Saturday, 28 December 2013

2013: The relentless rise of the Working Poor

Even a year ago the phrase "Working Poor" was not widely used. There have always been  historically low paid workers, both employed and self employed, such as hospital porters, cleaners, sales reps and unskilled factory workers. While home ownership and a foreign holiday every year may have alluded this group in the main, the common bond we all share is that work used to pay more than being unemployed. Work meant bills were paid and there was enough money for the odd meal out, a night in the pub, a basic weeks holiday for the family,  household items replaced when broken or new items needed and perhaps  a few pounds a week squirrelled away in a Christmas savings club. In fact the very people lauded by John Major and the Tories back in the early 1990s as people doing their best to get by. Then we were "low paid workers" Now we are the army that is rising relentlessly under this Coalition : the Working Poor.

What does it mean to be "Working Poor"? Different people will have different views. For some it will mean that after paying bills there is virtually nothing left over each month anymore. Others will inform you that being working poor means you can no longer afford treats for the children and the latest trainers, clothes like their classmates, no extra curricular activities like cinema visits. At the foot of the scale some working poor will tell you of their visits to Foodbanks as after paying bills there is no money left for food. This is exasperated if you have children as the working poor are not entitled to free school meals. Nick Clegg is bringing in universal free school meals for reception class children. All very well that millionaires children get free school meals when older working poor children get nothing..

Being working poor makes you feel resentful. Despite being a socialist  I am given to human frailties and sometimes I feel resentful of the unemployed. I know the Government are tricking me into feeling like this. It's the old maxim of setting us against each other in our struggles. Who is more worthy of help Poor v Working Poor, Old v Young, Sick v Disabled, British v Immigrant. I get it and have had it rammed down my throat for nearly 4 years of the coalition. I admit that when I am frantically trying to pay the mortgage, utility and transport bills, feed the family and pay for school lunches I have envied the unemployed who have had their rent paid and free school lunches. But then I immediately think of the Bedroom Tax on the shoulders of the council tenants and the desperation of those poor forced to visit Foodbanks and my politics of envy disintegrates. We are all worthy of Government support in austere times equally. My task is to make sure that message is heard loud and clear.

2013 and indeed the outlook for 2014 is fearful. Whereas now a new carpet for the lounge is needed, the bathroom needs redecorating, our garden wall collapsed in the recent storms and needs rebuilding and the outside paintwork of the house needs re-doing - none of which we can afford,- how long until the bills cannot be covered on our low pay, our food bill has to be cut to the bone, and  a holiday is a thing of the past? Like a gerbil going faster and faster, round and round on its toy wheel, so we, the working poor are trying harder to stand still. The language being spewed from the mouth of the DWP is that of more sanctions, more hardship, more rules; firstly for the unemployed and then it will be the turn of the working poor. While John Major and a few backbench Tories and the  BrightBlue thinktank urge Cameron to give out more positive messages and support the working poor, Iain Duncan-Smith and the DWP seem set on a collision course to demonise the low paid. Under Universal Credit the mantra seems to be "If you are low paid, you must get a better job or take on another job" to increase your income. If self employed like my household, if you do not earn £11k per year you will be given a few months to increase your earnings. If you do not, you will be stripped of self employment, switched to JSA and forced to seek employment. Working is not enough. You must gain employment that lifts you entirely out of the tax credit system and thus out of being working poor. This is the fairyland Duncan-Smith exists in. The idea that there are jobs available for all low paid workers to take them out of being low paid is farcical to anyone who has a brain, just the same as saying there are enough jobs for all the unemployed. Only IDS believes this mantra.

So what can the Working Poor look forward to in 2014? Relatively little. Once the DWP under the stewardship of IDS have made the lives of the unemployed unbearable and Foodbank use a complete norm for anyone on benefit, it will be our turn next. The message will be that we should be doing more work for more money. Ed Miliband has stated that if Labour gain power in 2015 he will set up a  board to look in detail at how Universal Credit will be implemented. We can only hope that demonising the working poor is not on the agenda and the draconian methods employed by Duncan-Smith will be scrapped. Then the low paid either continue to be supported in the form of tax credits or better still Miliband is successful in bringing in a Living Wage for those both employed and self employed.

This army is getting bigger daily and feeling more ostracised by this Government than ever before. I know of Tory voting low paid workers who really believed the mantra of "hard working people doing the right thing". They believed they were in that club of  "strivers" - cleaning streets during hours David Cameron was asleep behind closed curtains. Now they feel desperate, unable to pay bills and feed families and have some kind of life other than low paid soulless work many people would not do. Many of them have to care for sick or disabled family members on top of their low paid work too. Thankfully many of them have seen the light and won't be voting Tory in 2015. But they need to know there is a socialist Labour Party who will protect them. Let's have some firm policies on the
working poor, not promises of a board of people to look at how Universal Credit will be implemented and how the working poor will be dealt with post 2015.

I will be telling the Labour Party what I expect from them to gain my vote. It's not a given. My vote is too precious for that. I hope the rest of the Working Poor Army will do the same.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Working Poor Christmas...

November. My husband and I gathered the boys around for a talk about Christmas. Well, not so much about Christmas but about Christmas finances. Being a large family with 4 sons, we have always told them the truth about what we can and what we cannot do as regards presents in the past. Brand new games consoles that come out in time for December have never been a priority.. We have bought a console or two in the past when they have been plentiful the year after, rather than promising the new pricey version for Christmas.

But our talk this year for 2013 has been a little different. Scrap that. To be truthful it has been blunt and to the point. The money is not there to do the "full works" any longer and pay the December bills. Our boys are old enough to understand that mortgages have to be paid in December too, as well as the utility bills and council tax. I have made up a "December Budget" sheet and as a family we decided which items on the list were higher priority than others and which things could be scrapped altogether.

We put the bill budget to one side as we all agreed no payments would be missed. Everyone saw my point that a bill missed in December would be hanging round our necks in the New Year. There would be no loans from anywhere, as we have booked a summer holiday to Scotland as a treat for the post GCSES our younger boys are taking and we need to pay for that. Christmas 2013 will be done on the money we have.

Christmas cards that needed posting were discussed. We agreed to cut this to the bone and phone people to say why. This has worked as the same people said it was a relief to them too as postage is so high. Normally we post large parcels to my sisters families and children, but agreed vouchers would be sent instead.  We explained to grandparents that we are not in a position this year to do what we have done in the past with £50 average spend on interflora arrangements or luxury jumpers etc. Smaller gifts would be given and we told them  to spend a minimum amount on the boys as they are older now.

We agreed the younger boys at school could attend Christmas parties and the like, but my husband and I would turn our invitations down for meal nights etc. The expense on these nights was a luxury
that we can no longer afford or prioritise.Cinema or a theatre trip was also considered excessive and was cut likewise. There are four close family members with birthdays over Christmas and early January. Normally a birthday card containing money or a gift card would be sent. Instead, we agreed it would again be necessary to phone and explain that a birthday card only would be sent this year due to our circumstances. It risked upsetting family, but it had to be done and faced.

We all decided the actual Christmas Day feast and extras like chocolates, mince pies, cream, cheeseboard, crackers were more important than Christmas presents. It is probably easier to deal with 4 sons like mine who are older, than younger children who want to see dozens of presents lined up on Christmas morning, but again talking to children and asking them what their priorities are is a real
incite. The boys agreed that smaller, cheaper gifts were less important than the merriment of the day itself, so the present budget was cut accordingly. I am very astute  at shopping in stores from Aldi- Tesco - M+S for the Christmas food shop to get basics and the nicer Christmas foods on offer, but it was agreed we should shop just enough for the set days we needed ie Dec 23rd - Dec 27th as the supermarkets will be open again after Boxing Day. Every year we have tended to buy too much fresh food and so this year we will buy exactly what is needed for the few days, then more after the 27th. There will be a donation to the local Foodbank as we firmly hold the belief that "there but for the grace of  God go I".... If IDS gets his way about low income self employed being forced to move to JSA under Universal Credit, if they don't earn the minimum income floor of 11k, we may indeed be future Foodbank clients ourselves.

My husband said he would slash the Christmas drinks budget. In the past he would buy a full range of
spirits in case guests turned up unexpectedly as well as a few crates of beer. This year he will buy a
bottle of whiskey and a crate of beer as we are not expecting anyone. This decision was not popular
with our older boys, but acknowledged as a necessary budget cut.

New Years Eve will be spent at home. The sheer expense of a NYE night out is not on our horizon.
The older boys aged 24 and 21 will go out as they both work and are of the age to enjoy and look forward to NYE, but the rest of us will stay at home with a DVD or two. We
are even cutting out the Radio Times expense as it is over £3 to buy. Staying in on NYE also
eliminates the expense of new clothes and a trip to the hairdressers, something I never used to think
about pre 2010.  Likewise a couple of nights in the pub over Christmas week, a nice day out on the N Wales Coast where we live and a Christmas pub lunch with the boys are now off the list. Memories of what we used to be able to do as well as paying bills hit home. Not extravagant excesses, just a Christmas that made life and work worthwhile. A time when work paid for a few extra treats at Christmas time. Of course I am aware that our choices are not as anywhere near difficult as those people facing heat or eat this Christmas, and who are already in  rent arrears or moving out due to bedroom tax or will be visiting Foodbanks this year. But  I do know that in future we are only a few steps away from being in that situation unless there is a change in Government and policies protecting the Working Poor and disabled.

