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23 November 2019
Hard Times In Berwick



Pam Vassie is the Secretary of the Berwick Branch of the Labour Party. She and her husband came here in 2004. For twelve years she worked as a voluntary adviser for the town’s Citizens Advice. Since 2010 she has witnessed the deterioration in the situation of people on low incomes whether they are in or out of workWhat follows is based on an interview with Dick Barbor-Might.

Poverty and debt figured largely in the inquiries. There were a lot of employment issues. Some employers did not behave at all well. There were and still are a lot of low paid jobs and seasonal work. Zero hours contracts are prevalent. Over the years there have been a significant number of closures with negative impacts on the local economy. Pringles knitwear closed in 1998 with the loss of over 300 jobs and in 2016 Jus-Rol’s pastry factory closed with the loss of 265 local jobs. There have been other losses and the port is nothing like as active as it used to be.

Then came the general election of 2010 and the formation of the Coalition Government of Tories and Lib Dems. Chancellor George Osborne announced that he would be taking £12 billion out of the budget for benefits. In 2017 I gave a talk to the Berwick Trades Union Council: ‘Myths about Benefits’. There had been much talk about claimants being “skivers” and “scroungers” as against “hard-working people”. These terms were designed to persuade the public that it was OK to cut benefits.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan was elected as Conservative MP for Berwick in 2015. I went to see her on several occasions about the way that benefits were being changed - and to explain that the cuts were rendering some people destitute. It was apparent to me that she did not understand how the system was working. When she did recognise that it was resulting in destitution, she simply did not care. I went to see her specifically about Universal Credit when it was being discussed and about the impact on families of the “two-child limit” that meant that after a certain date no extra benefits would be paid for a third or subsequent child.

I told her that this was wrong and plunged whole families into poverty. I remember that she said that “hard-working people” would act responsibly and decide how many children they could afford. Everybody should be like that. I said to her that it’s all very well to say that you should be as organised as that but that events happen. It was neither fair nor just that families should be penalized. It wasn’t the parents’ fault and it certainly wasn’t the children’s.

In ruling circles there has been a shift away from the concept of relative poverty, being below what is regarded in society as being a decent or adequate standard of living. The shift has been to a much lower standard, labelled absolute poverty. The shift means that they can reduce the figures!

So the argument goes: if people have washing machines or fridges when once these were not even necessities for the rich, how then can they be poor? But that takes no account of how things have changed. Who can do without a washing machine these days when so many live-in small flats and when there are no longer communal laundries and when there may not even be a local launderette?

The reality is that when all the fixed costs have been met there may be virtually nothing left over for food. Then there is the dilemma -heat or eat.

There is great pressure on the stock of social housing. In places like Berwick where a lot of the housing is old and damp, heating is expensive. Landlords aren’t rushing to make repairs. Getting access to accommodation in the first place is terrible for anybody in debt: you will not be accepted as a social tenant if you are even £5 in arrears. Starting from April 2019 the Conservative Northumberland Council changed the rules so that those of working age, even if they are on benefits, have still to make some contribution to Council Tax.  Those in difficulty who can’t pay will incur the costs of a Liability Order imposed by the Council, making a bad situation worse and leaving even less money over for food.

When I first started working for Citizens Advice in Berwick there was no food bank in Berwick but by 2014 there was one. We could refer people but sometimes they would not go even if the need was there. I think parents would go without food so as to provide for their children. Was their reluctance to go to the food bank because of stigma, shame? Probably. Or it might be that people would go hungry because the next benefit was just about due.

Benefit rates have been frozen from 2016 until 2020 taking no account of inflation. A benefit cap was introduced which placed a limit on the amount of benefit a household could receive irrespective of the high market rents those in private rented accommodation are obliged to pay: - more pressure on already very limited budgets.

The Labour Party has promised to scrap the failing system of Universal Credit. The whole system of benefits is underfunded, far too complicated and beset with delays in payment. Medical assessments for people who are chronically ill or living with disabilities are a disgrace. The pressure is on the claimants from Day 1 to get back to work when it might take months for them to recover. In the meantime, they don’t have enough money to live on. Those who fall ill when they are of working age will be poor.

There is no respect at all for people in this system.


21 November 2019

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