‘”At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.” “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.”Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.”And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.” “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge. “Both very busy, sir.” “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”‘
This passage from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was first published in 1843. It comes from the First Stave in which the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is at his misanthropic worst, as he is being importuned by two collectors for the poor at the season of goodwill. He asks whether the institutions of what masqueraded as common welfare for dealing with the poor and destitute were still up and running. When informed by the misconstruing worthies that they are, sadly, still functioning and busy, he says let those in need should go and avail themselves of such services. He is informed that many would rather die than go to there. Let them do it then he says ‘and decrease the surplus population.’
My Mother was born in 1930, she lived through the depression and the Second World War, she witnessed the founding of the Welfare State. It was established on principles set down in the Beveridge report, produced by a Liberal peer, who conjured five giant evils that threatened our society and were to be fought with the same verve and courage with which we had defeated fascism. He identified them as squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. The very causes of poverty and destitution that had stalked the land in Dickens’s time. This was to be a Bunyanesque crusade to eradicate those scourges of the poor and excluded. In Ken Loach’s documentary film The Spirit of ’45 he outlines what the country was like before the Welfare State and just what a change it made in ordinary people’s lives. Such as access to social housing, healthcare and prescriptions, education for all, the ideal of full employment in good and secure work. My Mother remembered, as do many in the film, the visits of debt collectors or rent men and being assessed for parish relief; so scared was my Grandmother that when she thought the knock on the door was an assessor she threw a packet of chestnuts on the fire in case he perceived that she was being extravagant.
I volunteer each Thursday at a Foodbank in Sheffield. We have around 80 people through our doors each week. They receive a rudimentary food bag, a meal, we offer a clothing bank, hair cutting, Citizens Advice and English classes. It is one of numerous Foodbanks across the city. We have recently been approached by ITV as they want to cover the effects of the recently introduced Universal Credit on our users. There was a recent article on the BBC news about the effects on the people of Hartlepool, it was heart rending. We have people with complex problems. Mental health issues are prevalent along with loneliness, poor housing, unemployment or what seems even harder – people with jobs that don’t pay enough to keep the wolf from the door. We have all nationalities, indigenous white people, asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Syria, people of Pakistani, Roma, Bangladeshi, Somali origin, men and women, young to very old.
It is an area that has always received a high level of immigration but in 2010 this was reported in the Guardian.
‘A £50m fund to ease the pressure of immigration on public services has been scrapped by the government without any publicity. The migration impacts fund was set up by Gordon Brown in response to local government claims that they needed central help to deal with unexpected pressure on housing, schools and hospitals.’
An area like the one I work in received this kind of support. Patrick Wintour in the article quoted above made the point that this was done by stealth under the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles a member of David Cameron’s coalition. It may not have been intended to fuel both poverty and prejudice but it certainly has and one might wonder what impetus these decisions had on the vote to leave the EU, with the Leave Campaign’s heavy emphasis on stopping immigration.
What concerns me in this piece, however, is the underlying spirit of our society and what it says about the character of our country. The post war generation, if my Mother and the rest of her family are anything to go on, had a sense of egalitarianism; that the war had been a leveller and we were all up against it and needed to pull together. Though, having just watched Andrea Levy’s Small Island that spirit may not have extended to everyone, even though members of the commonwealth were invited here! But we managed to build the NHS, good municipal housing, strong industries that provided decent jobs, an education service that provided my generation with a chance of a debt free degree, or a worthwhile apprenticeship, and for those unable to work the rudiments of a safety net of provision that offered dignity and support. It was a vision worthy of the Blake’s great hymn Jerusalem.
I remember singing that hymn in assembly at junior school and wondering about the bow of burning gold, and those satanic mills, but I felt stirred to not to let my sword sleep in my hand till we built Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land, whatever that meant. In my life I have watched as people of different colours, cultures and sexualities emerged from the dark days of the 70’s when I was at secondary school and help build up our common life. My second GP was Doctor Mukherjee, one of my first bosses was called Nissar Ahmed, my first real kiss at a school Christmas party was with a Caribbean girl called Melrose, and one of my oldest and best friends is gay and he heads up a project in the area where the Foodbank is. But now it seems like the great momentum from the the battle with the five giant evils is finally falling foul of all the many assaults that I have also witnessed in my 57 years.
It feels to me like we are succumbing to the kind of attitude that the unreconstructed Scrooge was only an extreme example of. Here is a tweet I read today :
‘On an average day in the UK: 3,700 are forced to visit a food bank. 5,400 suffer domestic violence. 4,750 sleep rough on the streets. 4 migrants arrive in boats across the Channel. Guess which one the government is calling a “crisis”?’ Thanks to Andrew Graystone for this.
I often look on the BBC website at the front pages of the Newspapers for the day, it is disheartening to see how many times immigrants are mentioned in a disparaging fashion. I know that in my middle class life I may not be adversely affected by immigration, in fact as I mentioned earlier I have benefited from it in numerous ways. I do see how challenging the situation is in the parts of Sheffield where the Foodbank is. How scarce the resources are, how a policy of creating a hostile environment has damaged the very fabric of communal life in that area. In fact the policy of creating a hostile environment is not reserved solely to immigrants it seems to me. The implementation of Universal Credit and the whole austerity crusade following the financial crash has hollowed out any notion of fighting the five giant evils and pretty much made moribund Beveridge’s Bunyanesque national endeavour. To be in need, whether as an immigrant or indigenous person is seen as a failing, a flaw and worse a result of your own fecklessness.