I am hoping quality family time makes up for the budget cuts necessary this year. We don't like making them, but we believe that by being truthful with the children, it is better than owing WONGA and the loan companies huge debts in the new year. I feel bitter that even though we work, it has been made necessary to make swingeing cuts to our family Christmas while Cameron, Osborne and Clegg
 will no doubt be choosing between the goose, swan or pheasant or enjoying all three for Christmas lunch. Being self employed there is no one to turn to in order to demand a minimum or a Living Wage. My husbands overall cost for DJ'ing  a party night hasn't risen in 10 years! He will also be working over the entire Christmas fortnight. The days when a premium could be expected to work Christmas Eve and NYE are gone. Many landlords of pubs/clubs will not pay larger amounts any longer, and simply cut entertainment altogether if faced with a higher price for those nights.

We always thought being self employed, caring for our sons and our youngest who is autistic was
enough to keep us from poverty. I fear poverty has arrived and becoming an increasing reality in 2014 for many Working Poor families like mine. Trouble is, the belts have been tightened. If our standard of living falls again next year, there will be no difference in working and not working at all. I would think that statement alone would ring alarm bells in the DWP. If work makes you poor, people will question whether working is worthwhile. This is the depth to which this Government has plummeted to. A modern Britain where work no longer pays bills, feeds families and allows for a basic holiday and the odd treat and a comfortable Christmas.
Merry Christmas Mr Cameron.. Enjoy your Christmas lunch on the backs of the Poor.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Inside the Supermarket Christmas Foodbank Appeals....

Saturday at my local Tesco. Tesco have teamed up with The Trussell Trust to allow local TT Foodbanks to stand front of store, and ask shoppers to donate items for the local Community from a small list each interested shopper was given, on one of three days between Nov 29- Dec 1st.

Tesco were doing their bit. A huge selection of their value basics range was on show, so shoppers could instantly grab items ranging from value orange juice to value cereal and put it in with their shopping; and after checkout then put the items into the donation marked trollies. Customer service staff were wheeling them away to the storage area and then apparently Tesco will match whatever is donated with 30% more.

Sounds fine in theory. But as I stood talking to the Foodbank volunteers, watching our MP turn up to promote the event, and then watching shoppers scurrying past, I felt uncomfortable on many fronts.

The Tesco literature and the tabards each volunteer wore did not mention the word "Foodbank" only the following "Together we can help feed people in need and build a stronger neighbourhood". On the tabards were tiny mentions of Fareshare and Trussell Trust. TT as we know are the trust behind the setting up of Foodbanks across the UK. I felt annoyed that the word Foodbank had been omitted from Tesco literature. I asked a Tesco employee about it.

"The food donated is going to the local Foodbank (I will dispute this fact later) but perhaps the term was too emotive for management to use. The words community and neighbourhood were probably felt to be more appealing to those people who wish to donate."

My view is a more cynical one: borne out of 3 years of the Coalition Government. Foodbank use has soared unmercifully since 2010. Using the term Foodbank was probably seen by Tesco to be too political a word to use yet in reality the food donated was indeed going to one!

The volunteers on the day I was there, were all elderly genteel folk, who were asking very politely to everyone who came through the doors whether they would like to donate.

 I asked where the food was going to.

"To the local Foodbank." Said the TT co-ordinator.
"Are you certain?" I asked . "the local Foodbank that serves this town and Rhyl down the road is independent and not run by the TT. Will they benefit from 3 days of donations?"
"Well We are from a Foodbank in the same county but as the local Foodbank is not TT or
part of the FareShare scheme they will not benefit from the collection at all sorry."

The Foodbank that was collecting was actually 15 miles away from the local community/neighbourhood of my own town and the Tesco supermarket.The local community of people in need therefore would not benefit at all by the food donations. I told both Tesco and the TT volunteers I was unhappy that neither of them were pointing this out to local people. Personally I am not bothered that my donation was feeding a family 15 miles away, but I thought that people donating foodstuffs should be in receipt of the full facts that this food would not benefit the neighbourhood and town that this Tesco is located in.

Independent Foodbanks, and my local one told me the reason they remain independent is to have control over the amount of help they give people. Ours for example do not have set rules on the amount of a times a parcel can be given. They receive referrals on the basis of need and much of that need is ongoing and they do not refuse people this help.

Back in Tesco, things were not going well. The elderly volunteers were trying hard to get people to donate but in a very subtle way.. Obviously they had a remit that they could not hassle people. A few
shoppers walked past, heads bowed to avoid being asked, but some openly said "I'm not donating to scroungers" or "People should get a job" and then walked off. Being younger I challenged a few people saying:
"Do you know 80,000 children will wake up homeless and in a B+B on Christmas Day?"
"Do you realise under this government  half a million people will need help from Foodbanks this year compared to 24,000 in 2008?"
"Think how you would feel if you had an accident, a divorce, an illness and you may be forced to claim a state benefit. Imagine that benefit takes six weeks to come through and you have nothing. That's where a Foodbank comes in!"
I got very angry and worked up, not by the people who stopped and said "Sorry but I literally have no spare cash myself for shopping". I actually admired their honesty. But it was the well heeled people who walked on by that upset me most. At times I felt almost Bob Geldof-ish and wanted to shout:
"Give me your f***ing tins!" But couldn't in the confines of the shop.

I turned my attention to the mountains of value everyday basics food on promotion for those who wished to donate. A pile of white tins, packets, jars that screamed "This food is only worthy for the
poor!" Lying in the donated food trollies the anaemic looking tins angered me more. I asked the customer service advisor why Tesco thought their value range only was suitable for donation and on

"Shoppers may not have a lot of money themselves. We are showing them that a tin of beans, a carton of  value juice can be donated with little cost, and people needing Foodbanks are desperate anyway..."

Hardly containing myself I went around  the shop. I came across the tinned fruit aisle. One tin of value orange segments was 32p, yet at 43p Tesco branded orange segments were on a Buy One Get one Free so for 11p more 2 tins could be donated and of  better quality too. A 1kg box of Family Kelloggs cornflakes was on offer at £2 yet the value box at a third of the size was 86p and worse tasting. After having flung in branded items and paid I brought my donated goods to the  volunteers.

"How kind" one said.
"Not kind at all." I said." There are special offers in this store that donators could be pointed to. My kids like Kelloggs cereal so why shouldn't a child whose parents receive a Foodbank parcel enjoy the same quality? Come to think of it, why aren't Christmas type items like small selection boxes, shampoo, shower gel, on this list? Even toys for children. Baby food, baby milk, nappies, sanitary towels, soap, toothpaste.. The list goes on. Do people at Foodbanks not need these things too? Even pet food. Pets still have to be fed or they end up at the RSPCA!"
"We have to stick to the list given, but people are welcome to donate such items if they wish." Said the volunteer.
"But nobody is telling them this information" I sighed. "Tesco are making a fortune out of all this
promoted value basics range being sold over 3 days too, yet they are only matching it by 30%. Whatever happened to the Christmas spirit? A 100% matched donation would not make a dent in their profits,"

Why was there no one either from Trussell Trust or Tesco educating people front of store about the huge rise in Foodbank or forgive me Community Neighbourhood food need? Educating people and getting the wider message out on Foodbanks at this time is almost as crucial as feeding the people in need!

As I put my donated goods into the Foodbank trolley I could almost hear David Cameron laughing at me. You see you and I are "Big Society" in action. We are feeding people Cameron's government have turned their backs on. Yet my feeling of guilt and those of other donators are what is being relied upon. Local communities will not let local people starve and that is the bottom line.

If you are donating to a local Foodbank this Christmas, ask questions. Even ask to volunteer. A lot of volunteers are retired persons and maybe would welcome younger people who may have the mouth, or passion to help those in desperate need of food. This year 2013 we are aghast Foodbank use has risen to 500,000 people. Will we be disgusted or simply shrug when that figure reaches 1 million in years to come? I will be shouting from the rooftops - 'Why do we need Foodbanks in one of the richest countries in the world?'

Monday, 25 November 2013

Poverty Street -Stories behind the Bins with no Shame...

Rhyl. The town on the N Wales Coast by me that gets the worse press. The screaming headlines Mail-esque of "Benefit Town" "Ghetto Town" "Benefits -by-the-sea" and all that nonsense. Stats are trotted smoothly and disgustingly off the tongue while Tories shake their heads at the town with the highest percentage of people on JSA, the highest percentages of sick and disabled people, and the home of the most deprived council ward in Wales and probably pretty high up on the UK table too.

But while the headlines blast out these stats and headlines, they see little and know nothing of the people behind them. I spent time on a random street in Rhyl and will tell you the real stories.

The first thing that strikes me is the once proud huge 6/7/8 bedroom former B + B's which dominate the street. When Rhyl and the British seaside holiday were in fashion in the 1960's you can imagine the hanging baskets, pure white net curtains and scrubbed doorsteps as owners welcomed in the holidaymakers. Fast forward to 2013 and on both sides all I can see are houses of multiple occupancy. The houses are divided into 3 or even 4 flats and open out directly onto the street with just the tiniest of space between front door and pavement. In these spaces are squeezed the various recycling and waste bins but I notice they are allocated per house not per family and so you could have 4 families all having to use the 1 bin for each option -recycling/plastic waste/Greenwaste/FoodWaste. As I walked along every single bin had been uncollected with huge notices and tags left by the bin men saying each bin was contaminated with different kinds of waste and needed to be sorted out before collection could be made.

