Monday, 14 April 2014

Foodbanks: are the poor "less deserving" of treats?

One of  my two local independent Foodbanks were this week delighted that they have been given a donation of Easter Eggs to put in food parcels. They have asked, if possible, for people to consider purchasing a small Easter Egg when shopping, so families where there are children, do not miss out on Easter Day.

Personally, and the same went for Christmas,  I see the Foodbank appeals for Easter Eggs or presents, for those who wish to donate, an essential part of their service. Why? Because seasonal occasions are not the exclusive rights of those who can afford it, the middle classes and our government.

Last year I was quite frankly appalled that as part of  a Foodbank promoting weekend, a local supermarket stacked all its white packeted value products at the front of its store and urged shoppers to purchase goods from the pile. I went round the supermarket and found buy one get one free branded products that were nutritionally superior and worked out at a lower cost than the value products. My whole reasoning then was that I want my donations to be of a similar quality to what I expect to eat. Those who are in need of a Foodbank parcel should be treated as I would wish to be treated, not as needy charity cases where the middle class get to feel good about donating a value tin of baked beans!

Which leads on to the question: Should Foodbanks be providing treats in their parcel? I have highlighted Easter Eggs due to the time of year, but I strongly feel a food parcel, whilst providing emergency food to get by should not be bereft of a few packets of biscuits, a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine if these items have been donated. I can already hear Tories choking over their champagne, but why does society think in general that the poor are somehow less deserving of  being included in mainstream society? At a time of both acute embarassment at having to be referred to a Foodbank in the first place, sitting in a queue to receive your charity handout, is it too much to ask that we treat those who are down on their luck, fighting austerity and losing, or fleeing domestic abuse as human beings?

Society somehow seems to stand in judgement on those who have the misfortune to be referred for a food parcel. Foodbank volunteers are continuously justifying on social media just who can and cannot receive food parcels. The voucher referral system which means those needing aid have to be referred by professionals such as social workers, teachers, support workers is reiterated time and time again as  "outraged"individuals accuse Foodbanks of handing out food to anyone who turns up with a sob story. It simply is not the case and a stringent referral system is applied. However, if I was running a Foodbank would I turn away someone who turned up at the door who was in desperate need? No, never. Rather hand out 1 food parcel than turn someone away in desperate need because they did not have a referral voucher.

By the time people arrive at a Foodbank they have a multitude of  problems. These can be benefit sanctions that are ongoing, rent arrears accruing, debt problems and mental health problems. It is certainly the job of society (now the Government have abdicated all responsibility) to meet the emergency need of food. But I believe we should go further. People in this situation are sitting at the very margins off society. This cuts them adrift from activities many of us take for granted. A trip to Pizza Hut for a child's birthday,  a glass of wine or bottle of beer watching Saturday night TV, a small box of chocolates to cheer yourself up. By relentlessly focussing on value tins of baked beans, tinned pies and tinned veg as being the epitome of what the poor should receive in a food parcel, we are essentially buying into the "less deserving" mantra that has become a cornerstone of Coalition policy.

The sheer despair of having to visit a Foodbank for help, to me warrants the odd treat in a parcel to make that person or family feel part of society and not simply looking into it from the fringes. A mum like myself with a large family to feed ,after opening the Foodbank parcel and feeding the family on the value products is entirely welcome to a box of chocolates to ease her misery and a few packets of Kit Kats for the kids. Because that is what many ordinary families have. When you have nothing at all, you are indeed very grateful for the help the Foodbank volunteers provide. As well as food this often takes the form of counselling or signposting to other support services. But being in this position should not be a reason for the middle classes to think the poor should be doffing their caps at every opportunity. When donating to a Foodbank we shouldn't be thinking we are wonderful people for offering the poor some bland value products from our shopping trip and that they should be grateful we are helping at all. I have come across this attitude on several occasions like the poor should be grateful for whatever they receive; for the crime of being guilty of having to resort to a Foodbank in the first place.

Surely the humanitarian thing to do, is to draw people back from the edges of society and make their lives a little less miserable at a time of huge vulnerability. The branded shampoo and conditioner you donate will make a mum or teenage daughter feel a little more human, a gift card for Pizza Hut could make a child's birthday, as their mum had previously explained birthdays were cancelled due to no money,  books, games,  a cake - all would have the desired effect to lift the mood of those with no other option than to ask society to feed them. The poor have already jumped the hurdle of having to gain a referral by a professional, so the people who donate and the middle classes need not worry their donations are open to misuse. I genuinely cringe when I hear this "holier-than-thou" attitude screaming from those with money that the poor should be thankful for what they receive.

Treat people as you would like to be treated. Who knows, you are one payday, one accident, one misfortune away of being a Foodbank client yourself.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Schools Textbook Scandal: Back to the Future with Gove!

I was 16 in 1983 at the height of the Thatcher years. My school was lucky as at that time it was only 20 years old so had none of the leaky roofs and buckets in classrooms suffered commonly by older schools at the time. One vivid memory was having 1 English Literature textbook on Macbeth between 3 of us. Homework was staged over 3 nights as the book was passed between us and the excuse of " But sir, Jenny forgot to bring it in" was given quite legitimately when homework could not be handed in on time. Parents rang the Head Teacher with their concerns, as this problem spread to other subjects. Our parents refused to pay for textbooks as they believed the school via the government should fund this basic equipment. Hence homework taking 4 days to complete.

Many local schools where I had other friends, were asking parents to provide exercise books too as well as textbooks to do O levels ; sitting in classrooms with huge cracks in ceilings and well in need of a concerted paint job throughout. For those with leaky roofs many a day was lost when the rain was just too bad and the buckets in classrooms couldn't cope.

