Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Cost of living rise means low income families need a third more income to make ends meet.

Low income families need a third more income than they did a decade ago just to get by according to a leading charity.

Research conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University shows that rises in transport, energy and food costs are major causes.

Researchers used the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), a ‘barometer’ of living standards in the UK based on the level of income members of the public think necessary to achieve a decent standard of living. This is regularly updated to reflect changes in the economy.

They found that respondents beloved a single person needs an income of £18,400 a year to achieve MIS and a couple with two children needs £20,000, a lone parent needs £28,450.

These estimates do not match the sort of incomes on which many individuals and families have to try and make ends meet.

Since 2008 the cost of basic goods and services has risen by 35% for single adults, by 30% for a couple with two children and by 50% for a pensioner couple.

In 2018 a lone parent in work has an income 20% below MIS level, a couple where both partners are in work falls 11% short and a couple where just one partner works by 27%.

The rise in the cost of goods and services has been driven by factors including a 65% increase in the cost of using public transport, a 40% hike in energy costs and a 50% rise in childcare costs. All this in an environment of seemingly unending ‘austerity’ where government support for working families has failed to keep pace.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation chief executive Campbell Robb said the figure shows ‘just how precarious life can be for low income households’.

This despite record low levels of unemployment, 4.2% in March-May this year, the lowest level since 1975 according to research carried out for the Library of the House of Commons. At the same time wages have increased by just 2.5%, only a fraction ahead of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which increased by 2.4% over the same period.

Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University said the past decade had been ‘particularly difficulty’ for low income families because the costs they have to pay have risen faster than the consumer prices index, whilst the support they get from the state have lagged behind.

The JRF are calling on the government to allow low income families to keep more of their earnings by increasing the work allowance aspect of Universal Credit. This, they say, would help three million families reach the MIS.

It was time, said Campbell Robb, for the government to ‘put things right by allowing families to keep more of their earnings’.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Changes to supported housing could put people with mental health problems on the streets.

People with mental health issues living in short-term housing could see the support they receive put in ‘jeopardy’ by the roll out of Universal Credit according to a leading charity.

RETHINK surveyed 117 members working in housing services, most of whom said they feared the service they offered would be forced to close by changes to funding.

Under Universal Credit funding for stays in supported housing of only a few weeks duration will be increasingly hard to find, forcing claimants to fall back on hard pressed council services.

As a result, people living with defined mental health problems may face longer stays in hospital as they wait for a placement and may end up on the streets if one cannot be found.

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Mental Health Network, told Mental Health Today that supported housing plays ‘a crucial role in preventing homelessness for people with mental health issues'.

He added that under the proposals people living in short-term supported housing will have ‘no guarantee their housing costs will be met', forcing them to ‘live from day to say' without any security.

The legislation to introduce Universal Credit was passed in 2011 and the amalgamation of several separate benefits into a single payment was scheduled to be rolled out in 2017.

Its introduction has been delayed by IT problems and in those areas where Universal Credit has been implemented beset by concerns that the housing element is forcing vulnerable people into debt and the risk of becoming homeless.

Labour MP Frank Field, a long-term advocate of benefit reform, described Universal Credit as ‘a shambles; leaving a trail of destruction in its wake'.

Once full implementation has been achieved seven million claimants will be covered by Universal Credit and it will account for £63billion in government spending.

Commenting in Mental Health Today on the likely impact of the changes Danielle Hamm, assistant director for campaigns and policy at RETHINK said ‘supported housing is a lifeline for people living with mental illness’.

She called on the government to ‘reconsider this potentially disastrous funding model' and to treat ‘short-term’ tenancies ‘as just that, as weeks not years'

Monday, 25 June 2018

There is something seriously wrong with a society where destitute people cycle round at night to keep warm

A couple of weeks ago going to a meeting at One Smithfield, the large and locally controversial office complex built by the council in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent, I met a man our society pretends isn’t there.

He was one of the 1.5million people in the UK who are, according to a report published recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, classed as destitute. This means that at some point in the past year they have been unable to afford the basics necessary to have food, clothing and shelter.

The number of people in the UK classed as being destitute fell between 2015 and 2017 thanks to changes to the way benefit sanctions are enforced. It is feared that the introduction of Universal Credit will drive levels back up again.

Destitution is most prevalent in North and the Midlands in cities like Stoke-on-Trent that have been hit hard by the loss of their traditional industries, and the poorer London boroughs. Almost all the people experiencing destitution live in rented, temporary or shared accommodation and single men under 35 face the highest risk.

The causes are complex and multiple, they include delays to benefit payments, high housing and utility costs and harsh debt collection practices on the part of public agencies including councils.

Despite the last point in this instance it wasn’t a government agency that was the villain of the piece. In fact, a woman employed by the local health authority was going above and beyond her role to find him a bed for the night.