Marie lives in a first floor flat with her partner Josh and toddler daughter. I ring the bell and she invites me up. The living room is spacious but I immediately notice all the Christmas decorations up and a Christmas tree, minus fairy lights.

"Don't laugh about the Christmas decorations"she says, "We put them up early to brighten the place up a bit. It just makes the place a bit less miserable.. I bought the tinsel at a local charity shop and the baubles on the tree. My mum had an old tree from years ago she didn't want so passed it on to us. We can't afford the fairy lights - no point adding that on to our electric anyway. We have 2 days a week as it is without electric, just can't keep feeding the pre-payment meter."

I  am guilty as charged for ridiculing houses for putting up Christmas decorations in November. Whenever I drive past in the car as a passenger, I always point them out and wonder why people do it. I shall now think twice.

Marie and Josh both work part time and juggle childcare between them - both in the same supermarket at 16 hours a week each. Josh is constantly searching for full time work but can't find
any. Marie tells me that he would get another part time job if he could be confident that his shifts were the same every week in his supermarket job, but they change constantly. Their rent on this 1 bed flat is £570 a month. They both feel they would be better off not working so they could claim full Housing Benefit for the rent. I mention the benefit cap which they are unaware of.

"Every time we feel we are going forward we seem to take 2 steps back. We simply can't afford to pay the rent, heat the flat for 7 days a week, and buy nice food. I end up looking for the most filling food like £1 pizzas in Iceland and £1 bags of frozen chips. Whatever anyone says meat and vegetables cost a lot more."

Marie wants to move out of the flat for somewhere with a garden for her daughter,  but she tells me that even though bungalows are in huge supply on the Coast and the rents about the same as the flat, she worries about larger energy bills, council tax bills etc.

As she shows me out, I point to the uncollected bins, overflowing with different types of waste in the
wrong bins.

"There are 4 families in this house. We need 4x the bins, but at the end of the day we have just got too much more to worry about. The council send someone round to educate us about what goes in each
bin, but when the bins are full, everyone just crams in where they can. It's annoying as the rubbish is overflowing and the bin men won't take it, but to be honest we have all got far more important things to worry about."

Further down the street, I meet Eileen and her husband Steve.They live in a ground floor flat of one of the formerly grand B+B houses. Steve has multiple illnesses and disability. Eileen cares for him. They too have some Christmas decorations up in the window. " It makes the flat more cheery" says Eileen. They are both in their 50's.
" What's life like living here?" I ask.
"Hell!" Says Steve. " We are the only British people living in this place. The families above are from Poland, Romania and the Phillipines. The Romanians keep gathering on the stairs and outside right in front of our flat until the early hours. It keeps us awake. They don't seem to understand the concept of inviting visitors into their own front room. The Filipinos are hard workers and so are the Polish. Their children are very polite, but ..."
" Kids will be kids" says Eileen. " Laughing, shouting and so on. They have no garden, but then neither do we. We're just living on top of each other. We're on the waiting list for a bungalow or ground floor flat, but the list is huge.'

"What are your thoughts on the Government and the housing situation? Have disability changes
affected you" I ask.

"We get worried every time a brown envelope comes through the door. It's always summoning Steve to yet another interview, whether it's the job centre or housing. We like Sundays. No post on a Sunday."

Next door I meet Michelle, a divorced single mum to two boys. Michelle tells me that recently while her split from her ex- husband was going through and she applied for income support for the first time and had to move out of her house and into this flat, it took 5 weeks for the Job Centre to sort things out. That was 5 weeks with nothing. Her parents lent her some money, but after 2 weeks, she was referred to the local Foodbank as she had no money for food or fuel.

"People don't understand just how rock bottom your life is, to have no food and be asking a Foodbank for a food parcel to feed your own kids. I had gone from having my own home to a miserable flat, lost my ex-husbands income, to applying for benefit. I have every intention of looking for a job, but the split and the move has had a huge impact on me and the boys, they just need me to be there for
some stability for a few months. I can then get on my feet and try to improve our lives. "

"Did you have any idea it would be this difficult to claim benefit?" I ask.

"No idea at all. There is a women's group in Rhyl who helped me with the forms and told me what I was entitled to, but the wait for assessment is too long. I really was on the edge of life, just clinging
on for those 5 weeks. The Foodbank was fantastic and helped me through those weeks and kindly even put some electricity cards in my meter. Their volunteers even put a few packets of sweets in for the kids. I can't thank them enough. "

I can tangibly see, hear and feel her desperation. In life, events take place that throw us out of keel. It maybe illness, divorce, disability. At these times we turn to the state for assistance. But now that state under this Coalition Government are turning their back on vulnerable people in their time of greatest need.

As I walked back down the grim street, the overwhelming sense of "It shouldn't be like this" gripped me. Why haven 't successive governments ploughed council house sales into new build social housing so Eileen and Steve can live in a bungalow in a quiet close? They need a more peaceful existence in pleasant surroundings. There will be huge cultural differences between Brits and Immigrants. Where are the support and integration services that are needed? Why have we got to the stage that two working parents, Maria and Josh don't have enough money for fuel? They work! And why is the Government doing nothing about the sheer scale of Part Timers who cannot find Full Time Work? Why is it taking months to assess people for benefit in a time of crisis in their lives when they urgently need support? And the question I ask continually "Why are Foodbanks operating on such a large scale? A scale so large they will be forced to feed 500,000 people shortly?"

This Government is abdicating all responsibility to voluntary support networks to feed, clothe, house and advise people in their darkest hours. It is mine and your responsibility to stop them. Until we do or there is a tangible change of Government in 2015 millions more will suffer. In fact, as I write Iain Duncan-Smith is looking to scrap the Work Related Activity Group of people on ESA who are currently too ill to look for work. He wants to put 550,000 sick people straight onto JSA whether they are fit for work or not.

There are thousands of Poverty Streets throughout the UK. Think twice before judging them. There are desperate stories behind those overflowing bins.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Don't forget Parents of Disabled Children in Childcare Revolution!

Ed Miliband is certainly talking the language that working parents need to hear. It is most welcome to know there will be increases in childcare provision hours from 15-25 hours per week for all 3+4 year olds under a Labour Government 2015. With the sheer vandalism of closing Gordon Browns Sure Start Centres and the new mantra of "let's get 2 year olds into education" this Government has made it clear  there is a greater educational and childcare apartheid between rich and poor children than ever before.

Ed Miliband  has his ear to the ground and knows working parents, and especially working poor parents need more childcare provision and at an affordable cost. It is a popular policy and one the Labour Party will be pushing at parents in the run up to 2015.

But Ed, you need to be bold. You need to go a step further. You need to offer parents of disabled children the same level playing field of work opportunities as those with able bodied children.

Take my case Ed. I have 4 sons and worked up until the arrival of my final son. Our world changed when this child was diagnosed as autistic. Work stopped. Caring duties and the pittance of carers Allowance (currently £59pw) kicked in big time. My husband went self employed to juggle all the interventions and drive us to medical appointments, therapy appointments and education appointments. Outside of this, we realised our son would only maximise his life chances with expert input.. And that input was just us, his parents while he was under 5. Granted he is nearly 15 and Blair was in the first stages of his childcare policies back in 1999, but there was no choice.

I would have thought by now, 2013, there would be choice for parents of disabled children but sadly no. We are locked into 24/7 care on £59pw Carers allowance with little respite and no time to find an employer who will be flexible enough to let us run home in an emergency, or more importantly a low cost childcare provider who has expertise in dealing with our sons particular disability.

Sure there are general childminders, but who is going to take on a disabled child who needs 1-1 care in many circumstances when they can take on 6 children? If you find a childminder who is willing, do they have experience and a qualification in dealing with a disabled child? Do they have experience of looking after a child with your disabled child's disability?  Will they charge the same as they do for looking after an able bodied child? Most probably not.

Nurseries. They do not provide anywhere near the 1-1 provision a disabled child needs. And with this government watering down the staff to child ratio , many parents of disabled children will be alarmed there could be as many as 8 children to 1 staff member.

The care doesn't change when the disabled child hits 5. Some are in mainstream school, others in special schools. Call outs to attend meltdowns or the like are common. Would an employer understand? Childcare for able bodied children tends to end at 11/12 years of age on entry to High School. Childcare doesn't end there for parents of disabled children. We need that care to continue to even post  18+. It is expensive and scarce. We parents are rightly more precious over our disabled children than our able bodied children, and need reassurance our disabled child will thrive in a childcare environment.

So Ed I implore you. Be bold, be radical. You would be the first party leader to offer disabled children's parents an opportunity to escape poverty, fulfil their potential, not be viewed entirely as the parent of a disabled child but as individuals who have far more talent than the paltry £59pw currently paid to do a caring task that saves the Government ££££££££s per year. Ed we deserve your consideration and a specific Labour Party policy on this issue. Should you gain power in 2015, be the first PM who recognises the sheer hard work caring is for a disabled child, and offer their parents peace of mind, and low cost affordable specialised childcare. It is time the Labour childcare policy was inclusive. Now is the time to do it.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Children in Need donators may actually be Children in Need..