My elder 2 sons did their GCSES under a Labour Govt back in 2005 and 2008. I can frankly say I never paid for a single textbook in all that time. We had voted for Education, Education, Education and it was delivered. Although we had school league tables they were certainly not the be all and end all, and my boys received a good quality education where subjects were taught and valued by enthusiastic teachers with resources. School trips to enrich the learning experience especially at GCSE level were commonplace. All GCSES were done in Year 11 after a 2 year period of study in June of that exam year. Labour had introduced swathes of different subjects too, so the less academic of students achieved practical NVQs. Every child mattered and every child was valued. Is it only a few short years since education was that good?

Fast forward to the years 2013 -2014. My two younger sons are now 15 and 16. The youngest is autistic. There have been four HeadTeachers in four years, each with a new vision of doing things which has led to my youngest sons year being "the guinea pig" year for every different method to do one thing only : get the school rocketing up the league tables. Where once we had education, education, education now we have league tables, league tables, league tables. To hell with the subject is the mantra as long as we get kids getting A*-C. Now the GCSES are fast- tracked into 1 school year which is effectively 8 months, Exams are mostly taken in May, not June. To get more results to boost the league tables children in Year 9 take 2 option GCSES, then a further 2 in Year 10 and the rest in Year 11. Some parents say it suits their brighter child, but the vast majority have seen the soul destroying way it is taught, without resources.

Wesrminster has definitely not ring fenced the education budget. It is a lie. Cuts are being made drastically. There are not enough GCSE textbooks to go round. Teachers are covering this up by photo-copying large amounts of handouts and asking pupils to put them in folders. Concerned parents like myself have had to turn to online retailers to buy the books so the children have a hard copy of their own for school and home. One GCSE textbook for Home Economics is peculiar to our exam board only at the cost of £20 each. One teacher, on noticing both my sons had their own Geography textbooks, rang me personally to ask whether I would consider donating them to school after the summer exam, as she only has 8 to cover the entire class. Another  older experienced teacher told me at parents evening that she was buying the latest textbooks for her class out of her own pocket as she said it is a catch 22 situation "If the children don't have the textbooks their results will be noticeably lower. This will reflect on me as a teacher through the league tables."

Schools are now slaves to the league tables. Getting up the league tables is the entire raison d'ĂȘtre of Headteachers. Their jobs depend on it, their funding depends on constant improvement.
"So why not put younger pupils in Year 9 and 10 in for exams early  and boost results further? So the children only have 8 months to cram the coursework and the subject in, school trips have to be missed, but hell it's ok because it's the school league tables that matter!" This is what is going on in many schools currently. The constant pressure to outperform the previous years results has now boiled down to a constant treadmill of exams over 3 years where the exam not the subject is taught. I had a son who adored history last year. This year I have a son who never wants to learn history again! The previous Headteacher decided to opt for a "vertical curriculum" where children could possibly leave school in Year 11 with a potential 14 GCSES. Only GCSE days for their 2 option subjects are done all day on Mondays and Fridays with the core subjects done Tuesday-Thursday. Drama and Home Economics benefit as they have all day for practical and theory work. The History and Geography teachers loathe it as children sit at desks all day going from topic to topic cramming in 2 years work in 8 months, with little love or knowledge of the subject , just merely instruments of passing the exam itself. And those who are C/D borderline are helped the most while those A/B students are left to their own devices. Why? So those pupils are pushed to get a C not a D as this reflects on those blasted league tables!

My younger sons have no depth of knowledge of the subjects they are taking this year. Yet they will pass exams in those subjects at GCSE as they have been taught the exam knowledge. It's not good enough. At parents evening I watched every teacher flicking through huge folders of extraordinary statistics as they searched for my boys grades and predicted grades at GCSE. I actually spent a lot of time questioning teachers on their stress levels! The Head of Science has just returned after a breakdown last summer, my sons are experiencing revolving doors of supply teachers across a range of subjects as teachers are ill with stress related problems. As a parent of children doing GCSES I am constantly on the phone telling the Head this is impacting on my children. I have read textbooks myself and tried to learn many of their GCSE subjects so I can help them at home when the supply teacher has no idea who they are and their particular problems or knowledge of a subject. I too am on the exam treadmill!

It was very rare in my teenage years for a teacher to be off sick, in fact it was a talking point if they were! Now stress is unmanageable in the teaching profession which has a huge impact on our children. As my youngest son wearily showed me the options list for his final year next September, we picked 2 options purely because both teachers are never sick, and buy the class textbooks themselves!

My sons will look back at their High School Years as one big exam roller coaster in years to come, which simply satisfied the monster that is exam league tables. They too will recall the lack of resources as I have done. It is no coincidence that Tories were in control of the education department on both occasions. State education suffers under Conservatism full stop. Rich Tory MPs don't have to worry as their children attend private independent schools. The working class must fight back and say this system and lack of resources is not good enough for our children. We demand a world class education. Our children deserve it. One tip to Mr Gove: The champagne budget in the House of Commons has risen 72% under the Coalition Government. Spend it on education instead.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Time for the left to take on Ukip

Ukip won't go away. Nigel Farage in the wake of the Godfrey Bloom "women are sluts" furore is making Ukip toe the party line. For the past few years Labour have watched from the sidelines, delighted that Ukip are taking voters away from the Tories, thus splitting the Tory vote open.

