Several years ago, on a miserable wet Saturday morning, I met my local MP, Angela Smith in a community centre to discuss my son’s education. At the time I was trying to get the local council to agree to an EHC for him – an education, health, and care plan. This is something that is provided for children and young people if they need more support in their education. The EHC is a notoriously difficult process and the majority of requests are refused. The process is long and fraught, and it is no exaggeration to state that it takes a lot of time, patience, and sheer grit to get a council to agree to one.
Angela Smith was a Labour MP. She served Penistone and Stocksbridge for almost a decade. Prior to this, she had served Sheffield Hillsborough. Yet, when I met her that morning, politics was certainly not on the agenda. She never asked me anything concerning my own political views. The topic of conversation was my son and how she could help me to persuade the council to provide him with the education he deserved. I remember at the time finding her surprisingly easy to talk to. She was empathetic and told me of her own family experience with the EHC process. Before I left, she had provided me with several important points to move forward. She wrote a lengthy letter to the Council and within the year, we had successfully achieved something that for so long seemed an impossibility. We had a strong case. It was not down to Angela alone, but it is no exaggeration to say that without her support and encouragement, I would probably have given up the fight.
An MP may need to show loyalty to a political party, but they are also required to show their loyalty to their constituents. Furthermore, there will be times when the two may be diametrically opposed and what is more, there may even be times when politics need to be cast aside in order to do what is ethically right, in particular where vulnerable members of society such as children are involved.
In 1990, the conservative government, under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, introduced the community charge or Poll Tax, as it became known, to replace the rates tax as a means to fund local government. Rather than a tax based on property size and area, a fixed tax per adult was introduced to pay for services within the community. The poll tax became extremely unpopular for many reasons but most notably because it was perceived as saving the rich money and adding increased expenses onto the poor. It did not consider someone’s income. Although students and the unemployed paid twenty per cent, larger families occupying small properties faced an immense increase in charges. Thus, a single multi-millionaire in a huge property could pay much less than a poor but large family living in a tiny home. The poll tax undoubtedly led to the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister. There were administrative and enforcement difficulties, protests, riots, refusals to pay and councils who faced huge shortfalls. Inevitably, the Conservatives lost a lot of support and by the 1992 General Election, a new Council Tax was about to be introduced which strongly resembled the old rates system rather than the poll tax. It was a fiasco, and the Government were forced to concede. In many ways it taught the Thatcher Government and subsequent Governments that they were not imperishable. Democratic election did not guarantee absolute support. Support was a fragile concept and reliant on heeding the opinions of the masses, for it could always be removed unceremoniously if necessary, especially concerning what may be perceived as being ethically right.
This idea that some things are beyond politics, along with the history of what can happen when the government misjudges the feelings of the people has been very much in the forefront of my mind this week following the Government’s refusal to continue to provide free school meals for the poorest children in society. It is something that I feel should not be perceived as a political issue because a country has a moral duty to feed, educate and keep its children safe.
The challenging issue of child poverty during the pandemic has been brought to the forefront by footballer Marcus Rashford. Rashford is consciously aware of how privileged his life is now that he earns two hundred thousand pounds a week. Brought up in the Wythenshawe area of Manchester by a single mother, who even though she worked full-time, still faced financial struggles in providing for her family, and thus Rashford knew what it felt like to go hungry. He understood that a child who was hungry would struggle to concentrate at school and therefore would not progress academically or even socially within their peer group.
During lockdown, the successful Premier League footballer teamed up with the charity Foodshare to provide meals for all the children in Greater Manchester, who would usually receive free school dinners. This initiative raised an incredible £20 million for children nationwide. Rashford then wrote a letter to the Government asking for an end to child poverty. The Government agreed to continue to provide free school meals for children during the school holidays. Rashford continued with a petition on the UK Parliament website signed by nearly 300 000 and Labour proposed an opposition day debate to extend free school meals further. This was rejected by a majority of 61, thus putting an end to free school meals for disadvantaged children during the holidays. Rashford stated that he would continue to campaign, and he received immeasurable support on social media.
I, along with many people, was shocked by the vote against this proposal. The Daily Mirror reacted in a quasi-vigilante manner of naming and shaming all the MPs who voted against it and many businesses came out offering to feed children in their communities as an act of defiance at the government’s perceived wrong-doing. I do not think for a second that this vote was, as many Conservatives erroneously believed, an issue of party politics but more an issue of ethics. What justification is there in allowing children to go hungry? We are not a third-world country. Providing for children and other vulnerable members of society should be an absolute priority.
The majority of MPs who voted against the proposal were Conservative and their defence was that many local councils had already been allocated their share of £63 million pounds from central government, which was intended as a means to pay for any Covid emergencies. However, many councils have already spent the bulk of this money and are trying to find money to provide meals from their own budgets. Isn’t this also a case of passing the buck? The leader of Islington Council, Richard Watts perceives that,
“The government is trying to explain away their total failure to properly fund free school meals by pointing to some money, when they should have just recognised it was a problem and paid for it. But that would have involved a political climbdown, so they’re now trying to retrofit a previous payment to get themselves out of a hole.”
My new local MP, Miriam Cates, claims that she voted against it because it would be like putting a sticking plaster over the problem of poverty. She believes that the breakdown of the family unit has a great deal to answer for which is rather anachronistic. Ms Cates fails to realise that if the Government had a much better welfare system then there would be no need for such ‘sticking-plasters.’ We are all aware how the Universal credit scheme is not fit for purpose, even without the added burden of a pandemic. Families have to wait five weeks to receive benefits by which time many have had to take out huge loans which they will struggle to repay. Many families are facing more pressure than ever before and more than anything, this is certainly not good for their mental health. I look at my MP with her glamorous outfits and carefully coiffured hair and maquillaged face, who seems so far removed from the empathetic and down-to-earth MP I met in that run-down community centre and wonder if she has ever faced a hardship in her life. This is someone who is true blue through and through. She dare not deviate from towing the party line, since she saw nothing wrong in Dominic Cumming’s flouting of the lockdown rules earlier this year. The only upset Ms Cates seems to have faced was when it transpired after her recent election that Redemption Media, a company she runs with her husband, charged foodbanks for its services. Furthermore, the sad reality with corona virus tearing apart our economy and destroying businesses and livelihoods that many of us are possibly only one wage slip away from experiencing hardship ourselves. We should be mindful of this. We should learn the meaning of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
So where, do the government go from here? Well, sadly I think, judging by their handling of Dominic Cummings’s excursion during lockdown to Barnard’s Castle, this government has a view that if you just wait long enough then the storm will soon pass. Unlike the New Zealand Government, I do not see them taking a salary cut in solidarity with the people or even paying more for their heavily subsidised fine dining lunches. In many ways their behaviour demonstrates there is one rule for the privileged and one for everyone else.
Whilst people may forget, they certainly will not forgive and with any luck people will express their opinion of Miriam and the other MPs who voted against this issue, when they are next at the polling station.
In the meantime, I think that we must all play our part in supporting Marcus Rashford, as well as those local services which are providing school meals in the holidays. It is equally paramount that we put pressure on the government to resolve the complex issue of child poverty and challenge why so many families are falling into desperate situations. In all honesty do we really want to neglect the needs of the more vulnerable members of our society and become a nation of self-centred and ignoramuses? Do we want a return to Dickens’s Victorian world where as the rich became richer, they became more blind to the needs of the less-fortunate? What is certain is that if we do not do something soon then child poverty could become an even greater pandemic than Covid.