November always spells a time of frenzied activity for ideas, sponsored walks, cake sales and of course the school non uniform day to raise much needed funds for Children in Need. The day culminates with the traditional BBC fundraising show and repeated calls to give what you can. I know the much needed monies raised go to a variety of UK projects including women's refuges and play centres for children. The  money raised does indeed go to children in dire need.

However, this year I am a little unsettled by the schools annual call for fundraising for CIN. My sons school bizarrely have decided on a "No Tie and blazer day" rather than a non uniform day, so the boys have to wear school shirts, jumpers and trousers and shoes. Ok maybe, but there is a £2 per child "donation". If they do not make the donation they cannot take part. For me the "donation" imposed is £4 as I have 2 sons in High School. On Twitter other parents have expressed concern over these compulsory donations and the fact some primary schools are having a pyjamas day.  A fact not lost on parents in the middle of November.

It's  nothing more than a psychological bribe on parents. If your child does not pay the "donation" they are the odd ones out in the class and are not taking part. But perhaps the reason there will be many children "not taking part" is that the parent (s) cannot afford the £1 or £2 donation, especially where multiple children are involved. Paradoxically the very children who the school are asking to donate, are indeed Children in Need themselves.

The TV pressure for Christmas is bearing down on parents also. As austerity is biting harder than ever before with a toxic mix of energy bill rises, food prices and rent rises, perhaps more parents will think charity begins at home this year. I know myself as I packed my sons off to school with donations of £4, and a GCSE Home Economics recipe costing  £7 plus Year 11 have organised a "Secret Santa" week of yet another £3 contribution, I am feeling the bite and pressure to constantly "cough up" amounts that basically I need to spend elsewhere.

Schools should be more sensitive to these Dickensian times and appreciate many parents are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes. Far more preferable for Children in need would be to ask for voluntary contributions and include all children in non - uniform day whatever their circumstances.

And this evening while TV presenters on BBC1 frantically shake tins and buckets of money at the general public and ask everyone to spare more cash,  remember it is this Government removing and cutting funding for Women's refuges, cutting children's play centres, cutting Sure Start Centres and cutting and sanctioning benefits that are leaving organisations like CIN to pick up the tab and fill the gap of providing essential services from charity. As much as I admire the enthusiastic people who walk miles, do wacky stunts like skydiving and give up their time and money I cannot help feeling we are the ones being scammed by a Government who RELIES on us doing these events for charity to bridge the gap for the poor and needy.

And while the day goes ahead teachers should take a look around them, perhaps schedule an hour in the day to talk about Children in Need and the UK projects it supports and ask the children for their views on where the money goes to and how it should be spent. For perhaps some of the children in that classroom need help themselves...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

IDS simply isn't working - For the Working Poor

The rhetoric has started to appear in the Mail, a fleeting sentence in the House of Commons, a whole passage in the terms of Universal Credit. It's my turn. They're coming for us. We constitute a whole army, not just a battalion. We arguably will be the most controversial arm of Welfare Reform. Stand up the part time Working Poor.

The Mail (quick to demonise most sections of society who are poor) wasted no time in running an article on a family with 9 children whose parents both work part time about 20 hours a week each. That equates to over 1 full time job which is not enough in the Tory vision of "everyone must work til they drop" UK. Both parents had saved hard to take their family on their first ever holiday. But the DM's craftily worded article made this out to be the wrong thing to do due to the size of the family. The parents wages were not mentioned, the Mail took care not to discuss what they earnt for their  labour. Instead it focused on the amount of child benefit, the volume of top up working tax credits etc. There was no mention of course of possible help if a Living Wage were to be introduced. Just paragraph after paragraph of hate against this working couple and raging about more hours being worked.

The House of Commons debated the bedroom tax and its repeal tabled by Labour. Heather Wheeler Tory MP for South Derbyshire screamed at Labour that her husband who sits on the council has engaged with residents and found they "only" have to pay £11.68p extra a week to keep their "spare room". This was found by doing a few hours more work each week apparently. These words were echoed time and again by Ann Main, David Davies and Margot James. "Work some more" is their mantra, like jobs are falling off trees into the laps of unfortunate part time workers.

1.46 million people who are currently working part time and thus claiming working tax credits are people who want to work full time but can't find full time jobs. Here in N Wales, full time permanent work where you are not laid off seasonally or are on zero hours contracts is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Thus those who would welcome full time work but have to accept part time work have no stability, are not welcomed by landlords or banks for mortgages as their future is uncertain. The answer by the Government is to blame the Working Poor and use throwaway phrases of " just find a few hours more a week work" and that will be the answer to the problem!

Wrong on all accounts. This Coalition presides over the greatest period of Austerity in centuries. Low paid part time work is now the norm. While Tories like to think part time work is confined to mums looking to earn a bit of "pin money" or while away the hours of boredom from 9-3pm while the kids are in school, the reality is that part time work is all that's out there to find. And if your shifts constantly change, especially in part time retail, it is damned nearly impossible to take on a second part time job that fits in with the changing hours of the first. But then employers, spurred on by the government are happy with this unstable relationship with employees. Hiring and firing at will and instability for the future are great for them.

But fear, like the fear that stalks the poor, disabled and sick daily is coming to the working poor now. Under Universal Credit and the DWP "Minimum income Floor" part time workers will be expected to earn £11k per year. Failure to do so will be a call to the job centre and a period of time given to increase hours worked and income raised or tax credits will be cut and sanctions imposed. For those like myself who are self employed, the threat is that unless you raise your hours and raise your income you will cease to be self employed, thrown off working tax credits put onto JSA until you find employment etc. The whole merrygoround then starts again as if you gain part time employment you will be forced to raise hours..... And so it goes on.

I only mention him in the title of this piece but it is obvious. Iain Duncan-Smith your ideas simply are not working. From the crazy bedroom tax where people who cannot afford the extra money for the spare bedroom are then "downsized" to a smaller home in the private sector which then increases their rent and thus the amount of Housing Benefit someone has to claim  ; to the idea that those who currently work are not working enough and full time jobs are as easy to get as claiming £5.8k for energy expenses on an MPs 2nd home.

It is indeed as several Labour MPs  have commented "The Economics of the Madhouse". But then IDS is the man in charge of the asylum.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Snouts (or should that be Muzzle) in the Trough Take 2!

So Nadhim Zahawi proffers an apology on claiming energy expenses on his 2nd  home which is based in his constituency Stratford-Upon-Avon, as he already lives in a £5 million home in London and for this he expects the story to end?

Not a chance. Zahawi is only apologising for PART of his energy bill. That part is for the "ordinary extras" one would expect on a house like stables and a mobile home in the grounds of his 2nd home. Yeah right Mr Zahawi - we all have those don't we?!

Get real man! Not only have you claimed £5.8k on energy expenses, as this is your 2nd home (your 1st home is in London within spitting distance of the House of Commons) but it does not take much working out to know that you would only be in your constituency Friday-Sunday at most! MPs are in London Monday-Thursday, so your claim for nearly £6,000 is even more obscene than first thought!

Moving on, we must then ask the next question. What regulations are there on MPs 2nd homes? Surely a 1 bed flat is sufficient? And surely with a London based 1st home anyway, MPs like Zahawi shouldn't qualify for a 2nd home just to "reside" in their constituency on weekends? The whole point of a 2nd home us naive voters think, is for MPs to conduct business in London as they do not live within commutable daily distance of their constituencies, not the other way round in Zahawis  case!

So Zahawi has a 2nd home that provides the luxury of extensive grounds and stables. Abhorrent on every count again. Why no restriction on size of property? Which then begs the question why are we paying to subsidise huge energy bills on clearly a 2nd home that is lavish enough to warrant a £5.8k energy bill claim?

Even though Zahawi "lives" in Tory Stratford, 1100+ of his constituents have rightly protested on Facebook about his Robber Baron type energy expenses claim. While his own constituents worry about how to pay their heating costs, they have to put hand in pocket to pay this multi-millionaires heating costs too!

We must rage against these 2nd homes for MPs and have clear rules on size of home, location and what a reasonable expense is. Renting a 1 bed property in London for those MPs living 80+ miles from London is a start. Then setting out reasonable expenses. But MPs could surely be expected to pay their own energy bills on a 2nd home. They earn £66k minimum. Or an amount of £500 per year for energy would be more than reasonable.

Banish MPs like Zawhawi from having a 2nd home. No need when he lives in London. If he wants to parachute into his constituency every weekend, there are plenty of budget hotels he can pay for out of his own pocket, or he could downsize his London home and pay for a modest 2nd home himself in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

One final point. Zahawi says he is "mortified" he made a mistake on claiming for the stables and mobile home energy. If someone on benefit makes a mistake they face jail. If they miss an appointment even for a valid reason they face immediate benefit sanctions. Think we should apply the same to "mistaken " MPs.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Signing the WOW petition by December 12th will change disabled people's lives...

...Yes you heard me right! There is a petition that is asking for the government to pause and reflect on the huge changes and upheaval and life changing events the current welfare reform is having on disabled people.

But I'm not disabled, I hear you say. Signing some petition for disabled people has no effect on my life.