But watching from the sidelines has to stop. Step into the street and never has a party with a perceived 1 policy only - immigration control- been so popular among working class traditional Labour voters. This can't happen think the Labour hierarchy. How can working class socialists turn full circle and vote in the opposite right wing direction? Well I could tell Ed Miliband why in a heartbeat. Labour are ignoring their traditional core working class voters at their peril. Sidestepping thorny issues on social security in order to woo the middle class vote has made us working class people feel cast to one side. Labour are directing many policies towards the middle class such as increasing childcare to 25 hours a week for 3 and 4 year olds and providing wraparound 8am-6pm primary school care. While this is to be lauded, it should not come at the expense of ignoring issues that matter to the working class.

On the issue of immigration and integration, Labour cannot pretend some things are not happening. Step foot into some factories as a young 18-25 year old, working class British male employed by an agency. My son works in one. Last year he was sent to a factory that was dominated by one Eastern European race from managers to staff. The British workers were in a minority. The hostility shown to my son over the course of a few days was intense. Only due to the fact the factory kept asking him to turn up daily then telling him there was no work available, meant he left entirely and found a better factory job elsewhere. Ukip, using their one policy mantra are appealing to young workers like my son by simply saying they will stop immigration or send foreign workers back to their homelands. Labour should be looking at the entire concept going on in these factories: zero hours contracts, agency staff, working conditions, racial integration. That little package is why some factories are powder kegs that could ignite at anytime. Young working class men and women aren't bothered what other policies Ukip stand for in these circumstances,as long as Ukip keep repeating they will stop immigrants "taking British jobs". Likewise older workers who have been lifelong Labour voters think Nigel Farage and his "blokeiness" image of  being down the pub with a fag and a pint appeals to them. This is simply because they are unable to recognise a Labour Party and cabinet full of middle class suits, posh voices and lives not remotely connected to the workers on the factory floor.

Sure the working class hear the occasional bit of policy like the scrapping of the Bedroom Tax coming from Labour: but these are the "scraps from the table" and the odd exception. Not a backbone raft of policies that will appeal directly to the working class and make us feel proud to be Labour voters.

What is needed by Labour is a full headlong attack on Ukip. Point out Ukips policy on the very rights trades unions have spent a hundred years fighting for! For example Ukip want to see the public sector jobs dissolve entirely and be privatised completely. The result being thousands will lose their jobs and hard fought for rights, to be replaced by some private company to pay low wages and make maximum profits for themselves. And women how will we fare under Ukip? Well forget maternity pay for a start! Ukip think businesses should not have to pay for pregnant women while they take time off to have a baby. A leading Ukip campaigner Alexandra Swann has resigned from the party recently after not being able to take the party's rhetoric on immigration and anti-gay marriage. She was concerned Ukip were not campaigning on immigration due to an immigrants skill level, but campaigning against immigration generally. Marta Andreason the Ukip MEP threatened to leave the party as Farage thinks "women should be in the kitchen or the bedroom".

Ukip want to repeal the human rights act, take the UK out of Europe (losing in the process thousands of UK jobs as we will have no trading partners) slash the NHS budget, slash the public sector by £77billion, increase defence spending by a staggering 40%, ban any showing of global warming films in schools and scrap renewable energy, abolish inheritance tax for the rich and cut coporation tax for the big companies. I would be literally shoving these policies under the noses of working class people like myself so we appreciate exactly what Ukip stand for. Let's break Ukips one policy on immigration mantra and look in depth at their bigger picture should they gain political representation in Parliament. This is what needs to be told to the electorate, not the slick TV news items, the calm laddish Farage on BBC Question time. The real truth of what will happen if a Ukip government ever get elected, or if in 2015 they should gain enough MPs to form a coalition for 5 years with the Tories
should be laid bare in front of the electorate and particularly working class people.

Unite the Union are busy currently preparing working class people on their Future Candidate programme, to seek to gain selection in their Labour CLP, and so to win elections as MPs. This will provide more working class voices to speak out on issues within the Labour Party which affect ordinary people and is very much needed. These candidates have their ears close to the issues which matter to us working classes and will speak out on our behalf.

Many trade unionists, workers old and young will be reading this and feeling alienated from a Labour Party they think has lost touch with the working class and are desparately seeking an alternative party to vote for. This is entirely understandable. But look at those Ukip policies and realise Nigel Farage's image of a nice bloke is a facade,a front to get him elected. Underneath he is a far right annoyed, angry Tory. A vote for Ukip in 2015 could well put Cameron and the posh boys back in power for another 5 years and which of us wants that?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Want to send your birthday wishes to IDS and the Bedroom Tax?....

The hated bedroom tax is a year old on April 6th and dear old IDS is 60 on April 9th.

Why not join Unite the Union's birthday greetings and send your message to IDS?

Please click this link Stop the Bedroom Tax

which will redirect you to Unites website where you can leave your own birthday messages. My message simply asked that both the Bedroom Tax and IDS retire now! But you may have your own particular message to send him. Lets see the strength and depth of public feeling for this pernicious hated bedroom tax on the most vulnerable in our society and stand up and speak out now!

Monday, 31 March 2014

Working Class: Working Proud!

The "article" - a desperate piece of writing in The Telegraph by Alex Proud, Time we stopped worshipping the working class. - On the  reasons why middle class people deny their working class backgrounds, and why the writer is proud to be middle class is yet another attack by the right wing media to demonise the working classes.

The article was emblazoned by a photo of  "Working Class Hero" Frank Gallagher of the TV programme "Shameless" as the writer proceeded to criticise those who were formally working class but have now made it big by becoming a celebrity or film director. What was ironic was that Mr Proud decided to defend his own working class roots by giving us a story of his fathers working class credentials before going on to lambast others who do this!

