MPs ask how ‘the other England’ can be strengthened so that fellow citizens are not “pushed into destitution”
A Bournville reader draws attention to an article about Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, and former Labour MP Frank Field, now a backbencher. They are touring the poorest areas of Leicester Newcastle, Glasgow, Morecambe and Cornwall. Frank Field said they want to know “how the soft underbelly of our society – ‘the other England’ – can be strengthened so that none of our fellow citizens are pushed into destitution”.
Robert Booth, Social Affairs correspondent for the Guardian, reports that their widely publicised inquiry began in London where testimonials from those with first-hand experience of food poverty exposed the barriers that people face in securing support from the government, when faced with extreme life hardships and personal difficulties.
“Unless we blow the lid off it, my lot are not going to listen”
He explains that Heidi Allen had asked Frank Field if he would join her on a tour of the UK to show the government the “other England” shaped by the austerity policies pioneered by Allen’s party. She added: “Unless we blow the lid off it, my lot are not going to listen.” This is not a new concern: in her 2015 maiden speech Heidi Allen gave a detailed criticism of proposed cuts to tax credits, saying, ‘today I can sit on my hands no longer’.
Evidence from Leicester which they will be presenting includes accounts of:
- an illiterate man sanctioned so often under universal credit that he lives on £5 a week;
- a man who had sold all but the clothes he was wearing;
- someone told to walk 44 miles to attend a job interview, despite having had a stroke, to save the state the cost of a £15 bus ticket;
- a surge in referrals to food banks from 5% since the introduction of universal credit in June, to 29%;
- an elderly person – after her son, who had suffered a stroke, had been sanctioned 15 times – said, “The system needs more caring people. They are like little Hitlers”;
- another was expecting the bailiffs to take back her two-bed council house because she was in arrears, including on bedroom tax. Her second bedroom is used by her granddaughter five nights a week, so her son can work, but that doesn’t count – only children qualify’
The bureaucratic struggle to claim benefits is a big problem, carefully and accurately portrayed in Ken Loach’s internationally acclaimed award-winning film, I Daniel Blake (snapshot and link to brief video below). 65% of the most vulnerable people who come to Leicester council for help have never used a computer and don’t have a smart phone or an email address, needed to fill out forms.
A brief extract from the film – those who have seen it will remember that the computer session becomes far more stressful and eventually – as often happens – aborts for no fault of the ‘client’.
According to Feeding Britain, a charity set up by Field which now includes Allen among its trustees, after housing costs, 41% of children in Leicester – more than 34,000 – are living in poverty. The Leicester South parliamentary constituency was in the poorest 2% of constituencies in the UK in 2018. Over the last two summer holidays, in the most deprived parts of the city, over 15,000 meals were served to almost 1,650 children, using government funds.
In the Leicester Mercury, Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth said after reading the latest research findings: “These shocking statistics show high levels of child poverty in Leicester South. It is clear that the Government is failing working families, and cuts to Universal Credit will make child poverty even worse. It is appalling that since 2010 the number of children living in poverty has reached four million under this Government, and the Government is still maintaining the benefit freeze.”
Carillion paid only £94m towards the pension deficit but sent £162m in dividends to shareholders over 2015 and 2016.
Media reports agree with Debbie Abrahams, shadow secretary of state for Work and Pensions that Carillion have failed in their duty to ensure that their pension provision was adequately managed and resourced.
She is on record as pointing out that they could well have done so, in a letter to the regulator, asking whether they were aware of dividends payments to shareholders far higher than the payments to employees’ pensions.
The FT, BBC, Telegraph, Guardian, Reuters and Citywire online reports cover news of the deficit but fail to mention what appears to be preferential treatment for directors
Carillion’s last accounts, to December 2016, show there was a combined deficit on half a dozen defined benefits schemes linked to employees’ salaries of £811m but a surplus on a directors’ scheme of £6m.
Private Eye reporting this asked: “How could most of the company’s pension commitments, covering tens of thousands of employees, be so woefully underfunded when those for a small number were fully financed?”
It notes that the PR firm acting for the trustees (possibly Teneo Blue Rubicon taking over from Bell Pottinger) refused to provide a breakdown of the schemes’ positions, which in the secretive pensions world remain confidential.
Several former directors – who had received large salary, pensions and bonuses -were questioned by the Work & Pensions and BEIS select committees on 6th February, including former chief executive Richard Howson, former finance director, Richard Adam and current chairman Philip Green (above) in an informative article in The Construction Index.
A final PE comment: with ordinary workers facing serious cuts to their retirement incomes, MPs led by pensions select committee chair Frank Field are unlikely to take “no comment” for an answer.