Got a disabled relative? Are your parents getting older, frailer, are they on medication? What about that great neighbour of yours, always willing to help you out who cares for their disabled child 24/7? What about the lad in your sons football squad who has a disability but always takes part and puts his all into the game? And you- what happens if one day you are in a car accident and end up disabled, a fall from a ladder, a diagnosis of cancer?

So this WOW petition is worth signing. Because somewhere you will know someone who will benefit from it.

But aren't petitions useless? The government surely won't be bothered by it?

Not in this case! The WOW petition already has over 76,000 signatures as I write. It needs to reach 100,000 by December 12th 2013. This will force the Government to hold a debate as 100k people
have supported it, which is a significant amount. It shows the Government people are worried and care about the impact of cuts and austerity on disabled peoples lives.

Disabled people in social housing adapted especially for them, are having to move out if they have a spare bedroom and cannot afford to pay an extra £14+ pw for the Bedroom Tax. Disabled people are having lifelong disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and even people with amputated limbs, having to be assessed and reassessed and assessed again sometimes every 3 months or so in order to claim a benefit called ESA. Many disabled people with even terminal illnesses like cancer are being found fit for work when they obviously are not. This is causing anxiety, stress and even suicides in people's most dark moments when they need to know they have a certain amount of money coming in each week to heat their home and eat properly.

All I ask, and all disabled people want, is for the Government to stop and think again about the impact of the cuts on all disabled people and whether those cuts are justified.

Many excellent campaigners, themselves disabled, like Sue Marsh and Wayne Blackburn have worked tirelessly for some years trying to get MPs of all parties to realise the impact of their decisions upon disabled people. All it takes is a minute of your time to sign a petition and get the people around you to sign it too, and once the WOW petition has reached 100k signatures, the government will be forced to look at how their actions are impacting the lives of disabled people daily.

So please sign. Now.
WOW Petition

Monday, 4 November 2013

MP claims £5.8k for Energy Bills while people cannot afford to cook Foodbank Parcels..

The Sunday Mirror published a table of 340 MPs claiming energy expenses for their 2nd home. Most of us ordinary voters view this 2 ways: We understand those MPs not living within commuting distance of London may need accommodation and a reasonable energy bill of under £1,000 could be expected  OR - All MPs should fund 2nd homes from their own pocket. Full Stop.

But after having viewed the top 10 claimants, and then the bottom 10 of the 340, it became clear immediately there is a huge disparity in claims between Tory MP Nadhim Zawhawi claiming an obscene £5.8k and Nic Dakin (Lab) claiming £19.54. As elected members of parliament the huge amounts over £1k, in my view need challenging , explaining and reforming immediately.

Nadhim Zahawi is a millionaire with a £5m first home. Why on earth is the energy bill for his 2nd home coming to £5.8k? I always (perhaps naively) presumed an MPs 2nd home would be a modest 1 bedroom flat. After all, this flat is purely for business purposes Monday -Thursday for an MP to conduct his business in London and not have to commute back to his constituency. I would say though that Mr Zawawi's constituency in Stratford-Upon-Avon is within commutable distance. Many people in my hometown of Worcester commute daily to London which is only 40 miles from Stratford.

So my question to Mr Zawhawi is what type of accommodation are we funding to warrant a £5.8k energy bill? Not a 1 bed flat! This amount is even more obscene as it is a hefty £2k MORE than what a person who becomes unemployed gets to live on in an ENTIRE year!

Meanwhile a Facebook post from my local Foodbank revealed problems with an increasing amount of food parcels. Many people are telling them they have no means to cook or heat food and are asking for any food that does not need cooking. Indeed the Foodbank has asked anyone who has a spare camping stove to please donate it, so people at least have the means to heat food from tins. Emergency supplies have seen parcels made up of ready made sandwiches and a thermos flask of soup. The Foodbank is worried as problems with people not affording to be able to turn on an energy supply are escalating rapidly. Not being able to cook food, means the Foodbank has to find other ready made solutions. It goes against their ethos of a "hand up -not a hand out" which is troubling them. It means consistent support and developing more reliance on the Foodbank rather than a time when benefits are stopped for whatever reason, but the person then gets on their feet within a few weeks once benefits are restored.

So while Foodbanks cope with these dire and desparate energy problems we see blatant Robber Barons, millionaires who could afford to heat a whole street if they had to, then claim an amount of money to heat their 2nd home which is more than what many people live on in a year. It is not just obscene, abhorrent and morally bankrupt, but it is a system that needs reform right now. The BBC are broadcasting a series "Britain on the Fiddle" this week. Well start at the top. Look no further than a  Tory MPs £5.8k expense claim for energy, while people are unable to heat their homes or cook their food.

As to reform? MPs living up to an 80-100 mile commute of London do not need a 2nd home at all. Give them a small allowance to conduct business in their own home. For those living further away, and I have every admiration for the MPs from the north making the tortuous journey down to London every week, a 1 bedroom flat is sufficient or perhaps modest hotel expenses could be looked at. You would be saving money on MPs like David Amess who has 2 London homes yet thought he had the moral high ground in claiming £8k hotel expenses says the Daily Mirror.

MPs will be crawling around us next year, desparate for our votes. Challenge your MP if he is on the list of the big sinners claiming £1k or more energy expenses. Ask your MP how big their 2nd home is. Tell them of your situation whether you are disabled, unemployed, elderly or Working Poor and how you are struggling and find excessive claims for 2nd home expenses is plain wrong.

Austerity cannot continue to carry on, on the backs of the poor although the Coalition have done a hatchet job in that respect. Time to challenge MPs on every cost of living expense for their 2nd home. Do not let it drop. Name and shame those who are clearly rubbing the noses of their constituents and voters in the mud. An ordinary MP earns £66k, let alone those who are ministers. We have to fund our own overpriced energy costs, so why don't they?

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Gove and IDS vow to destroy the Expressive and Performing Arts. Stop Them.

Under this Coalition Government it does not do to be: Poor, Disabled, Unemployed, Living in Social Housing, Working Poor, Single Parent, Sick, Female... The list goes on. But now add to that - Any child who aspires to become an actor, singer, sculptor, textile designer, dancer, ceramic artist. Likewise any current actor earning less than 11k per year. For Gove and Duncan-Smith see the performing and expressive arts as "soft options" and not worthy of being studied or pursued as a career.

Living in N Wales, where a Labour Welsh Assembly valiantly tries to deflect the excesses of the coalition in Westminster, the mass exodus of Drama teachers from England is already being felt. Indeed in my sons school, the new Drama teacher previously taught in Chester, but had to look for a new teaching post in Wales as schools are axing Drama from the curriculum under Gove's guidance. Many more are following. Gove lives in the world of the 1950's Grammar School where a narrow curriculum is deemed to be the new Yellow Brick Road. This week in The Sunday Times there has been discussion on removing Drama, PE, and Media Studies from the list of GCSES and reducing these subjects to either lesser qualifications or as an extra curricular activity.

Imagine for one moment children being deprived the chance to be the next BAFTA award winning actor? A world where children have no opportunity to explore the world of dance? No school plays - where children learn teamwork, negotiation skills, costume design, painting and set design. Will Simon Cowells banal exploitative X factor shows be the only chance a child has of showing their singing skills? And God forbid fast forward 10-20 years when we have no festivals that shine the light on the talent of perhaps the next poet of the likes of Seamus Heaney, or we have the opportunity of not being able to purchase amazing creative textiles.

On our streets will be either the academically gifted accountants, solicitors and children of bankers or dead eyed factory workers locked into zero hours agency employed contracts. No multi diverse jugglers, street performers, dancers, actors, sculptors-  all denied the chance to study Drama/Expressive Arts in school. Does Gove truly want a society where we have no performing arts.. No culture? Oliver Cromwell was the last man to try this and failed miserably. A world with no colour, a world made up of automaton workers. Is this the Tory idyll? Bankers in suits? We need to put a stop to this now before it is too late,

Iain Duncan-Smith has stealthily decided to support Gove through another route. In April 2014 all low paid actors, singers, musicians will be automatically deemed as being Self Employed. This is to ensure that under Universal Credit they will be deemed as earning the minimum income floor of 11k per year. In reality many actors, singers and musicians earn far less and have periods of unemployment. But under contributory based JSA, they may not have enough contributions to then claim JSA while they are unemployed. Also Job Centres have the right to then give part time actors etc 6 months to get more work or be taken off tax credits and forced to seek paid employment in another type of job if they do not earn the minimum income floor of 11k per year.

There have been many struggling actors, down to their last pennies who then get a break that sees them land a good acting role which has led on to better things. Are we to be denied the joy of seeing that actor develop.. That great role never to be accomplished?

And what of that child who has a special flair for the expressive arts. More poignantly for me, what of that disabled child who has found their niche? My 14 year old autistic son took Drama GCSE this year, (2 years early Mr Gove) and gained a Grade A GCSE. Also at Drama school a London College of Music Distinction in Acting. No fluke. He worked damned hard. I saw the GCSE work Mr Gove and it was no soft option at all. Whether my child is disabled or not, I will never let you take that achievement from him, in the name of academia. He is a huge fan of Brian Blessed - an actor steeped in both TV and theatre. Someone in the future we may not have if the Coalition pursue this destruction of the Expressive Arts.