It is a common thread of the right wing press throughout this Coalitions tenure in Government since 2010 to seek to mock, shame and downright degrade anyone who is or was working class. We have seen the ridicule of people on "Benefit Street"being openly paraded on television as a kind of middle class sport, their lives and backgrounds raked over to provide ammunition for people who were lucky enough to have had a better start in life, a private education which led on to a good career. We have seen people like the talented and now successful Jack Monroe being hissed at by Edwina Currie on a Channel 5 debate on Benefits ,and mocked about her grandparents class and what Jack's own roots were - like it mattered! A woman who survived on benefits with her small son and blogged about getting by on £10 per week food, created exciting recipes and hauled herself off the breadline when a publishing company decided to turn her recipes into a book, should be lauded - not condemned by an out of touch, has been ex- Tory MP who incidentally thinks there are no need for Foodbanks either.

It is indeed difficult to get working class success stories into the media. Why? Because the right wing press don't want to know. To them working class people are  (to use their rhetoric) the "unemployed scroungers who don't want to work". Hence Mr Proud's Shameless photo on his article. But those of us who are working class, but don't have access to having their own column or feature in the national press, have everyday stories of the ordinary everyday work we do that may not have our names in lights outside a West End theatre but without whom our country would not survive a day and I am talking of : factory workers on zero hours contracts, carers on £59 per week caring for disabled relatives 24/7, nurses, train drivers, bus drivers, teachers, unemployed struggling to find work. Working class, working proud people who do their job which benefits these smug middle class writers like Alex Proud who deign to write about their life experiences.

And to those working class people who make it big? You often find when their salary raises them above ordinary people's wages they decide to also benefit those around them less fortunate. They may become MPs who strive to fight for the rights of their working class constituents and promote the cause of unions in the workplace like Ian Lavery, Grahame Morris and Ian Mearns. Or they be showbiz people who however rich, decide to speak out on the suffering of the poor during austerity like Fiona Phillips on ITV Breakfast or Paul O'Grady comedian and chat show host. There is nothing to poke fun at, nothing to ridicule when someone from a working class background becomes successful, yet people like Alex Proud seems to think there is.

Mr Proud says in his article " .. In general I'm sure it was harder for you" (making it big coming from a working class background) but he doesn't want to hear about it. Why not? Shouldn't the people who have become successful shout from the rooftops they have done so from a working class background? Couldn't they be the person who inspires a teenager in school to take a similar path? I know as a working class woman of middle age I am impressed , admire and look up to those who have succeeded in their path to a political career, striving to protect and care for the most vulnerable of their constituents ,and  sometimes having to ignore their own party line to stand up for what they believe is the right thing to do.

Alex Proud also asks "Is growing up poor really that bad?". I would say No, growing up poor and becoming working poor may not be "that bad" in some respects, but how relentless that poverty can be and how grinding .Growing up poor gives children a sense of shame, guilt even that they do not have the money to take part in activities like their peers, or afford the clothes and modern day gadgets middle class children take for granted. Growing up poor can have the advantage that nothing is taken for granted and possessions are treasured. But then most poor children become poor adults. The never ending cycle of poverty affects their life chances. After having my home repossessed  in 1991 when interests rates rocketed to 15%, no one values space as much as I do after spending just shy of 3 years in a 1 room B+B  with a husband and 2 small children before being allocated a council house. Poor? I was virtually destitute at the time and experiences like mine and those of other working class people, need to be aired in our newspapers and on television in a rebuttal of articles like Mr Proud's.

So I applaud and trumpet the achievements of all working class people. Those in ordinary everyday jobs, and those who have made it big. The only "Shameless" people are those like Mr Proud who seek to denigrate us. We're working class, we're working proud.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Women : 4 years a Slave under this Government

As Cameron and Clegg are gearing up for further huge budget cuts should the Tories either singularly,or in coalition, gain power again in 2015, one thing is certain ; slashing of both social security and local services budgets will impact women more than any other group. With Duncan-Smith already arguing with Cameron to cut winter fuel allowances, bus passes and TV licenses from the elderly in 2015, larger groups of women will be hit. More headlines, more stats are produced daily on a seemingly never ending production line, telling women just how unimportant this Government thinks they are. While the posh boys line their male frontbench up at PMQs weekly, women are facing on the frontline, the consequences of their policies.

While Clegg blindly blunders on with his free school meals for all 5-6 year olds, even where schools have no kitchens (no planning at all, just unthinking populist policy) or children are the offspring of millionaire parents, working poor households lose out even more than poor households on free school lunches. Many working poor households like mine have always had to pay either for full cost hot  school lunches or a packed lunch. Sometimes when my four sons were all in school the cost for hot lunches was £2.50 per day per child, £10 for our family and £50 per week. Needless to say they took a packed lunch. I vividly remember on a few occasions when I could not stretch lunches for all four boys, and sent the older two to high school empty handed, with an excuse to tell any concerned teacher. I then had beans on toast waiting as they came through the door after school. The guilt was overwhelming, but the cupboard was bare and the younger two sons had to be put first. There are more working poor families facing this huge dilemma as their wages can't stretch to school lunches as well as breakfast and tea. On the whole women are shouldering this guilt. Robbing Peter to feed Paul literally.

Not surprisingly 42 Tory MPs are members of  the Free Enterprise group which advocates VAT on kids clothes, baby food and prescriptions. Liz Truss, the aptly named "childcare minister" is one of them! All in it together!

Affordable childcare has hit all women regardless of class, but working class women the most. Childcare prices have rocketed under the Coalition as the population expands rapidly and the Tories only solution has been to increase the child to staff ratios in nurseries ,so ultimately our children have poorer quality care as staff face more children to care for. In smaller towns and rural areas finding childcare at all is a problem in itself. Labour are courting working mums votes by offering 25 hours per week for nursery aged children free of charge, but I feel they could be bolder as many mums and dads feel the strain of  childcare costs, not just on their pre-school children, but on those aged 5-11 too. After having met Miliband myself and argued the case for affordable childcare for parents of disabled children, I feel this sector of parents has once again been left to rot. Many parents of disabled children would like to work even part time, but are stuck on Carers Allowance of £59pw as there are no childcare providers either willing, specialised enough, or affordable to take on a disabled child. And why should they take that child on a 1:1 when they can take 6 able bodied children and so reap the extra income from those children?

