Blame the Poor – A Riot Rhetoric

I apologise for keeping on one track in my posts this week but I am preoccupied by events of the last week. I’m not the same person I was a week ago. Some of the pillars that I held on both tangible and intangible have gone now, never to be replaced.

There is so much I’m angry about. I’m angry that our ‘so-called’ leaders were all absent and seemed happy to let Tottenham burn, only coming home when the violence spread.

Tottenham, the patter and media seem to imply is a ‘place like that’. It’s not like Ealing or Clapham or Croydon.

There is a lot of ugly rhetoric that has been stoked by the government too. The blame is afforded to poor parenting, poverty, gangs – all, of course, present in places like Tottenham and making easy armchair sociologists of us all – myself included.

The truth is far more complex though as the cases coming through the Magistrates’ Courts testify. It was obvious from Saturday that the situation was exacerbated by opportunism.

Police ‘engaged’ in one area left other areas open to be looted pretty much at will. This ‘model’ spread around London and around the country.

Is it a coincidence that the increase in policing came when the ‘leaders’ returned? I doubt it.

As for those following the story, the Guardian are updating lists of those cases brought up to the Magistrates’ Court. It will make for interesting reading but for me, for the moment, it’s all a bit raw.

The push towards taking away council housing and ‘benefits’ from people found guilty of looting or rioting is ignorant beyond belief in my very humble opinion.

Housing isn’t a treat to be dangled in front of ‘poor people’.

It is actually a basic right so is the ability to live in a dignified manner.

And what about those ‘rioters’ who live in private housing? Or is there an assumption that it must have been ‘poor people’ in ‘council estates’ who caused the trouble.

It is easy to paint broad brushes and make easy judgements – so long as they are judgements made by ‘other people’.

Our minds need to simplify often complicated issues but there’s a danger in jumping to conclusions that can be wholly damaging. My concern is that that’s exactly what the government have and are doing.

Riots, Poverty and Assumptions

It would be remiss of me not to mention the rioting that took place in London over the weekend. I work and live in some of the poorer areas of the city and felt, indeed, still feel desperately saddened by some of the pictures and reportage coming from Tottenham, Enfield and Brixton among other places.

I can’t begin to make sense of it. I know the initial trouble grew from anger against the police after the shooting of a local resident last Thursday.

Regardless of the details of the initial spark that lit the tinderbox of malcontent across London, my sense is that it was, for many an excuse to cause trouble.

That isn’t to say there may not be real reasons for anger against the police and against the ‘establishment’ but the way the anger was expressed through mindless violence and looting seemed to indicate that there was also a wish to express anger and rage against lots of other things as well.

The places the riot went, so went the Twitter messages, Facebook posts and groups and the less ‘keyed in’ SMS messages letting others know where to come for random violence. Where to come for looting ‘opportunities’. Where to express ‘anger’ even if sometimes it was unclear what the anger was about or to whom it should be directed. It seems harsh that the ordinary citizens of Tottenham will be the ones to bear the deepest repercussions of the violence and aggression – for whatever reasons.

This morning I was listening to the radio. I heard the host say, ironically I suspect that the people of Tottenham deserved this for not ‘parenting their children’ correctly. For allowing their children to run wild. He said, again, I think it was intended to be ironically – ‘Where were their parents? Or rather, where were their mothers as I’m sure most of them don’t know their fathers’.

Wow.

Let’s just think about the way that we perceive people who live in poverty and poor areas for a moment.

I’m no sociologist. I have though been living and working cheek by jowl with poverty. It doesn’t make me an expert and I am fortunate enough to say I don’t have a lived experience of poverty. I’ve had periods of debt problems.  I’ve had periods of difficulties.  I lived in a single parent family but I haven’t experienced poverty.

Even so, I think that poverty is not necessarily one of the flames that fuelled the protest.  I think there’s an element of wanting excitement, wanting danger, perhaps even – wanting to change the way things are in society that lead to so many and so much injustice, discrimination and pain.

The ‘order’ of things that makes some people own and other people beg. A governing class that can take fancy foreign holidays while the streets of Tottenham burn.

Then there is the looting. Wanting something for nothing. The politics or rather the sociology of envy. The kinds of programmes that fill our evenings of reality star mania that make fame and wealth so easily accessible without the commensurate effort. Without seeing something grow. Without working.

Without work. That’s another element. Can it be a sheer coincidence that the levels of joblessness around Tottenham are some of the highest in London?

Probably not.

While Cameron holidays in Tuscany and Osbourne enjoys the delights of Disneyland (or DisneyWorld or wherever he is), I genuinely wonder if they can ever understand the fears and concerns of the people of Tottenham.

We’re all in this together?

Sticks a little in the throat to say it while statements are returned to the country from exotic foreign climates.

There needs to be a real effort and a real desire to make this world and this country better.