And what gives this unelected, unwanted unmandated Government the right to take away our future talent, our colour, the very people who make life worth living? I do not want an Oliver Cromwell Puritan style UK where children are sent to a life of work that involves a narrow curriculum of study. And how will you spend your evenings Mr Gove? No theatres as there are no actors. Watching Tory political party broadcasts on TV a la Orwell's 1984 may not be your cup of tea either.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Kids priced out of certain GCSES - Cameron's Biggest Betrayal.

My youngest son is enjoying the first month of taking Home Economics- Cookery GCSE to you and me. It's been tough as the permanent experienced teacher suffered a heart attack in the late summer and so the class has a run of supply teachers. However, while we shop for recipe ingredients each week there are those children in his school who fall into 2 categories: Those who did not choose the subject due to the costs involved buying ingredients etc and those who took the subject but are now finding the weekly costs too high to cope with.

My son took Drama GCSE last year. He thoroughly enjoyed it, but it requires many theatre trips to get a feel and love of drama, black clothes to perform in. Those who could not afford the extra trips seemed to be those who did not get the desired A-C results in the summer.

Pause to reflect for a moment. We have children in our schools who cannot afford to take a particular GCSE subject due to cost. Discrimination? Certainly. But a discrimination of the poor. Last week my son was making 2 recipes with ingredients costing £11 in Home Economics. There are 17 children in the class - all taking GCSE. A total of 9 did not bring in any ingredients to make the recipe and universally I was told this was down to cost. Not being able to afford to cook. Outside school one boy remarked "My mum has cut down food shopping to £20 per week for me and my sister. She says she can't afford for me to cook at school, unless the school provide the ingredients."

Unless the children cook the recipes and learn from them, these children have no hope of even being entered for the GCSE next summer. Schools ever wary of spiralling exam costs, will not enter children who have no realistic chance of even  getting the very lowest grades. This is worrying and sinister.

Some children who are not as academic as others perhaps have chosen to take a Beauticians course at the local academy school that has partnered up with the High School. But the numbers who chose the course but then dropped out in the first week have been dramatic and the reason the teacher tells me is cost. For this course children need their own Beauticians box of tools etc that are personal to them at a cost of £50. Many found that completely unaffordable and so have dropped out.

In 2013 it is incredible that due to the economic crisis and "have's and have-not" policies of Gove, Cameron and co we have a state where children cannot afford to take certain GCSE subjects for fear of costs involved. To me it is incredulous, and a total affirmation that this Government are so completely out of touch with ordinary people that they have no idea that a Cookery GCSE is now a luxury subject option in high schools for many children. For families where energy bills, bedroom tax, and even Foodbank visits are a grim reality, the burden of providing ingredients for recipes, theatre visits pale into insignificance when faced with the daily strife of surviving.

The waste of unknown talent, learning opportunities and our children's wider broader learning experiences are a national scandal and scourge of the policies taken by this Coalition government. And while Cameron and Clegg's children look forward to numerous foreign holidays and enriched learning in schools with small classes and oodles of extra-curricular activities, our children in state high schools will lag further behind. Failed by a government who are behind the biggest social division, social cleansing of the past century. Betrayal of our children will be Cameron and Clegg's worse legacy.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Austerity Generation: Sharing Shoes and Sharing Roofs

My second eldest son is 21. On my advice after seasonal unemployment on the stark N Wales Coast and exploitation by employment agencies who sent my son turning up at the doors of factories for "ghost jobs" I have advised him to go back to college which he has this last month. He is doing an access to University course for 1 year, followed by 3 years at Uni. He will be 25 by then. It is now down to his dad and I to support him, although he has managed to find bar work on weekends to help predominately with transport and materials to college.

David Cameron is almost word perfect on "doing the right thing" - go to school, go to college, go to University, get a job, buy a flat..." It's became his mantra. Life is certainly not allowed to get in the way of his idyll. He makes no mention of already stressed parents having to support adult children aged 18+. We are happy to help our son find a route out of low paid, zero hours contract, agency work, but we know it is putting an enormous strain on stretched family finances and with our younger sons who both want to go to University in 2 and 3 years time respectively we wonder just how we will struggle to support them all. There is no help for parents. Child benefit will end, but we will still have substantial costs in order to help our children out, and as we are the Working Poor, I wonder how we will manage.

My sons friend is in a low paid  zero hours contract factory job and also combines this with a bar job mid week. My son works weekends. They could not afford a suit and shoes for interview each, so as they are of the same build and shoe size they bought a suit and shoes between them. The shoes are worn by my son on a weekend and then handed over to his friend mid week. The suit is passed for occasions and any upcoming interviews. I must admit to a few laughs when I heard of the arrangement. Some friends on twitter congratulated their thinking over the deal. I then reflected and wondered how had we got to this when 2 young men, in Cameron's own words "struggling to do the right thing" had come to this. Sharing a suit and shoes.  It's 2013 not 1946!

But for many young adults of this generation whose parents are not well off and are struggling to pay their own bills and keep a roof over their heads this is the reality. Cameron has ominously pledged to stop all housing benefit for under 25's if elected in 2015. Of the Tories own admission they haven't worked out how to "deal" with 169,000 single parents living alone aged under 25.  We don't all  live in a society where all can go to school, Uni, get a well paid job, get a flat. This is only on Planet Tory! Why should young adults who may have low paid jobs and are working poor who perhaps may consider marriage at 23 or 24 and need a small percentage of their rent paid in housing benefit  be denied a life? Just because the Robber Baron Landlords have seen an opening in Tory society where they can charge extortionate rents, should that deny a young couple the chance of a roof over their heads? The Tories have brought in market rents for council and housing association homes too which in some areas are out of the range of affordability for those on minimum wage. Cameron is saying to parents, you have no choice, you must keep your adult children supported until 25+. Many parents will do this, but many will not. The outcome will be soaring homelessness and family life stressed to the hilt.

My eldest son is 24 and he lives in a rented house with his partner. They both work full time in Care Homes for the elderly, and I am so proud of my son who has qualifications in Health and Social Care and believes passionately in making the lives of older people rewarding. If anyone is "doing the right thing" my son and his partner are. Regularly paying £750 per month to a greedy landlord for a tiny 2 bed house. Yet supposedly they do not earn enough to get a mortgage. Yet they are paying out a mortgage in rent every month. Where is the help for them Mr Cameron? They can't afford to save up the 5% deposit required under your Help to Buy Scheme, they are on minimum wage and wouldn't qualify anyway! Yet they do a job the vast percentage of the population would refuse to do and they do it well. If anyone deserves a Living Wage care staff do. Andy Burnham has this completely right to enhance the status, qualifications and wages of people who care for our elderly.

Cameron asked the electorate to let him "finish the job" in his speech to the Tory faithful at conference. For the sake of our young adults and the next generation don't let him. Or he will finish many jobs for many people and throw Generation Rent onto the scrap heap: the first generation to be far worse off than their parents.

Monday, 30 September 2013

A Day in the Life of 'Hard Working People'...

Apologies for using the most over used phrase of any Government in the title of this piece, but I want to show how life itself gets in the way of the best laid plans - and how Government policies, Banks and Institutions serve to grind down us 'Hard Working People' to tip us over the precipice into poverty.

Husband and I are in the precarious position of being Self Employed and Low Paid as we have caring duties for our youngest son with autism to cope with. We own our home, although of course technically the bank does, as we have a mortgage gained in better days when work was more plentiful. Today is mortgage payment day. Today a cheque my husband received from working, and which he deposited into his business account on 19th September (some 11 days ago) has not yet cleared in time to pay the mortgage. Cue frantic phone calls to the bank, who said the cheque 'should' clear in next few days, husband deciding that was not good enough and so a face to face confrontation in the town branch was called for: and myself getting on the phone regarding the mortgage to explain the circs and asking for a few days leeway.

My husband held the whole queue up in the bank while he took them to task about the cheque clearance and was also joined by another businessman with the same problem. Luckily our bank that holds the mortgage were understanding and have given us until Friday to make the payment. Breathing space for a problem that should never have occurred. Yet 90 minutes of wasted time to sort out. Due to austerity and having a family of 6 there are no longer even meagre savings to fall back on. One set back with an uncleared cheque throws our entire lives into chaos. It is frightening that one small detail can have such a significant impact on our lives.. our very roof depends on that cheque cleared in time. The bank let us down. The very organisation that has let the whole world down. Privatisation at its nauseating worst.

Our 90 minute frenetic panic and those awful thoughts of "What shall we do? Can we borrow the money from our parents if all else fails? What if the bank won't let us make the payment in a few days? Think, think..." It's scary David Cameron and George Osborne living on the 'Hard Working Edge'. Continuously plotting family finances on the big wall planner in the kitchen a month in advance. It takes time and energy and it is damned draining.

I make no apology whatsoever, that ever so often (and I know many other people either on JSA or Tax Credits do the same) have a 'What the hell..' moment once in a blue moon. By this I mean you get so weary plotting every bill payment, watching what you eat, what you wear,  that the sheer daily grind gets you down and you blow a bill payment on a tea in Pizza Hut for the kids, a new pair of shoes, a new hair-do. Then comes the guilt and the sheer worry of how to pay the bill you've just blown. But hell, for those few minutes it felt good to have that 1 treat. It made you feel part of the human race. Cameron and co would call it irresponsible but thats because they have never walked in my shoes for a month, or 6 or 12. Continuous daily grind and we work! I have nothing but admiration for those seeking work and unable to find any.