Local social services departments have been cut to the bone. Many women over 45 may also be caring for elderly relatives and day care centres allow them to work. However, these services are being cut and women my age are shouldering a huge burden often caring for sick elderly relatives and bringing up their own children too. Women suffering domestic violence will soon have nowhere to turn to as the rate of closures of refuges escalates weekly. Combine this with the catastrophic closure of Sure Start Centres and women are losing vital lifelines and being cast adrift by this Government who mock the services women value.

Stats reveal more women work in the public sector who are being made redundant, and women are taking the brunt in jobs like  shop work on either low or zero hours contracts and on the minimum wage. Single women are struggling to even rent as landlords refuse tenancies to those on unsteady
contracts. Banks won't even discuss a mortgage unless women can provide evidence of full time permanent work.

Universal Credit is designed to hit women the hardest. Single parents will be particularly singled out as allowances for U 25s are slashed and the enhanced disability premium is cut altogether. Young carers where mum is severely disabled will be particularly hit by this cut. Even in 2 parent families, only 1 parent is allowed to make the claim. If a woman is caught up in a controlling relationship, the other partner may make the claim and thus deprive the woman of access to money for herself and any children. The payment is also made monthly not weekly, so women may go through the month with no funds or be forced to turn to Foodbanks in desperation. A vicious circle of deprivation will result.

Any woman on maternity leave may find herself out of work if unscrupulous employers decide to sack her at this vulnerable time. Legal aid to take an employer to a tribunal has been abolished and it costs £1200: something the woman has to find herself or lose her job. Employers know this and can exploit the system.

As a member of the working poor myself, I have felt the attack and been part of the 4 years as a slave under this government. Osborne and co will no doubt throw a few bones off the table to keep us sweet for 2015. Don't be fooled.  Use your vote wisely in 2015 and don't fall for Farage and his male " blokes" either all looking to join Cameron in a coalition, in order to keep women as second class citizens for another 5 years.

Women have throughout time changed the course of history. Isn't it time we changed the next 5 years by booting out the posh boys and pretenders like Ukip and using our voices, our actions, to getting policies that benefit, protect and promote women? These 4 years have been the dark ages for women and history books in time will document this. No more slave years. Now is the time for drastic change.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Cameron,Clegg, Farage. Have you ever....?

....watched the news and heard yourselves pompously waffling on about what you "think"the electorate actually want? All I have heard you talk about recently is out of touch policies that may appeal to a tiny minority of millionaires, retired male middle classes, and squeezed parents wondering if they can still afford private education for their offspring. Take a good long hard look all of you into the ordinary UK, that each of you are desperately trying to claim to represent and answer some of these questions.

Have you ever...

