‘Hard Times’ a view from Coketown

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

These are the opening lines spoken by Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dicken’s ‘Hard Times’. I searched in vain for some facts in last night’s news broadcasts about the welfare cap debate. The BBC contented themselves with smug assessments about the politics without making any attempt to dig below the surface. At least Channel 4 News had the temerity to contrast the coalition government’s steely resolve to cap benefits at £26,000 a year with the anodyne proposals of a distinctly uncomfortable looking Vince Cable. To be fair, both broadcasters have made a reasonable effort to fill in some of the detail in their online briefings.

Fortunately Twitter led me to the Child Poverty Action Group’s exposure of some myths behind the official ‘facts’. Proving once again the old adage about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics.’  I suspect that many currently hardworking, taxpaying people are going to find themselves experiencing this welfare cap in the coming year. They may lose their job and home, have move away from family and friends, probably into temporary accommodation where they may be at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords [I speak from experience]. I wonder how many of those mouthing negative and abusive comments, in the slipstream of the Prime Minister’s populist Gradgrindism, about ‘facing up to the facts’ have ever experienced such hardship.

Estimates are that around 67,000 people, rising to 75,000 in 2014 will find themselves in this difficult place; and the number of children who will be affected could be up to 220,000. Yet the estimated welfare budget saving is put at 0.1 per cent and as Eric Pickles’ private secretary helpfully pointed out to the Prime Minister’s PS, this ‘does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation). In fact we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost.’ And there are some other unintended consequences.

Meanwhile one of the coalition government’s other welfare claimants (the chief executive of the state owned RBS bank) should have no difficulty getting his annual top-up. And a former employee now running his brand as a company (Tony Blair, since you ask), will pay corporation tax on his net earnings of something over £1 million of just £315,000 (28%). Perhaps there should be a cap on all net earnings of £260,000. As Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation argued in 2003 (sic) a ‘pay ceiling would be good for both business and social cohesion.’  This is not an argument from a position either left or right of the political spectrum, but a plea for a moral economy.

As part of my remit from the diocesan Mission and Ministry Board I shall be looking at economics, ethics and justice in the coming year. The working title of my project is ‘Value and Values’. I hope I shall have something useful to say. In the meantime, following the principled stand by a cohort of bishops south of the border, perhaps our churches’ immediate focus should be on the upcoming Poverty & Homelessness Action Week 2012 (28 January – 5 February), helping to break the barriers that trap people in poverty and homelessness.

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