As for those who proposed, instigated and enjoyed the riots. Those who looted and ruined local communities already hurt by poverty. I hope they are caught and punished. I’m a social liberal and my views tend to drift leftwards but I have no time whatsoever for mindless destruction.

The pictures I’ve seen have been ones of mindless destruction and people enjoying violence. That needs punishment.

As for now, we need to think about these communities. We need to care about the people of Tottenham and places like that. We need to think about the effects of the cuts programmes in areas like this and why the levels of disengagement and disaffection are so high.

We need to heal this city and this country.

No, violence should never ‘win’. Destruction and crime must be punished.

But creating a better community, society and country need to be the goal.

As for today, I’ll share a thought or two with those caught up in the violence, fear and disorder. The people who live in the communities and particularly the people of Tottenham.

I wish them healing and time to build their community back up stronger and better.

Three Strikes

Iain Duncan Smith-Nightingale House-March 2010

Image via Wikipedia

Over the weekend, I was listening to This Week in Westminster and I was curiously concerned by Conservative MP, Nick Boles who appeared on the programme, assertion that no-one would be affected by the ‘third strike’ of the ‘three strikes’ benefit sanctions to hit those who refused jobs that were offered because, and I’m not quoting verbatim but something along the lines of no-one in their right mind would turn down three jobs that were offered to them if they didn’t have support either by their own financial means or a partner supporting them.

Sanctioning the workless to three years without benefits for turning down three jobs was something so far out of his own concept for comprehension that he didn’t and couldn’t address the question of ‘what happens when a family have no means to support themselves because they are subject to these sanctions?’.

For me, this was a concern. Of course people who don’t work and are offered jobs and can work, should – but there are so many variables and subtleties that this seems like either a gross oversimplification or we haven’t seen (and the coalition haven’t shared with their own MPs) the complex contingencies that will be in place to prevent child poverty growing as a direct result of these sanctions.

The ‘three strikes’ goes something along the lines of if you turn down one job, benefit is withheld for three months, two jobs increases this to six months and after the third offer, the sanction is for three years.

Iain Duncan-Smith confirmed yesterday that this will apply to parents equally and having children will not stop these measures being taken.

Again, everyone wants to work  but I think we really need to examine who makes these judgements and the governments assertion that this will not be a discretionary role and that everyone will be subject to the same guidelines. The fact that there is no room for discretion worries me. What counts as a ‘refusal’ to work? This is all the more crucial as the move from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance continues on apace and there are many well-documented cases of poor decisions being made by the ESA – evidenced by the  high rate of successful appeals against their rulings (the BBC quotes a 40% successful appeal rate)  about who is and who is not ‘fit’ for work.

There are many details about what counts as an ‘offer of employment’ that need to be resolved and how much choice anyone will get about the area that they might wish to be working in or whether that will have any relevance. Apart from these details, my concern is that it will be children who will suffer as a result of potentially living in households where there is no legal income.

My fleeting experience of working with benefits in general is that often the most vulnerable and voiceless are terrified out of claiming what they may be entitled to and people who ‘defraud ‘the system’’ know exactly what and how to claim. The measures to prevent families being driven into poverty need to be clear and there needs to be an examination of the potential effect that these policies will have on children and people with disabilities and ill-health, whether those categories are accepted by ATOS or not.

(Incidently,  if you go to the ATOS link, you see at the bottom a list of numbers with the request ‘Please do not give these numbers to patients – if that doesn’t tell you a lot about accessibility and also stupidity (seriously – they put that document on a website and then tell ‘practitioners’ not to give it to patient) then I don’t know what is).

Poverty – Blog Action Day 2008


Today is Blog Action Day when it is hoped that a collective conscience can be turned towards one subject – Poverty. I thought about a brief dabble into the different thoughts it conjures up for me, personally.

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I could talk about personal experiences because although I have never been in a situation that I have experienced poverty first hand, I can say that I have seen and experienced it through others. Either through my work which often, by its nature, places me face to face with poverty as it exists in the UK and particularly as it affects older people.  One instance springs to mind – possibly because it was the first time I considered the impact and pervasiveness of poverty in the UK. It was when I was a social work student on my first placement.

I went into the ‘big wide world’ with somewhat blinkered eyes. I went to see a woman who lived in a high-rise in the inner city. Fresh blood stains lingered in the lift and the cold concrete almost frightened me. There was a coldness I’ve seen many times since. It doesn’t frighten me anymore. The woman I saw, in her barely decorated house with a couple of plastic garden chairs in it and an almost worn-out mattress was smoking a cigarette the entire time I was there. It was late autumn and I was cold.

She explained to me why she made the choices to pick cigarettes over food. I tried to reason with her. We looked at budget planning. The money didn’t exist to plan with.

Inflation is rising and this will force more older people into poverty.