This week if that cheque takes longer to clear will I be able to get to Friday with the school lunches? Or will I be begging grandparents for help? The 1st of the month our bills on direct debits are paid. I have budgeted for that money as I do every month, but the food shopping will have to wait until Friday when I receive my Working Tax Credit payment. My husband is beginning a new venture shortly, to go alongside his DJ work so we can increase payment from self employment if all goes smoothly. But it depends on 3 other people. I hope they won't let him down. This week both my younger sons will come home with letters for the France trip. Last year I let one son go to London for a theatre trip. I will have to tell them, at a push, possibly only 1 son can go on the France trip at a cost of £400 plus the spends and new clothes. We cannot afford for both to go. Who do I disappoint?

Turn on the Tory Party Conference. Huge slogans about Hard Working People everywhere inside and outside the venue. George Osborne talking about crackdowns on the jobseekers. Iain Duncan Smith in The Guardian talking about crackdowns on the sick and disabled and talk of a Job Centre 'Celebration Week'. It is hard not to be fearful when you are the ones experiencing the fallout of being one of the 'Hard Working People' - but the Tories do not mean you because you do not work hard enough - you claim tax credits. Therefore you are classed as another burden on Tory Big Society.

Husband is out today; funnily enough looking for work. Making the contacts, chasing up wedding venues, doing the things the self employed do to keep the roof over their heads. Yesterdays 'strivers' but not allowed into the club of 'Hard Working People'.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Ed M : It's time Disabled Children's Parents got a Fair Deal too

Watching Ed Miliband at Labour Conference pledge 25 hours childcare and wraparound childcare for parents who work reminded me of the day Gordon Brown spoke of the first Sure Start Centres. A welcome sign of early years help for stressed out parents. With Cameron having axed approximately 576  Sure Start Centres since 2010, never has there been a time of such early years inequality for the poorest children, but likewise there has never been such a golden silence on the position of disabled children whose parents may like to work too.

To be frank, although 'New Labour' under Blair and Brown made huge leaps on childcare support, and Ed M is also looking to pledge more help, no party is talking about the plight that befalls us parents of disabled children at all.

My youngest son (youngest of 4) is autistic. He is only 10 months younger than my 3rd son and I had planned to return to work under Blairs government after a few years, as basically having the boys back to back, meant huge childcare bills back in 1998/99 which meant work did not pay at all. However my son's disability put paid to that initially and as he grew older I realised he thrived more with me 'on hand' than if I was working full time. I made that difficult choice to firstly stay at home and care then work part time self employed, even though it threw my family onto working tax credits and the poverty line. However, the vast majority of parents with children with profound disabilities have no choice but to stay at home and exist on the measly and quite frankly scandalous 'pay' of Carers Allowance at £59pw.

The problems parents of disabled children face are multi -problematic. If the choice is made to work, then who provides the care? Can you name specialist nurseries in your area that cater specifically for disabled children? I can't. Can you name any ordinary nurseries who have the specialist childcare knowledge of a range of disabilities that you would feel comfortable leaving your child with? I can't. Can you name a nursery prepared to take your disabled child? Again I can't.

And that is just for early years. So what are the options once your disabled child starts school (providing they are not so profoundly disabled that this is impossible)? Will an employer understand you having to leave work at the drop of a hat when a 'situation' has occurred at school? Is there a good quality breakfast/after school club that can cope with your child? The answer again is probably not.

And the cost? Nurseries/After School Clubs/Childminders are rightly justified in asking higher prices to cope with a child with a disability as it involves more input, more care and more patience! I certainly do not begrudge childcare providers asking/needing more money as looking after a disabled child is challenging for us parents! But we cannot afford these increased costs IF we manage to find a childcare provider.

And while a disabled child's peers sail off to High School and their parents heave a sigh of relief as childcare costs come to an end, at aged 11/12 this is not the case for the disabled child. They may need wraparound care until they are young adults! Again show me the list of childcare providers willing to take care of disabled teenagers at low cost? Hardly any or none at all most probably.

So I ask Labour and Ed Miliband to extend  childcare opportunities to parents of disabled children. Talk to parents of disabled children. For those where work is impossible due to the nature of the disability of their child, ask them what support could be given to improve their quality of life. After all, Andy Burnham is keen to get a One Stop Shop system of Health and Social Care.

It costs 3 x more to raise a disabled child than it does an able bodied child. Parents of Disabled children need more support, more options and the same level playing field of choosing to work if they want to as parents of able bodied children. Now is the time for Labour to start that discourse. Now is the time to act.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

How is Austerity affecting the Working Poor?

It was somehow ironic that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report today that shows 700,000 people in Wales (where I live) are living in poverty. More shocking but not surprising was that 51% of this total WORK and therefore are the Working Poor.

My family will be included in these statistics as we are self employed and low paid and get by with the help of working and child tax credits and also care for our youngest son with autism. We are making those everyday choices that other people who are working poor are making too.

We haven't got to the "Heat or Eat" stage like many people who are more unfortunate than ourselves, but we have got to the "Don't put the fire on: get a jumper and a quilt" instead. This autumn has taken a turn for what I personally describe as "Tory Inflicted Narnia" weather wise. However this follows hard upon the  Narnia Spring that saw us having to have our heating on until the first week of May 2013. In common with many other rural areas the snow lingered in April and so did the time we needed to keep the heating on.

This is the first year I have put a stop on turning the heating on when the house is cold. We simply cannot afford to put the heating on from September to possibly April 2014. Eight months of heating my house at £100 per month is not an option: not when we pay £110 per month for electricity too on our dual fuel tariff,

Aside from heating, difficult choices are being made in the supermarket weekly. The meat quantities I used to buy are drastically reduced and more minced beef bought as it is so versatile in recipes. You may decide it is a good thing that the treats like crisps and biscuits have been cut entirely. But it's monotonous when you can't have the odd packet of crisps/ biscuits in front of the TV at night. I like drinking chocolate before bed but the price has rocketed so I have cut this out too. Indulgent puddings, fancy cakes, yogurts, all have taken a tumble and my imagination has been fired on how to replace them.. Hence my new blog Big Food for Big families.  where I attempt to show how I feed filling nourishing food to bigger families like my own.

There have been occasions, as we are lucky enough to have 2 grandmothers living nearby, where visits to Gran have been arranged "to order". By this I mean the weekly food budget needed a stretch- and a visit to Grans at tea time will feed the kids for 1 evening. Sad but true and I make no apology. I have a sneaky feeling other families with relatives nearby may be doing the same thing on occasion.

When you work you like the Chinese takeaway on a Friday night perhaps, a holiday, decent clothes for the kids - nothing elaborate, just a few things to make work worthwhile. Yet the Working Poor who claim tax credits are being made to feel these odd treats are not allowed for them- it must be nose to the grindstone of Government enforced Dickensian work.  Working Poor are being turned against the Poor in society - yet we are all in the same boat vilified by a Government who cannot see beyond their rich privileged noses,

Rhetoric on Universal Credit proposals doesn't help when part time workers, especially those self employed are accused by Mark Hoban of "pursuing hobbies, earning nothing" whilst claiming tax credits. Working is not enough roars the Coalition, - you working poor must work more, longer, harder.

The Governments  response is to tell the working poor to work more hours, change jobs, or in our cases cease self employment and find paid employment. This will be more than "encouraged" under plans for Universal Credit where an element of "force" will come in.

The Working Poor have a whole tsunami of problems to face: Bedroom Tax, Council Tax, low pay, caring duties are all in the mix too. It is time Government stopped pouring scorn on those working to get by in austerity and put into practice : A Living Wage, Zero Hours and Agencies outlawed and regulated respectively, an onus on employers to provide more Full Time positions and a complete understanding of the position women especially are facing with  child benefit frozen, caring duties, no affordable childcare and no childcare at all for disabled children.

The Working Poor were yesterday's "strivers" Mr Cameron in your Governments own rhetoric. In my opinion  ANY government should be "striving" to support people by implementing policies that promote a healthy work/life ethic. This Coalition are positively campaigning against this. They must be stopped NOW!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Budgeting? Welcome to the world of the Master Jugglers Mr Gove!

Michael "Gaff" Gove is at it again! Not content with making an omnishambles out of education he has turned his thoughts to families who have had to resort to visiting Foodbanks to get by and feed their families.

Gove says ‘I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures.
‘Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances."

Have you managed a families finances on JSA and income support Mr Gove? Have you managed a budget where parents in a family work and are low paid? Probably not. I can tell you that many parents are extremely adept at managing a families finances. I know I am. There have been times over the last year when our self employment was more ebbing then flowing when I was managing to feed a family of 2 adults and 4 boys aged 13-23 on £50 a week - and that includes washing powder and cleaning products! Could you do that Mr Gove? One of your colleagues Iain Duncan - Smith  allegedly spent £39 on a breakfast last year. Families struggling against austerity are geniuses in stretching and balancing family budgets. Before you or your party ask, my flat screen TV was bought a few years back - by careful budgeting in the good times of self employment. Too late to send it back now!

