it is harder to live on a low income this year than last year.

The JRF figures show that a single person in Britain needs to earn at least £13,900 a year before tax in 2009, in order to afford a basic but acceptable standard of living. A couple with two children need to earn £27,600.
They even supply a handy calculator to see whether your income will meet the minimum.

JRF report that the cost of a minimum household budget has risen by about 5 per cent for most families – well above the general inflation rate because they spend more than average on high-inflation items such as food, domestic fuel and public transport. And those costs – and therefore the minimum income – are likely to be higher in London.

So it all adds to the case for raising the income tax threshold, and basing council tax rates on your income, as proposed by the Liberal Democrats; and against Labour’s abolition of the 10p tax rate.

Remember, Gordon Brown makes everyone – but particularly those who can afford it least – pay more, whereas Lib Dem plans would see no one paying tax on the first £10,000 of income…

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Inequality: bad for our health?

New figures from the Office of National Statistics report that London’s children are the most deprived in the UK.

One in four London children is growing up in poverty, and we already know that for Islington it’s nearer half all children.

The growing gap between rich and poor is not only a terrible failure by the Labour government; it makes society more stressed, less healthy, trusting and secure, than societies where wealth is more equitably distributed. Although it’s arguable that redistribution is the consequence, rather than the cause, of a happier society.

In the midst of this, an invitation arrives from the Rev Chris Brice in Gospel Oak (what a great name for a parish!):

Professor Richard Wilkinson acclaimed author of: “The Spirit Level – why more equal societies almost always do better”

Is speaking in London On: July 5th At: 6pm at St Martins Church Gospel Oak NW5 4NL

Followed by a Question and Answer Session after his talk


Come and hear about the pernicious consequences on millions of UK citizens of Britain being one of the most economically unequal countries amongst the 23 richest democracies.

Prof Wilkinson has carried out a number of studies on the effects on inequality on health, and the links between inequality and racism – highly topical given the rise of the BNP. It is, after all, just a short train ride from Gospel Oak to Barking.

Gross and growing inequality is certainly bad for society’s health. That’s not to say it’s avoidable. Like sugar or sunlight, it’s excess that’s bad for us. I don’t believe total equality is achievable – and certainly not by means that are acceptable to liberals (or Liberals).

Liberal Democrats are pledged to fight poverty, ignorance and conformity, not inequality per se. But the extremes of rich and poor, and the growing gap between rich and poor, both globally and within communities, undermine the conditions in which liberalism can flourish and breed intolerance. To quote Barack Obama, money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference.

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Benefits changes hit poorest hardest

The BBC is reporting a change to benefit payments that starts today. All benefits will start being paid fortnightly in arrears. That’s instead of a week in arrears or even in advance as some benefits are at present.

So what’s the big deal?

A week’s difference in payments may not sound much, but any change to payment dates affects your budgeting. If you’re paid monthly and suddenly you are told this month’s pay won’t arrive to the end of next month, that’s likely to cause you some problems. And people on benefits, by definition, are least likely to have the resources to handle a loss of cashflow. If your freezer is full, you have savings in the bank, and your services are on quarterly bills you can cope. But if you have no savings, you are on a prepay meter, and the cupboard is bare, this change is likely to be a nightmare.

Apparently, you can ask for a loan: but it will be docked from your benefit over coming weeks, so you’ll still lose money.

Until the BBC raised the issue, there’s been virtually no publicity. There’s nothing I can find on the Department of Work and Pensions website. Some individual claimants have had letters, but there’s been no advice or awareness campaign. In fact, there’s been no debate or discussion in Parliament either.

It’s a mean change, affecting the poorest hardest, and sneaked through. Another Labour triumph.

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Council tax freeze: yes please!

Last night a group of us were out petitioning in Barnsbury and St Mary’s on the council tax issue.

Next week Islington Council has to decide on its budget: the Lib Dem group is proposing a council tax freeze, the Labour group a 2.5% rise to pay for universal free school meals.

We had people literally queuing up to sign our petition – at one house (ironically a stone’s throw from the Labour MP’s office), one resident came hurrying down from the top floor flat to sign the petition, only to have to wait until a passer by had finished signing. It’s certainly a popular issue.

I’ve sent this email to Cllr John Gilbert, the council’s lead member on finance, setting out my views:

“Dear John,

“I’m sure you’re getting lots of emails about this, but I wanted to put my views on the record as well.
I think you are absolutely right to propose a council tax freeze at this time, and I hope you get all the support you need to get this through at the council budget meeting.

“I’m not against raising taxes to deliver essential services in principle – indeed I fought a general election on the need to raise income tax modestly to fund more money for our schools. But the state has no automatic right to our money. The case for raising taxes has to be that the money is raised in the right way, to spend on the right things, at the right time.

“Is this the right way to raise money? No. Council tax is a desperately unfair tax. It does not relate to your ability to pay. Instead it is based on the notional value of your home. While the very poorest get help from benefits to pay it (which is in itself an admission that the tax is unfair) people on low incomes or modest savings pay the same as their next door neighbour on a top salary, even if they consume fewer council services. It’s particularly unfair on pensioners and others on fixed incomes. And on tenants who are being taxed on an asset they don’t own. I have always supported the Lib Dem national policy to abolish council tax and to do our bit to keep council tax below the national average locally. So if a freeze is possible, it’s the right thing to do.

“Is the rise proposed to go on the right things? Labour’s tax increase is not, in my view, going on the best things. Their two big ideas are universal free school meals and a small rebate for some pensioners. The latter is only necessary because they are putting council tax up! So this issue is really about whether free school meals for all children in Islington schools (which is not the same as for all Islington children!) is worth putting up everyone’s council tax. As a school governor I am 100% behind free school meals for those that need them. But I am sceptical about the benefit of free school meals for all. I’m not surprised that the unions and the school meals contractors are enthusiastic: they are doing their job and protecting their members and their business. But you need to consider the wider issues.