I remember a young Somali man, when I worked in Bethnal Green telling me that the difference between poverty as he experienced it in his homeland and in the UK was that it was viewed in Somalia as an evil to be overcome by the community and in the UK as your own stupid fault and something to be blamed for.
‘Why should I pay for other people’s kids to go to University?’ This is something I have heard over and over again in the whole student loans debate. Another example for me of the hollowing out of our sense of communal responsibility. When watching University Challenge this Christmas when older alumni of our third level institutions reappear for fun to compete instead of the usual run of clever youths I am struck forcibly by the predominance of Oxbridge colleges. They studied law and become BBC executives, or Classics and end up running banks. In fact it always seems somewhat unfair that Sheffield University get to enter one team in the normal version of the quiz and Oxford and Cambridge any number of colleges. I actually love visiting both cities and am proud of the fantastic opportunities and education afforded by attending these places but I don’t understand why we are not more dedicated to making every university as wonderful as they are? As Harry Perkins the socialist Prime Minister from Sheffield in Chris Mullins A Very British Coup says when asked if he will abolish first class travel, ‘no we will abolish second class, I think everyone is first class’. Where is our ambition or are we becoming so atomised that caring for me and mine is all that counts. Sheffield University was set up by penny donations of steel workers to offer a chance to any worker’s child. But of course this comes from an instinct not in the Scroogian lexicon of gut reactions.
When I first left University and decided not to be ordained for the Catholic Priesthood I fell into community work in the East End of London. I was on the management committee of the Tower Hamlets Federation of Tennant’s Associations, I helped to form group called SPLASH (South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Hosing and the Environment), I lived in a council flat in Bromley by Bow and I watched as Canary Wharf dwarfed the council estates of the Isle of Dogs. There are so many things that can said about housing but I want to just quote a real example of the effects of housing policy in that time, especially the policy of Right to Buy. My daughters both decided to move back to London from Sheffield and go to Goldsmith’s University. They always struggled to find decent accommodation they could afford. At one point they told me they had secured a flat in Bethnal Green near the Tube Station. I helped them move in and was astonished to find it was an ex council flat, four bedroomed, unrenovated, the only additions were a Lino floor and new white goods. This block, when I was working in the area was considered hard to let. Obviously purchased under the Right to Buy Scheme it was now being rented out for the princely sum of £2500 a month! The only way they could afford it was to turn the living room into a bedroom and have five of them in it. When they moved out they discovered the rent would be going up to £3000 a month. This was five years ago now, how much is the rent today I wonder. Someone was getting very rich out of this previously affordable if hard to let property. This pattern is being repeated across the country, the great second home owning democracy. As a person who had a second home for a while I can see the financial sense for the middle classes but it is not working, The need for affordable housing is at crisis level, it has even been a subject tackled by the Archers!
A couple of years ago I made a little film for Sheffield University based on a poem I wrote about the famous hole in the road, a land mark of 70’s Sheffield. It was a roundabout with a hole in the middle that formed an underpass to separate traffic from pedestrians. It had a fish-tank and became a trysting place for locals. It is filled in now and been returned to its former name of Castle Square, On the day after the Brexit vote in which Sheffield was divided 50-50 I walked through town from the middle class South West to the working class North East. The square provides an amazing dividing line, between shops like M&S, Next, River Island and all the phone shops to Poundland, at that time Primark, B&M and Wilko. The people change in a block, their gait, their pallor, and their outlook. It is no surprise to me that we were so divided over Brexit. We are a divided city. Here is a quote from a local magazine NowThen:
‘During 2013, an independent report about fairness and inequality in Sheffield found that average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women across the length of the 83 bus route, which links Millhouses in the south with Ecclesfield in the north.’ http://www.nowthenmagazine.com/fairnessonthe83/
Interestingly the route goes past our Foodbank and it contains some of the most derived people in the city. In the years since this report I suspect it has not changed and in fact may well be worse, if my own experience is anything to go by. Yet the opinions of people in many parts of the city have hardened. I sometimes fill my car at a Tesco service station in one of the richest part of the city, Fulwood. I wanted to buy a Guardian newspaper being a wooly minded liberal. ‘Sold out’ the lady at the check out said, ‘in fact we only get one or two’. ‘What do you sell then?’ I asked, ‘The Daily Mail’ she replied nonchalantly, ‘Hundreds of them’.
To return to poor old Ebenezer. He worried that the institutions of his time, the Victorian hostile environment were not functioning. I worry that we are having to reinvent them. The Foodbank is great in its own way, but surely we could imagine and provide a better social fabric than this one, voluntary collections and people trying to feed and care for there fellow citizens in their spare time! Libraries in Sheffield are more and more run by voluntary groups. My clergy friends from Doncaster tell me that there are no local authority run schools in the town, all academies, increasingly run by large trusts with little accountability to anyone local. I could go on with a litany of areas of public life that have been privatised and chart the return of the Hostile Environment and its attendant giant evils. But I would rather end with a note of hope.
Scrooge spent a night being haunted by his past, his present and his potential future. The last year feels like that to me. The news is like one gigantic visitation of the Christmas ghosts. But as the ghosts had a purpose in creating a change of heart in Scrooge then I hope it is the case with us. The awakening in Ebenezer was one of compassion. To learn to emotionally connect to other humans and sense their plight, their story and their nobility. I pray we can make known the stories of compassion and change, and do away for ever with the hostile environment and its giant evils.