  • Worked solidly for a month, get to the day all of your bills and direct debits are due to go out of the bank and felt a wave of relief when you have made it with less than £5 left until you receive your next child benefit. This will pay for a weekly shop - ish.
  • Felt the dread when your child brings home a school trip letter, knowing that if you say Yes then you will be robbing Peter to pay Paul for a couple of months, sweating to make sure your child doesn't miss out. You know for sure that the class bully will take great delight in having a go at the kids who can't afford to make the trip.
  • Been called by school AGAIN and asked to come in straight away as your disabled child with special needs is having a meltdown and you have to drop everything  to get there NOW! No employer will put up with this for school age children and no childminder/nursery wants to look after your disabled child on a 1-1 basis as it requires specialist staff with specialist skills at vast expense. Therefore the world of work is not an option and you are left claiming £59 pw Carers Allowance as your "work choices" do not exist.
  • Wondered how you are going to feed the family when there are 3 days left in the month or week before you get any more money and the fridge is bare? Have you ever raided down the back of the sofa looking for any 50ps or £1 coins that may have escaped because you know that will pay for a few rounds of beans on toast.
  • Sent your child or children to school with no dinner money as being a member of the working poor you cannot gain access to free school meals but likewise can't afford packed lunches or dinner money and give your child(ren) the excuse to say "It's ok I never get hungry at lunch time" if challenged by a teacher as to why they are not having a school lunch.
  • Been so grateful to your immigrant neighbour who did all they could to help you out during the recent winter storms when your wall fell down and tiles came off your roof. That neighbour was there in the thick of it, moving all the debris and helping you out.
  • Wondered if you could perhaps put the heating on for half an hour extra today. Would it make a big difference to the meter, but would that mean for that extra half an hour today, you will not be able to have the heating on tomorrow at all?
  • Had no choice but to pack your pride away and seek out professional help who will refer your family to a Foodbank for help as there is no food in the cupboard. Your benefit payment has been inexplicably delayed or you have been made redundant and have signed on the dole for the first time and your benefit will take over a month to be processed? The humiliation of asking for a food parcel handout is almost unbearable, but you have no other choice.
  • Phoned in work and had to pretend to be sick. You see the car needs petrol and you have run out, yet it is a couple of days to payday and you live over 10 miles from work. You have already borrowed money from relatives from last month for the exact same reason and have come to the end of your tether with the worry of it all. The stress of coping really IS making you ill. You have previously taken out a payday loan and don't want to be caught in that situation again.
  • Wondered whether full time permanent work will ever exist again. Your job is zero hours contracted and you are unable to even think about approaching the bank for a home loan as you could be fired at will by your employer at anytime.
  • Anxiously wondered whether you would be one of the lucky ones as the factory owners have announced that you and your fellow agency workers at the factory have a chance of applying for 5 permanent full time positions. There are 300 workers in the factory and 95% are zero hours contract agency staff like you.
  • Had to attend an ATOS/Capita PIP assessment and even though you have a lifelong disability or a disability that see you have more bad days than good, they have found you fit to work. Yet your GP and consultant both agree you would never be able to hold down a job due to the profound effects of your disability. You dread the brown DWP letters coming through the door as your only lifeline is your disability benefit. The stress of the waiting and assessments makes you more ill than you were previously.
  • Cried in anguish as the house you have lived in and called home for so long is now deemed "too big" for you and under the despicable bedroom tax you cannot afford to find the extra money to live there any longer so have to move out. For disabled people often they are moving out of an adapted home with 2 bedrooms to a 1 bed non- adapted home and the local council then has to spend ££££££s on adapting the new flat/house. Or there are no 1 bed homes in your area and you are wondering how to stay put and pay the extra £15pw and the stress is overwhelming.
  • Rushed your child to A+E and  stood in awe of the immigrant doctor who diagnosed and treated your child, and the immigrant nurse who nursed your child back to health. Felt eternally grateful you live in a country where the NHS is free and accessible when you needed it most.
  • Felt annoyed and angry with yourself as you understand the "politics of envy" that you Cameron are seeping into the public psyche, but sometimes you feel envy towards the unemployed who don't work or you feel yourself blaming immigrants for " taking all our jobs" The right wing media is doing such a biased hatchet job, that on occasion you get sucked in without thinking.
  • Had your home reposessed by the banks or become homeless. Sat with your kids in a one room B+B knowing it could be months before you are rehoused and even then, if you live in the London area you could face being moved miles away from your support network and family. 
  • You will also  face constant annual moves due to the benefit cap and soaring rent rises made by greedy landlords and so your whole life is centred around how long you will be able to stay in 
  • one place, and can your children cope with constant home and school moves.
  • Faced your bright, gifted son or daughter and explained to them the cost of a University education and the student loan they may face paying back for a lifetime. Stress yourself over whether you can support them in anyway during their time at University.
Cameron and Clegg : It is no surprise that on your joint watch all of the problems faced by ordinary members of the working class electorate have came about in the past 4 years. Recent mutterings  of a joint coalition between the Tories and Ukip in 2015 or a coalition with anyone Nick Clegg can sell his party to will only send shudders down working class spines.

Until any of you have experienced many of the problems highlighted above by ordinary people, don't even begin to think you know what we want from your government. At  this time Tories and LibDems we just want you out; and as for Farage and his far right elderly male Ukip party where women are second class citizens, we don't want you getting close to government. For that would be like the disaster we are putting up with now.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Behind the Boom in Self Employment: More Working Poor

Recently much has been made about new stats revealing a "surprise" boom in the numbers of the Self Employed. While various distinguished writers and newspaper reporters have grappled with  the rising stats and asked why there is such a large increase, no one has got behind those stats and revealed the people and reasons why they have become Self Employed. One in seven of the UKs workforce is now apparently Self Employed. This figure is a staggering 367,000 more than in 2008. Even more surprising is that 84% of the increase has been in people aged 50+ according to the ONS.  A third of the newly Self Employed are women.

Have we suddenly become a nation that is providing growing numbers of entrepreneurs or is there something a little more telling as I scratched the surface of who is becoming self employed and why?

Among the figures there will of course be people who have decided to use their skills to become self employed electricians, carpenters,  plumbers, but I uncovered vast numbers of people in the Sales Reps industry for example, who, until  a few years ago were earning £20-30 per month as "a bit extra" and were not registered with HMRC as self employed. All that has changed of course and now Avon, Kleeneze, Betterware sales reps have been told by HMRC to register as self employed however little they earn. I have personal experience as an Independent Avon  Sales rep. You earn income on your sales once every 3 weeks. You are given a couple of set roads to sell in, and are unable to sell outside these boundaries/territory, unless to personal friends. Predominantly women who are carers, or have health/disability problems or men who have been made newly unemployed themselves take up this work. You have to sell £500 worth of products to make £80 every 3 weeks on average and these are the successful reps! Most sell under £200 and  for example in January (the leanest month of the year for sales) if you sell less than £80 of products you get £0. You have to pay for all your own sales literature yourself like brochures, bags and sales tools.There is a very high turnover of reps, as the rewards are not very high unless you can sell to friends outside of the set road territory. HMRC did a campaign 2 years ago to get all Avon reps to register as self employed and told of the consequences of not doing so. Thus a vast army of reps, who are in the most part working poor, earning pittances, are added to the list of Self Employed.

The Government, not content with seeing people desperately scrabbling for low paid self employment  in a vain effort to put food on the table, are now intent on demonising them too. This has turned into a concerted effort to savage the low paid and  have the far right media raging over immigration, when they have found that those people selling The Big Issue are in fact self employed and many of them immigrants.The Big Issue sellers are people wanting to work, wanting to earn money and contribute to the economy. They pay £1 to buy the paper and sell it for £2. Very entrepreneurial, but not good enough for right wing newspapers who don't recognise it as a "proper job."Many Big Issue sellers are earning small amounts of money to get by and need working tax credit top ups, like the other 4 million working poor, but because they happen to be self employed, they are demonised further and scoffed at for not being in employment. What should they do? Swop self employment for zero hours contract employment  if they can get it or be further demonised as "scroungers" on the dole?