The story this man bent out of shape by hardship and bad luck told was one of falling through the widening cracks in our society. Raised by alcoholic parents and abused in the care system he had followed the well trodden route to the streets via prison.

For two years since being released he had made determined, if not entirely successful, efforts to stay clean whilst living on the streets. In the worst of the past winter, he told us, he had had to cycle around the streets to keep from freezing, despite having painfully swollen legs.

A significant proportion of the 1.5million destitute people in the UK, some 364,000, are children, potentially setting up more stories where misery us handed on from one generation to the next.

Research carried out in 2017 for the Child Poverty Action Group found that GPs felt child poverty was a growing cause of I’ll health amongst their parents, with poor diet and inadequate housing being major contributors.

A further survey carried out by the charity in conjunction with the National Education Union found that 87%of the teachers questioned said living in a low-income home affects children’s ability to learn.

In their report the Joseph Rowntree Foundation call for an end to the freeze on working age benefits and changes to how sanctions are imposed under Universal Credit. They also call for reforms to how councils and the DWP collect debts.

In an article written for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website earlier this year Claire Ainsley said the ‘nature’ of poverty had changed and so the means by which it is challenged ‘must change too'.

Adding that the current approaches to the problem placed too much reliance on the ability of the market to provide a solution and were, as a result, ‘running out of steam'.

She used her article to advocate for the creation of a more inclusive economy, a ‘living rent' linked to local earnings and for social security and employment services to work harder to get claimants into good jobs rather than just any job.

She also called for more people with ‘lived experience’ of poverty to be involved in making policy.

People like the lost man made old before his time I met outside Smithfield, where he went I do not know. Although she made superhuman efforts the woman from the health authority was unable to find him a bed for the night, he wandered away to another night on the streets followed by a day that would surely bring fresh troubles.

That a million and a half people live lives of similar hardship in a rich country with pretensions to status as a world power should shame policy makers and everyone else.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Gender and geography dictate how politically powerful we feel.

Reports published by the Hansard Society and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality claim that gender and where they live influence how much political power individuals feel they are able to exert.

Research conducted by Lawrence McKay of Manchester University using data from the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement shows the influence geography had on how people relate to politics, particularly how much influence they feel themselves to have over decision making.

McKay found that people living in London felt they had most influence, whilst those living in Wales and Scotland felt they had the least. Out of the English regions people in the North East felt they had the least influence over the political process.

Where voters live, McKay suggests, nay have a greater influence on how people engage with politics than factors such as income or education.

This distancing of people outside London from the political process could, he suggests, by their physical distance from the seat of power and the fact that people living in the regions seldom see people who are like them represented as members of the political class.

Gender and health, both physical and mental, are also powerful indicators of how influential individuals are likely to feel. A point made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality in the report ‘Invisible Women’ written in partnership with the Fawcett Society and the Young Women’s Trust.

Launching the report Chair of the group Jess Phillips MP said, ‘millions of women are invisible in Westminster’s evidence and thinking', adding that ‘unless we see women in all their diversity, we will make the wrong decisions and will not achieve equality'.

The report shows that women and particularly women of colour are often overlooked by policy makers and those responsible for designing services. This is especially evident in relation to employment support and mental health services, creating what the group describe as a climate of ‘multiple discrimination’.

The report calls for improved data collection to allow policy makers to understand the experience of diverse groups of women and for a review of how services respond to the needs of women and members of other protected groups. It also recommends that it be made easier for individuals to bring claims of bring discriminated against on the grounds of more than one characteristic.

At the launch of the report Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smithers said that policy makers ‘repeatedly overlook the women who are in the most need and who experience the greatest disadvantage; that has to change’.

Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, said that ‘more needs to be done to improve young women’s prospects,’ particularly those from groups that face disadvantage if they are not to face ‘a lifetime of inequality’.

The aim of the report was, Jess Phillips said to work towards a situation where the UK has ‘data, policy, the law and services’ capable of recognising ‘women’s diverse experiences’ and furthering their interests.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Walking our way back to health.

Walking is good for us, walking briskly for just ten minutes every day can bring about dramatic improvements in physical and mental health.

Globally the World Health Organisation cites being physically inactive as the fourth greatest risk factor for early mortality. People with active lifestyles have a 25% to 35% lower risk of heart disease, they also have a lower risk of obesity, cancer and diabetes.

Being physically active is also something that helps to promotes mental wellbeing.

Figures published by Public Health England show that 4 in 10 adults aged between 40 and 60, 40% of the people surveyed said they walked briskly less than once a month.

This is matched by figures for the number of people who reported being physically inactive, meaning they do less than thirty minutes moderately intense activity a week.

Three million adults in the 40 to 60 age group reported being physically inactive, with proportionally more living in the West Midlands (23%), compared to the South East and South West (15%).