“Many schools rely on their ‘free school meals’ count to get extra resources to support poorer pupils and to give context to their exam results. Not all schools can physically cope with feeding all their pupils at once. EGA for example relies on the fact that a certain number of girls bring in sandwiches or go out at mealtimes as the school simply does not have room for them all to eat in the hall.

“Some families actually like to provide the food their kids eat. I remember when friends of mine were worried about the quality of school meals (not in an Islington school, but it could have been) and so started making their kids healthy lunches instead.

“If there are universal free school meals, are they compulsory? And if they are not compulsory, what about the waste? My firm introduced a free lunch for staff one day a week, to encourage team spirit. At first it was great, but after a while, people started opting out and getting their own lunch anyway, because they had errands to run or a meeting to go to or whatever. Because the lunch was free, they could take it or leave it – and often left it. Lots of food was being thrown away, a terrible waste, or taken home to feed other people: not what the firm had intended. After a while the firm stopped providing a free meal for everyone, but provided a smaller free buffet for those who wanted it or needed it. Of course a school is not the same as a workplace; but it did show how even the best-intentioned schemes can go wrong.

“But most of all, I think this scheme is the worst kind of redistribution: from the poor to the rich, Robin Hood in reverse. Why should the woman works as a cleaner find her council tax going up to provide a free lunch for her employer’s children? As a former Labour party member (albeit a very long time ago) I think this is a disgraceful proposal from a Labour council group.

“Is this the right time? No. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Raising taxes in a recession sends the message that the government, whether local or national, knows better what to do with our money than we do, just when we don’t have enough money to start with. It’s crazy. The poorest households, rightly, already get benefits including free school meals. The people who suffer most when taxes rise are those in the poverty trap, who get hit by the rise but get no benefits to help. And it’s not just pensioners, but families and single people too. Islington has higher than average numbers of single people and childless households, not all of them rich ones, and this tax rise will hit them hard.

“We all talk about wanting to help local small businesses. Putting up council tax means less money in Islington shoppers’ pockets: bad news for businesses. And bad news for the services who depend on their advertising (including our local newspapers!).

“So I very much support the proposal for a council tax freeze.

“And I’m not alone. The last couple of weeks I’ve been out knocking on doors and phoning round, as part of my regular campaigning. I’ve been asking people about the council tax rise: would they prefer a freeze, or an increase to be spent on providing free school meals for all children?

“Overwhelmingly people prefer the freeze. And it’s not just the better off. To give you a flavour of the range of people supporting our position:
A foster mum on the Bemerton estate
A new mum in Barnsbury
A student and his mum near the Angel
An environmentalist in Bunhill
A classroom assistant in Holloway
A pensioner in Clerkenwell
A carer in St Peter’s ward
A mature student in Canonbury
And so it goes on.

“If you look at the people who’ve joined the Facebook group, you will see that real Islington people are backing the council tax freeze, not just party political activists.

“So please do the right thing and freeze the council tax this year.

“Apologies for the long message!

“Best wishes,


It was a long message but I could have said even more. Like the two friends who’ve lost their jobs in the past few days: the last thing they need are tax rises now. Or like the families I know who will lose more in the tax rise than they will gain in school meals.

There will be friends reading this whose gut instinct is different to mine. I know that there are good people sincerely backing the Labour proposal. I also think that there is deliberate politicking from the Labour group, using this as a stick to beat the current council administration. Whatever the motive, putting up the council tax now will be hitting people when they are down – and I hope that councillors of all parties would not want to do that.

We’ll find out next week.

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More on ‘Invisible Islington’

More coverage of the Cripplegate Foundation’s important report in the Islington Tribune.

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Guardian blog 7 Nov

My latest Guardian blog, covering the US election results, plus poverty and housing in Islington, is now online.

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Spotlight on ‘Invisible Islington’

A new report from the Cripplegate Foundation – Invisible Islington – highlights the experiences of poor people in Islington, and the way different agencies are trying to tackle this.

Islington has far above average levels of lone parent households and of mental health problems. Both absolute and relative poverty are problems here: Islington has some of the most extreme polarisation between rich and poor in the country.

We already know about the health inequality in London, that GP services in poorer areas are underfunded, that half Islington’s children are growing up in poverty, and that 1 in 10 households are on waiting lists for affordable homes. It’s a terrible verdict on 11 years of Labour government, with Gordon Brown in Downing Street throughout. But the statistics don’t always have an impact the way individual stories do.

Cripplegate’s report covers real individuals in depth as well as looking at the policy headlines. It focuses on debt, unemployment and poor health as key problems – but also praises the crucial role family and close friends play in people’s lives. One reason why housing policies which keep family and community networks in place is so important in Islington.

Writing in the Evening Standard, Nick Cohen says:

“Around the corner from its Georgian terraces is some of the worst poverty in Western Europe: people of all colours who are crushed by debt and joblessness.

“The Cripplegate Foundation, which commissioned the study, dates back to 1500 and there is a medieval feel to the inner London it describes. On the one hand, we have super-gentrifiers in Barnsbury who are among the top earners on the planet. One hundred yards away in the King’s Cross estates are men with the lowest life expectancy in London.

“Perhaps we will soon feel more affinity with them. The chaos in the markets has made all but the most secure realise how precarious their wealth and status are, and how easy it could be to lose everything. Millions have had a reality check. About the only good thing that could come out of the crash is the realisation that poverty isn’t a joke.”

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