Many men who were previously employed as skilled electricians for example,in factories, have been made redundant or replaced by zero hours contract agency staff. Proud men who have always worked, rather than drag themselves down to Job Centres to sign on, have made the switch to become self employed handymen, who will turn their hand to any domestic household tasks and gardening work. I spoke to a friend who was forced to make this switch.

"Some weeks, especially in the winter I earn less than £100. But I have earnt it: hanging light fittings, painting rooms, even shopping for an elderly person. Whatever someone needs doing, I will do it. No work is beneath me and while I am working as a self employed handyman, my kids can see me going
 out to work each day knowing I am doing my best to house, feed and clothe them. I get working tax credits to make up my low pay and I don't want to be doing this for ever, but I will do what it takes to
work. This Government has no right to say someone like me is not working hard enough or that I should get a paid employed job on part time zero hours contracts. If a job as an electrician in a factory came up on a permanent full time contract I would take it, simple as. I need the security of knowing I can pay my rent and bills and zero hours cannot provide this."

Many people who are low paid and self employed have had no wage increases since 2010 and indeed many are taking pay cuts to keep themselves afloat. A huge anomaly here is when the Government say under Universal Credit, that if your self employment is not earning you a minimum income floor of £11k per year, they will force you to seek paid employment instead. Thus many millions of self
employed working poor, could end up unemployed instead! Yet another barmy idea to erupt from the ideology department at the DWP! The reality is that the self employed dearly want to stay self employed, even when their earnings are low, to give them self respect and not be thrown onto the dole scrapheap. Yet the harsh Government rhetoric is they are not working hard enough. The Tories in particular fail to realise that for the self employed there is no such thing as being able to demand the minimum wage, a set hourly rate in many cases or let alone a Living Wage!

Hauling the self employed into Job Centres every month, scrutinising their income and threatening them with unemployment, if they dare to claim Universal Credit, is indeed a policy only the Tories could dream up. The party that supposedly supports entrepreneurs, those who would rather work for any pay than have to sign on as unemployed, is a caricature of itself.  The mantra seems to be the Tories will support only those self employed  worthy enough to already be earning £££££s and not the self employed working poor. To threaten the working poor with the dole as an alternative is indeed one of the most ill thought out, far right, nasty party policies that makes no sense. But then combined with the policies on the sick, disabled and vulnerable members of society, we have come to expect the idiotic from Cameron and co. Policies first thought out on the playing fields at Eton cannot be further from the reality of ordinary people's experiences. The self employed working poor are now a small army. We deserve better from an economy and Government that is supporting low pay, and "getting something for next to nothing" culture for our services. Come 2015 we have the power to vote this Government out. Hopefully the Labour Party will recognise  what a valuable resource the self employed are and support us, not punish us for working.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Unite Arm Community Activists with Tools to fight Austerity

Empowerment. Closely followed by Inspirational, Educational and Fired Up are all key feelings I came away with, after spending  two days on community courses with Unite the Union in Cardiff recently.

Unite are avant-garde in their thinking to open up membership of the union to ordinary people like me, who don't work in the typical unionised workplaces you associate traditionally with union membership. Mums, the unemployed, the disabled, the retired, the self employed are all being offered membership and access to courses, to equip people in the wider community to fight the dreadful cuts that this governments forced austerity are imposing on us all.

Many ordinary people face barriers to participation on courses and most of these barriers are financial. Unite recognise this, and help out with rail travel and lunches for example. The barriers melt away and allow the individual  community member access and participation. For people like myself, this support is vital, or we literally are unable to take part due to being poor and/or working poor.

I attended courses in Community Activism and Public Speaking. Barry the Unite tutor for both courses, explained succinctly that people in the community are extremely worried about a variety of austerity measures from The Bedroom Tax to the closure of local swimming pools libraries and youth clubs. Often, although people have the passion to fight to influence or stop these attacks on our communities, they lack the skills and tools to campaign effectively. Barry explained for example, with public speaking that for the likes of Cameron, Osborne etc public debating is part of their expensive Eton education that is not taught in state schools. Thus, confronted with posh boys who have been equipped with the tools to speak publically and debate, often ordinary community activists are immediately put on the back foot, as they lack these skills and have not been taught how to campaign and talk in public to any skilled degree.

From the start of the courses, there was an excited air of expectation that once we had the "keys to unlock the doors" we would be in a position within our communities to effect change, fight back, and be in a much more advantaged place to take on the dark right wing forces whose mantra is "Austerity for the Poor Only" Many people on the course were there to learn how to campaign for their particular community cause. There were 3 grandmothers who were bringing up their own grandchildren and were full time carers, often with disabled grandchildren and were getting no support from government or their local councils. They had set up a group to campaign for more support and for more rights and recognition of the fact they save the Government thousands in care costs. The group were self funding with very little resources. They approached Unite, who apart from offering the course, allowed the group to meet in the Unite building every month for no cost and also helped out with printing their promotional posters and leaflets. Thus the ladies on the course were beginning to feel more empowered, and that the ball was shifting slightly back into their court and the feelings of hopelessness were supplanted with bright hopes for the future. Again "empowerment" and  the tools to fight back will see this group make headway in their battle to  get grandparents raising grandchildren in the spotlight with their council and big government.

Throughout the first day we were taught how to plan campaigns from the outset, and look for skill sets within our campaign group.Also researching exactly who holds the power to make decisions about our cause and who to approach. Publicising our cause on the variety of media we now have from newspapers to twitter was also a key element as well as the more traditional methods of door-knocking, banners and posters were explored. We were given practical help on petitioning and lobbying the decision makers and organising our group into a very effective campaign team who would now have all the tools to fight the social injustices all around us.