Age Concern are running a lobbying campaign to write to your MP about reforming the Pension system. They have a template letter on their site. It won’t take long!

It’s also important though to take a more global view of poverty- an absolute state which may never be experienced by people living in the so-called ‘first world’ nations.

The World Health Organisation explains that

One of the world’s biggest killers and greatest causes of ill-health and suffering across the globe is listed almost at the end of the International Classification of Diseases. It is given the code Z.59.5 – “Extreme poverty.”

I never knew that the ICD-10 had a classification for ‘Extreme Poverty’. Surely of all avoidable illnesses/diseases conditions that one would jump right out at you. Extreme poverty has a disease classification. I had to repeat it because I find it chilling.

So what can we do about this?  Donating money is an obvious call out. I won’t provide any links because people have choices and generally know where to go if they want to give. Donating clothes, items, books to local charity shops – it’s good for a clear-out! Buying from local charity shops too! Always good for second hand books.

Little steps, little things.

Raising awareness too – this is something I’m going to look at myself. Sometimes I don’t spend enough time looking beyond the immediate – I’m not proud of that!

In the meantime, Prin has produced a fine list of poverty-related resources.

I’m just going to add a couple of UK-based links..

The Poverty Site lists an immense amount of data on poverty in the UK and is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It is a wonderful and sometimes frightening resource.

Age Concern are running a campaign to encourage older people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled.

Oxfam are well-known for their work in the developing world but they also work in the UK.

Similarly Save the Children operate in the UK – fighting child poverty at home as well as overseas.

On a more global level Unicef and the Red Cross provide more food for thought.

So check out some of the links, take some action even if it is just talking to someone else about the issues. We can all help in a small way and it doesn’t have to be about giving money. Time can be just as precious.


Eat or Heat?


Yesterday, the Royal British Legion and Age Concern launched the Return to Rationing Campaign. It is aimed to highlight poverty among older people and the name of the campaign itself, evokes a Britain during World War 2 and its immediate aftermath that lingers in the consciousness of the nation.

Stark choices are being made by pensioners on limited, fixed incomes as the prices of food and fuel are rising.

Director General of The Royal British Legion, Chris Simpkins, says:
“We all thought rationing was history. But we were wrong. Even the Chancellor says we’re facing the worst economic climate in 60 years and this has a crushing impact on older people. The Government must give them the help they deserve – making it easier for them to access their entitlements and giving them a level of income to ensure their basic needs are met.”

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During the period of rationing, choices were made for you. Supply was limited. Today, those choices are down to individuals. What do you prioritise? Some ham and cheese to make sandwiches rather than jam – which will last longer. Turning down the heating in the winter or cutting an hour or two here and there. Cigarettes. Weekly trips to the local Bingo hall.

Although I’d say I am used to seeing poverty now, I find it hard sometimes, to allay some of the situations I am drawn into in a work environment with my own life. I can make more choices and live more comfortably. My choices are very much restricted to luxuries and leisure interests.

The ‘Return to Rationing’ Campaign highlights three campaigning issues

The Legion is calling on the Government to:

  • Provide a package of Council Tax Benefit improvements;
  • Make war pensioners exempt from Disabled Facility Grant (DFG) means testing; and
  • Double the personal expense allowance for care home residents
  • All areas that immediate differences can be made in by some adjustments to government policy.

While nosing around for some information on poverty in general in the population, I came across The Poverty Site, which breaks down poverty according to age, gender, disability, geography (within the European Union) and with just about every variable possible – seriously, you could spend hours on that site just clicking around – I know because I did.
Among the vast wealth of interesting information there, was the nugget that 40% of  pensioner households are not claiming the benefits that they are entitled to

  • Around two-fifths of pensioner households entitled to Council Tax Benefit and Pension Credit are not claiming them.  These are much higher proportions than a decade ago.
  • Of the estimated £4 billion of unclaimed income-related benefits to which pensioners were entitled in 2006/07, Pensioner Credit accounted for half while Council Tax Benefit accounted for a third.
  • The proportion of pensioner households entitled to, but not claiming, Pension Credit is much higher for owner-occupiers than for those in other tenures.
  • The proportion of pensioner households entitled to, but not claiming, Pension Credit is somewhat higher for pensioner couples than for single pensioners.

I always ask about benefits when I visit – just a basic check. And on my very very basic straw poll knowledge, over half of the households I visit are not getting money which they would be entitled to. I can usually point people in the right direction but we work directly with a teeny minority of people.
I think campaigns like the Return to Rationing one are helpful to focus the mind more on some of the issues that exist. Maybe a widespread government led campaign about benefit entitlement would be useful too. The money may be there but just increasingly difficult to access through the bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through.
Much more to be said on poverty, no doubt, but for now, I’m back to the Poverty Site to click around!