We get working tax credits. The reason for this is because my husband as a DJ works in pubs and clubs who have cut their work and the rate of pay has been unchanged since 2002! He is also an ECB Cricket Coach. He coaches many private school kids whose parents can afford the coaching lessons. He also wants to coach young children into taking up and excelling at the sport and in turn benefiting their cricket clubs. Call it Big Society in action if you like! But we do not receive a Living Wage and in the winter months we carefully budget for our circumstances. We plan minutely Mr Gove for the
lean times ; the hard times. And there have been many more hard times since the Coalition came into power!

A few years back we had 4 school uniforms to buy every August.. always budgeted down to the last penny as my boys would arrive at school in September in correct school uniform with blazers. The cost then was in excess of £500. Working Tax Credits helped us out as they do now.  I have 2 boys left in High School and my 21 year old has just returned to college to do an access to Uni course. I cannot afford the £3 per son in High School  for lunch = £6 per day for school dinners. So they have packed lunches. We are having to support our 21 year old too for a year although he has several interviews for part time jobs lined up, to help him out with his college costs. But we live in a coastal rural area and are forking out the £9 a week bus pass for him. Some things I budget monthly for like the mortgage, council tax and utility bills. Other things like food, petrol, my disabled sons drama school fees ( one treat I will not bargain over as it is a huge benefit for him) I budget weekly for. So you see Mr Gove far from "not being able to manage my finances" I am a master juggler of making ends meet on a weekly and monthly basis, as are thousands more like me!

No one wants to visit a Foodbank. Contrary to Mark Hobans latest statement that the DWP and Job Centres do not refer people to Foodbanks or issue vouchers
many people are now unable to make ends meet at all, and are cutting back on food in order to pay housing costs and heating bills.

Imagine for one minute Mr Gove you have run out of money after paying the essentials. There are 3 or 4 days until you receive for example, a child benefit payment. You have exhausted all the avenues of getting money : asked relatives too many times, scrambled down the back of the sofa once too often and nothing is left, turned every coat pocket out, hunted behind furniture, emptied a handbag upside down, sold cherished possessions for a pittance What then? The very thought you have to rely on a charitable donation to feed your family for a few days is humiliating, and stomach churning. As a parent you are the provider. When you can provide no more and you have done everything to stretch the budget one last time in vain, the very thought of turning to a Foodbank can be the final straw, that sees many break down in total disbelief they have come to this point. They have made all the right decisions, they have put the children first with no treats or fripperies but the cupboard is bare. 

This is not about bad management of money or finances Mr Gove: this is sheer desperation. A desperation you and your Government refuse and cannot begin to comprehend.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

DWP pull Foodbank lifeline from the Poorest...

I had been given information recently that Foodbank referrals from Job Centres to both Trussell Trust and Independent Foodbanks had fallen drastically over the summer months. In confidence I was told it was because the DWP wanted to see Foodbank visits fall and thus stats on Foodbank use fall. At the time I could not believe that a Government department would deliberately set out to stop people looking for work hold onto a lifeline when JSA may be delayed due to processing, or a sanction had been put in place. The Daily Mirror confirmed the info I had received:

To me it is abhorrent that people literally have the final chance of help at the hour of their greatest need stopped with nowhere else to go.I also find it completely farcical that one minute David Cameron is lauding Foodbanks as "Big Society" in action, and secretly on the other hand plotting to ensure the stats for visits to Foodbanks are made to fall conveniently in 2014 - a year before a General Election.

The cynical use of denying help for job seekers who literally may have no money for several weeks or months due to processing etc is an all time new low for a DWP and a Government who seem to stop at nothing to make sure the poorest and most vulnerable in society stay that way. It is akin to seeing a poor person in a gutter and putting the boot in.

To job seekers denied benefit due to processing delays or sanctions there is only one place left to go and that is the Foodbank. The Government have taken away Social Fund Crisis loans and replaced them with a tiny sum of money in the form of discretionary payments made by councils. However these payments are not ring fenced for use in crises and vary from postcode to postcode in terms of help.

Some new claims for JSA can take 6-8 weeks to process.How is a desperate person to feed themselves in that time? Job Centres, alongside GPs, Social Workers and Teachers have been able to issue vouchers and refer job seekers to Foodbanks to gain the vital lifeline of food in a time of desperate need. Many people do not know where to seek help or often that Foodbank help is available. With the DWP narrowing down option after option the Foodbank is the final open door, job seekers can gain help from.. And now the DWP seek to slam that door shut too.

And let's not forget the Foodbanks are run by volunteers mostly, and the food donated is by you and me. There is no Government input into a Foodbank. It is society that is picking up the very job that the DWP should be doing. So why on earth is the DWP pulling that vital lifeline of support that people in desperate situations need? Stats. Pure Stats. Embarrassed by the soaring rise in Foodbank use and visits, this Government want to present false stats to the nation in 2014 to  show how "well" their "welfare reforms" are working. A disgusting and cynical ploy to lie to the electorate.

And what of the job seekers? Will there be Job Centre Advisors big enough to put their own job on the line by telling people where they can gain help? Not many perhaps. The biggest fear is two fold. There will be those like we see in the press on a weekly basis, who will be so ground down by fear of not being able to eat they will almost certainly take their own lives. There have already been too many reports of people taking their own lives in sheer desperation as a result of IDS's "welfare reforms". Couple lack of food with the Bedroom Tax and you have a tsunami of desperation.

I make no apologies when I tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg that they will have blood on their hands if they continue on this roller coaster going nowhere of "welfare reform" which consistently kicks the poor and vulnerable even further as outcasts from society. Feeding those hit most, at a Foodbank by voluntary donations, was the lowest thing I thought would happen in the UK, a sign that we were turning our backs on people in their hour of need. To then pull the Food out of the mouths of the hungry, when society can help and wants to help, is the act of a Government I want to see booted out of powere as soon as possible. This Mr Cameron is truly Not In My Name.....

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Response to Jamie Oliver: Self Appointed Govt Poverty Porn Tsar

Many people living on the austerity frontline were today waking up, not only to another day of wondering what they can put on their table to feed their family, but to some amazing "observations" made by Oliver about how the poor live their lives and the fact (in his view) there is no poverty in the UK.

I could almost hear the coalition cheering.  Jamie Oliver is worth an estimated £150 million. He flits from country to country advising people to live their lives on his recipes for his TV shows and books. A quick "pucker" grin at the locals and just as Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects "and like that he was gone..."

Today he has appointed himself the Governments new Poverty Porn Tsar. He bemoans poor families by stereo-typing them as "'You might remember that scene in Ministry Of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.' Apparently the multi millionaire also has his own stats on poor families "The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.'

And there we have it in a nutshell. A millionaire flitting into the lives of the poor and having a huge opinion, while he then sits pretty raking in the deals from TV and books and his restaurant. Mr Oliver, like the Government seems to be obsessed with "massive TV's". Woe betide the worker who has to step into Curries to buy a new TV then. He is faced with a choice of flat screen or plasma TVs and most over 30 inches in diameter. If he then loses his job he is "saddled" with his large TV. Does Mr Oliver think he should then return it to the shop? Of course not! I know the above sounds ridiculous but no more ridiculous than Oliver's stereo-typical slant on poor people. Hence why he comes across as a Poverty Porn Tsar.

He goes on to say poor people should shop at local markets whereby "you can just grab 10 mange tout for dinner and don't waste a thing". Hmmm there are 2 points to be made here. With the arrival of huge supermarkets many areas do not have a local market for starters. In my case I am fortunate to have one, but couldn't see me grabbing 10 mange tout and feeding a family of 2 adults and 4 strapping lads aged 14-24!

People in Jamie Oliver's position could do so much good if they actually a) thought about it thoroughly and b) understood the root causes of poverty. In my article on food banks I raised the problem that when our local food bank volunteers turn up with a food parcel at people's doorsteps, in some cases people do not have a proper cooker or microwave even. If they do have a cooker, many have come from a deprived background and may not have had the family life where mum or dad passed down cookery lessons. While Jamie Oliver as a professional chef may stand in his multi thousand pound kitchen showing his kids how to cook, there are thousands of young adults who did not have the privilege of having this kind of loving family environment. Many young people coming out of care, have not been shown cookery skills either. From my own viewpoint with a few sons having done GCSE Home Economics in school, too much time is wasted on the theory of cooking and not enough time on cooking practical family meals on a budget. Indeed I have said schools could benefit from mums and dads coming in to show young teenagers how to cook tasty meals without the big budget costs. Many of Mr Oliver's own recipes have quite fancy ingredients that cost a fair bit: he was criticised for his £26 hardback 30 minute recipe book for containing expensive ingredients that  on average cost £20 per meal  for 4 people and took an hour to cook not 30 minutes!

I would say to Mr Oliver: It is offensive to criticise poor families in these times of austerity when you  have £150 million in the bank. It is also extremely patronising to tell poor families where they should be buying food in your millionaires opinion. Forget the local market, many people are relying on food banks to feed their families and food that is filling but may not be as nutritional as they would wish. When you are staring down the barrel of poverty, having had a benefit sanctioned, lost your job, become ill or disabled, wondering whether to pay the Bedroom Tax, heat or eat: only then can you offer an opinion on feeding a family on a budget.

Chips n Cheese or 10 Mange Tout..  I know what I would prefer.