On Day 2 we tackled the tricky subject of Public Speaking. Many people are terrified of standing up in front of a crowd and delivering an effective, exhilarating inspiring speech and getting the message out about our cause/belief and getting the crowd to act upon our message. For me, with the articles I write on austerity and being asked to speak to groups, it was vital that I could unlock the door to the same type of help, advice and support that union activists, politicians etc get, in order to get my message across on the impact of austerity in our communities. We were shown different speeches and critiqued them and were given valuable resources on how  to construct and deliver a successful public speech. Everything was explained in fine detail from coping with nerves to answering questions at the end of the speech from the audience.

Speaking to other community members on the course and also workplace union members on the Public Speaking course showed the diverse reasons  and causes as to why we had all decided to participate. What underlined our causes and reasons was one factor: the devastating impact of the coalitions austerity policies on individuals and the communities we live in. The real hunger to be able to fight back was very evident. The end result was of satisfaction that we were getting the tools to enable that  fight back. To know that with Unites support we can now return to our communities, impart our knowledge and make that fight back happen.

Unite and other unions are demonized in the right wing press on a weekly basis. If educating ordinary working class people to have an impact in their local communities on youth club, library and other facilities closures is wrong, "ultra left wing" or "radical" then the Tory press should hang their heads in shame. Communities need this education and skills set.

Empowerment. Or as I like to see it "Kicking down the doors and barriers to fight social injustice." Our fight comrades in the community v austerity is a worthy one. Start your own fight today.

* Special thanks to Barry (course tutor) and Jo Galazka (Community Co-Ordinator Cardiff) at Unite for enabling our empowerment

**Unite Communities already have 40 branch groups throughout the UK and are expanding rapidly with community co-ordinators in most areas including Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland as well as UK regions. To contact someone in your area for more information on courses and getting involved  phone or email: Liane Groves 07793 661 657 : who will put you in touch with your regional co-ordinator

Friday, 7 February 2014

Female MP Debate: Is there room for Poor and Working Poor Candidates?

Ed Miliband ridiculed the Coalition by pointing to the frontbench at PMQs, where not a single female MP sat, just a long line of Bullingdon boys and middle class suits. Labour can boast 81 female MPs which equates to 31% of the Labour intake: something Miliband says he will not rest over, until women account for 50% of the party. Admirable stuff from Labour, but perhaps to delve further would be beneficial.

There are no official stats for how many female MPs from all parties either come from or are, upper class, middle class, working poor or poor. Shame. For then the real truth would be uncovered. Back in the 1970s many Labour MPs, male of course, came from working class skilled backgrounds such as Dennis Skinner (miner). In 1979 40 % of Labour MPs had come from manual or clerical work previously. In 2010 this figure had drastically reduced to 9%. Currently a staggering 60% of coalition government ministers attended fee paying schools compared to the 7% of  the population they claim to represent.

Miliband seems very keen to change the faces of the Labour Party to at least half being female. But my question is how many of those faces will come from poor or working poor backgrounds? The Labour Party needs to house a broad church of MPs from all backgrounds to be truly representative of the people they make policies for. However, if you glance over the current crop of Labour female MPs most will have a few designer labels in their wardrobes, pick up their weekly shop online at Waitrose, and don a Barbour coat to walk the dog in at weekends. Dinner parties will be the order of the day over a few bottles of red. There are great role model exceptions like  Washington and Sunderland West MP Sharon Hodgson, but she is in a minority.

I receive many emails and communications from people lamenting the fact that Labour does not speak for them any longer. The reason being quite simply: " Labour does not walk in my shoes or live my life. It does not understand my struggle. Its MPs cannot begin to know what it's like to need a Foodbank." Does the Labour Party want more poor and working poor MPs?  Would it want, for example, a 40+ mum of four, like myself, who has experienced life as a full time carer for a disabled child, had a home reposessed in the early 1990s and lived in a 1 room B+B for 3 years, can talk about seeing your son forced into working in a factory as agency staff on a zero hours contract in a coastal seaside town where even seasonal work is considered " a good job", window shops at M+S but shops in Matalan and Poundland?  I am completely ordinary in my circle of life, but would stand out like a sore thumb in Westminster, with not even a high street power suit to my name.

Aside from the young female MPs with their glossy hair and  designer labels, is there an actual need for  MPs who may perhaps live in a council house, be a full time carer, work shifts in an old peoples home, or struggle as a single parent to make ends meet? From my experience, yes, yes and yes again! The electorate are fed up of not being represented by people who "know what it's like". Talking to their MP at the local constituency office, simply reinforces their belief that many MPs have no idea of circumstances people are suffering, when they are confronted by middle class socialists with sloany vowels. Perhaps I am being too general here, but for every committed, local, down-to-earth MP like the Grahame Morris' Ian Mearns and Sharon Hodgsons, there are far more MPs coming from a background of PR/ Marketing/Banking than is representative of the electorate who vote for them.

I and many others would love to see Labour Female MPs who know the cost of a value loaf, can cook for a large family on a budget and wouldn't know a bottle of house red from a claret! An MP who knows the problems facing people forced to visit Foodbanks, and speaks out to stop the outrage. An MP who doesn't just visit their local school, but KNOW the problems facing both children, teachers and parents under Gove's tyrannical reign, as her children are experiencing it too. An MP who can actively seek radical change for disabled people suffering under ATOS and campaign for more specialised childcare for disabled children, because she is either disabled herself or is bringing up a disabled child. There needs to be as many of this type of MP, as there are those with more priveledged backgrounds.

Then and only then, will the Labour Party become representative of the population. Radical idea perhaps for Ed Miliband. But a vote winner as women are second class citizens in the Tory party. Make it happen Ed and election victories are yours.