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The view from Hammond’s limo

Still practising

Chris Preece

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

homelessness_AdobeStock_25883469.jpg“As Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well off to lives that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality.”

That’s a particularly damning quote from the closing remarks of a report on poverty in the UK penned by Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. You may remember that a preliminary version was issued back in November of last year, and this potential public health crisis was debated in Parliament in January by a grand total of 14 MPs

The Government at the time responded by pointing out that there were, in fact, less people in absolute poverty than ever before, and that there are 3.3 million more people in employment than in 2010. A hand wave and a shrug. Nothing to see here.

Alston’s final report, from which the quote above is drawn, was published on May 21st. He acknowledges the above points with a hand wave of his own. Absolute Poverty is a measure of poverty against a probably-not-all-that-arbitrary benchmark of 2010. Alston describes it as a “selective, widely criticised and mostly unhelpful” measure, not least because 2010 happens to correspond with the peak of the global recession.

Heralding an increase in employment since this particular low point is equally disingenuous in his eyes, and besides, it entirely misses the point that being in work is no longer a protection against poverty. Nearly 60% of families in poverty have someone who works.

In order to prevent yet more wrangling over figures as an alternative to action, Alston recommends that we need a single, nuanced measure of poverty. One that reflects not just income, but the cost of living, and which includes groups like the homeless who have, somewhat unbelievably, been omitted from previous figures. He recommends those of the Social Metrics Commission, whose figures are the default source within his report.

So, what’s been the UK’s response to this final report?

A hand wave and a shrug.

This time it was chancellor Philip Hammond who was tasked with being Hand Waver In Chief, presumably because Theresa May was busy clearing out her desk. He appeared on Newsnight and, with a conviction that would have had Marie Antoinette blushing over her cakes, announced “I don't accept the UN rapporteur's report at all. I think that's a nonsense. Look around you, that's not what we see in this country.” 

There’s an obvious problem with that statement of course, which is that presumably Mr Hammond spends rather a lot of his time in the relative splendour of Westminster, or being ferried safely from one affluent bubble to another in the back of a limousine. When he looks around him, he doesn’t see “this country”.

Nonetheless, it seemed only fair to take Mr Hammond’s advice, and take a look around myself. Of course, I’m pretty much in a bubble as well. I live and work in a leafy rural area which is almost the epitome of English middle class comfort. Nonetheless, here are a few things I’ve noticed around me…

  • There’s a permanent collection in the supermarket for the local foodbank. It started as a thing that would appear around Christmas or harvest festivals. Now it’s just there all the time. A little guilty pile of food by the exit.
  • Sleeping bags in doorways where none were before.
  • A “feel good” story in the local paper over Christmas about how people had raised some funds for a Big Issue seller with MS, which included the depressing detail that Christmas was his quietest period because “everybody’s spent their money”.
  • Patients who decline services because there’s no longer any public transport, and they can’t afford a taxi.
  • Those services being reduced and moved away from those rural communities, to “hubs” they cannot access.
  • Increasing numbers of people living under one roof.
  • Our joint child protection meetings with the Health Visitor and Healthy Child Team have gone from a relaxed cup of coffee discussing one or two children who might be at risk, to a long dizzying, despair inducing list of genuine suffering.
  • People with desperate care needs who always seem to just fall short of qualification for help. Others that do qualify (usually by dint of being at the end of their life), but discover that the private firms enlisted to supply care aren’t prepared to travel out to the isolated locations in which they live.
  • People who clearly cannot work, being told that they must.
  • Those who cannot navigate the increasingly labyrinthine systems required to claim help, even more so now that they invariably require access to a computer to do so. (Fortunately, we still have a library, though only by virtue of local volunteers.)

And so on, and so forth…  That list was by far the easiest part of this piece to write, a straight forward stream of consciousness that has doubtless omitted much that I have seen, and by definition even more that I haven’t witnessed.

Mr Hammond though remains seemingly unaware of any of this, apparently having never even glanced out of the window of that limousine. The government appears to be willing to do nothing substantial to address this damning report, other than staunch denial and statistical obfuscation.

Still, I find myself wondering if the rest of us are really so much better. What, after all, have we done about it? We’ll keep topping up that pile by the door of the supermarket, or giving to charities we’ll subsequently discover weren’t quite as virtuous as we imagined. Alston actively commends the actions of the voluntary sector which has stepped in to prop up some of our ailing services. Nonetheless, as a nation we have continued to vote for policies that have created this situation. How prepared are we to allow our lives to become just a little shorter, a little poorer, a little nastier, in order to rescue others from the existence that Hobbes described?

Perhaps those of us not actively living in poverty are all sat in the back of that limo with Hammond after all. Unlike him we’re prepared to look out of the window, but when push comes to shove are we going to discretely lock the doors when the car pulls into a less salubrious part of town, or get out and actually do something?

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Chris Preece

Chris has worked as a GP Partner in North Yorkshire since 2004, and still relishes the peculiar challenge of never quite knowing what the next person through the door is going to present with. He was the chair of his local Practice Based Commissioning Group, and when this evolved into a CCG he joined the Governing Body, ultimately leaving in April 2015. He continues to work with the CCG in an advisory capacity. When not being consumed by all things medical, Chris occupies himself by writing, gaming, and indulging the whims of his children. He has previously written and performed in a number of pantomimes and occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Tragically, his patients no longer tell him he looks too young to be a doctor.
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