Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is Director of Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists (CWTU).
Until recently, I sat as a magistrate on the Sheffield Magistrates Court Bench. It goes without saying that many people appearing in our court were on benefits, and often in the most compromised and complicated of life situations. Sadly, it was not uncommon to see people arrive who had stolen in order to get the food that they and their family needed to survive.
In such circumstances, the resultant arrest and judicial process would normally lead to referral and a request for various agencies to, whenever possible, provide the services and ‘pathways’ needed to help the offender. Only in the very most serious occasions would such a situation lead to a custodial sentence. More often than not, reports were requested and community sentencing options considered and where possible adopted. If I were being blunt, however, I would say that this was usually a big bureaucratic mess. No winners, plenty of losers, little chance of moving matters forward – an episode in farce.
Theresa May has made it clear that the Party and the Government she now leads will truly be focused at all hard-working people. She has also been clear that those struggling most in our society will be aided and supported, and that this will be a country that very much ‘works for everyone’.
That means a country which understands that still some 13 million people remain in poverty in the United Kingdom today. A country where, for many, the everyday struggles of ordinary life really can and do mean that you and your family might not eat that day. Damian Green, the new Work and Pensions Secretary, should thus be commended for looking again at the whole issue of disability benefits and work capability assessments.
It is often very difficult in our safe and secure middle class lives to understand the torment and agony that those in such desperate circumstances endure. I usually left the court shocked and appalled by much of our ‘work’ on any given day. The judicial system would grind away processing matters case by case, usually without much emotional context, but I was always left thinking about the individual lives blighted and in disarray.
When it comes to politics, statistics take centre stage. We often argue whether the statistics are right: has one side exaggerated them in order to gain advantage over another? So I am sure you will take with a pinch of salt the fact that the Trussell Trust foodbank charity has distributed half a million emergency food parcels to people in crisis in the first half of this year. Yes – that’s over 500,000 emergency food parcels in just six months, with at least 188,500 of these food parcels going to children.
The trust is an anti-poverty charity with some justifiable concerns. Its primary role is to offer help and food assistance to those in need at the soonest possible time. I thank it for all that it does, and at the same time say to all colleagues in our Party that we need to work even harder to help those most in need in our society today.
So how can we do so? First, we must understand better the circumstances of those in crisis. Most find themselves in this situation because of delays and changes to their benefits. How often was the statement made to me in court: ‘they’ve stopped my benefit, sir; they’ve lost my national insurance number; I’ve filled the form in. but they say it is the wrong one”. Many others find themselves in crisis due to low income – insecure work, low pay, an inability to afford rising costs, the unexpected bill or a family bereavement: any one of these issues can and do regularly tip people into poverty and family crisis.
We must focus more directly on making sure that people are able to get back on their feet quicker. I welcome the Trussell Trust’s proposal for ‘hotlines’ to be established giving direct contact between job centres and our national network of foodbanks. If people need food in an emergency, that one-stop offer should be just a direct phone call away. Let’s cut through, wherever possible, multi-agency bureaucracy.
Together we must all work hard to make sure that our welfare system works fairly and compassionately for all – absolutely making sure that those who can work do work, but also making very sure that those in need and crisis are helped swiftly and seamlessly by the state. Such a compassionate approach to welfare really will mean that we do indeed have a country which works for everyone.