‘Food Banks Are Not Enough’ – poverty and inequality in the UK today

A few score Friends attended this conference on poverty and inequality.  It was organised by Central England Quakers, and held in Birmingham, on 29 November 2014.  It consisted of talks, discussions in workshops, and informal discussion.

The stimulus for the holding of the conference was Central England Friends’ concern about the growth in the UK of poverty and inequality.  I am glad to say that the two were seen as linked.  (Apart from absolute destitution, I wonder whether you can have poverty without inequality.)

Members of other agencies helped run the day: Equality West Midlands and Housing Justice (the latter a national Christian charity).

At the outset, we were reminded of Quaker history: reference was made to our Statement on Inequality (April 2014) and, further back, to our ‘Eight Foundations of a True Social Order’ (1917) (Quaker Faith & Practice, 23.16), which includes the following:

The opportunity of full development, physical, moral and spiritual, should be assured to every member of the community, man, woman and child.  The development of man’s full personality should not be hampered by unjust conditions nor crushed by economic pressure.

How true, even today!

In the morning, we heard a talk by Suzanne Ismail, a member of staff of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, whose remit is economic justice.  (In her talk she referred to co-operation with other movements, eg Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, and Fuel Poverty Action).

Suzanne reminded us that inequality declined in the UK between 1937 and 1977 but since has got worse, so that the UK has become one of the most unequal members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (with the USA, Chile, Turkey and Israel).

Most Friends, she said, are concerned about this social change, and some are very angry about it.  She argued that inequality adversely affects people’s ability to relate to each other.  Inequality makes us want to buy more things, to keep up.  There is also a connection with sustainability: consumerism destroys the planet.

What can we do?  There are various sources of inequality and therefore various focuses for action.

  1. Re the social security system: undo the harm being done to it, and improve it. (Let us have a grown-up debate.)
  2. Re the tax system: deal with tax dodging, which is costing the Exchequer billions of pounds.
  3. Promote the Living Wage, especially as (a) Chief Executives’ pay has risen astronomically while (b) minimum wage jobs are not a gateway to better paid ones. (Quakers as employers, please note.)
  4. People on low incomes pay a lot more for basics, eg fuel (note pre-payment meters), so we need a fair market for good and services.
  5. Companies can sign up to the Fair Tax mark, to show that they pay the taxes they owe.

Have we, and the wider citizenry, the political will to campaign for change?

Later, I attended two workshops: one on income inequality, the other on housing and benefits.

As regards the first, I found myself in a sub-group looking at “high pay”.  We were asked to discuss whether a maximum income could and should be imposed on UK residents.  We thought not, but that progressive taxation was one day to deal with excessive pay.  We thought that it should become socially unacceptable, (disgusting, even) to command high pay.

Alastair Murray, of Housing Justice, introduced the afternoon session I attended.  He said that the UK housing market is dysfunctional – but not for everyone.  Private wealth has been promoted, at the expense of the public good.  Unfortunately, housing is not a very live election issue.

Alastair declared that we can build more homes, to meet the need, if we want to (and there is enough land).  He painted a sad picture of what many of our fellow citizens have to endure: poor quality housing stock, overcrowding, insecurity of tenancy, and very long waiting lists for social housing.  He argued that, in the private sector, landlords have the power, rather than their tenants.

What is to be done?  These are some of Alastair’s suggestions:

  • Form or join a Housing Action Group
  • Free up empty spaces, eg rooms above shops and in other premises
  • Use church land and property for affordable housing (the Faith in Affordable Housing project)
  • Form a housing co-operative
  • Increase Council Tax bands (unchanged for many years!)
  • Improve tenants’ security of tenure (as Shelter advocates)
  • Support the Homes for Britain Campaign (homesforbritain.org.uk)
  • Note Homelessness Sunday (18 January 2015) and Poverty Action Sunday (15 February 2015).

Alastair recommended some websites: whobenefits.org.uk and housingjustice.org.uk .

In the final plenary, mention was also made of a Fabian pamphlet, A Convenient Truth, by R Wilkinson and K Pickett (a follow-up to The Spirit Level): this can be accessed on-line via fabians.org.uk .

I left with two feelings: (a) that we can all do something; and (b) that we who chose (or were chosen) to attend the conference, while well-informed and passionate, are not poor or homeless ourselves!

David Harries

3 December 2014