Professor Paul Cosford Managing Director of Public Health England said in a statement to the media 'managing all the pressures of everyday life can mean that exercise takes a back seat, building a brisk walk into your daily routine is a simple way to get more active.'

The NHS Choices website recommends building walking more into what you do every day by getting off the bus one stop earlier and using the stairs instead of taking the lift.

We all know being more active is good for our health, but the sofa exerts a magnetic pull, never mind, if you are of the generation most in need of moving more, having been put off exercise for life by Kes style games lessons at school.

Walking, perhaps, offers a gentler and less competitive alternative requiring no expensive kit and unflattering Lycra outfits. At least it would if it were made a bit easier to do.

Advising people to walk briskly for ten minutes a day and giving them a whizzy app with which to track their progress is all well and good; but creating an environment where that isn't a chore would be even better.

That means spending money on making public spaces safe and welcoming and creating a working culture where people can go for a, not so gentle, stroll at lunchtime without feeling they are at risk of being judged as slackers.

Tasks that put the ball firmly back in the court of local and national government, with employers and the NHS warming up on the side-lines.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The poverty gap for working families is turning into a chasm.

Families with children where one or both parents work are living further below the poverty line than they were in 2008 with those employed in the public- sector faring worst.

Using data from the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) statistics produced by the Department of Work and Pensions Professor Jonathan Bradshaw and Dr Antonia Keung of the Department of Social Policy at the University of York have identified an increase in the median poverty gap.

In 2007/08 the gap before housing costs stood at £41.60 per week, after housing costs were added this rose to £50.40. The 2016/17 HBAI data shows a respective rise to £57.40 and £63.00.

Further pressures are added to squeezed family budgets by in work benefits failing to keep pace with rises in the cost of living. The harsh conditionality of the welfare system has, according the University of York's WELCOND project, resulted in poor health and financial outcomes for many claimants and may have driven some to commit crime to survive.

Writing in the report Bradshaw and Keung say ' the UK has tended in the past to have had comparatively high poverty rates, but low poverty gaps. This has been thanks to a fairly comprehensive but quite low minimum income scheme'.

They go on to say that since the recession this has been undermined by the government's austerity policies, leading to a situation where poverty rates may be falling, but the number of children living in poverty is increasing and they are further below the poverty line than ever before.

Figures produced by Landman Economics for the TUC show there will be a million more working households with children living in poverty this year, a rise of 50% since 2010, taking the total to 3.1million. The factors driving this increase, the research claims, include weak wage growth and the rising number of people in insecure work.

Public sector workers have been hit hardest with their average income falling by £83.00 a week since 2010, workers in the private sector have seen their wages fall by £32.00 a week over the same period.

The rise in child poverty has been highest in the East Midlands (76%), with the West Midlands (66%) and Northern Ireland (60%) close behind.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said the government was 'in denial over how many working families can't make ends meet '.

She concluded that the government needs to ' boost the minimum wage now and use the social security system to make sure no child grows up in a family struggling to get by'.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

National Parks are a good thing, but less photogenic green spaces matter too.

Britain may get some new National Parks, according to ‘energetic' environment secretary Michael Give. There are currently ten, along with thirty- four sites designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The first national parks, the Peak District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor, were created in 1951, as the seventieth anniversary rolls around Give has ordered a review to be led by former Conservative Party aide Julian Glover.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph last week Mr Gove said it was ‘time to look afresh' at these iconic landscapes with a view to making ‘sure they are not only conserved but enhanced for the next generation’.

You would need to be a true cynic not to have your heart lifted by landscapes that have been inspiring artists and everyone else since the Enlightenment. The trouble is when it comes to Tory environment policy in general and pretty much everything involving Michael Gove; a little bit of me will always be profoundly cynical.

The Tories talk a good game on the environmental, not least because it plays into the ‘blood and soil' patriotism of members in the shire counties once described by David Cameron as the ‘turnip Taliban’. When it comes to delivering anything tangible they tend to be found wanting.

Their enthusiasm for fracking and the expensive white elephant that is HS2 knows no bounds, New Labour may have had form when it comes to selling off school playing fields to developers, but the Tories have hardly donned armour to protect them since 2010.

As for the perennially busy Mr Gove, he is the archetype of a politician in a hurry. Why waste time with half measures when you can charge at an issue head on? Particularly when doing so might help with the great (to him anyway) of seeing our hero standing on the doorstep of Downing Street.

What really worries me though is that the wrong problem is being addressed. It would be cause for air punching joy if any government were to create more national parks, they aren’t perfect, but they do protect landscapes that are a public good from being exploited.

The real issue is protecting those green spaces that aren’t as photogenic as Dartmoor or the Cairngorm’s, but matter hugely to the communities that use them. These are the places most threatened by drive the regeneration of areas facing economic challenges by building executive housing.

The thinking behind this is that all it takes is a ready supply of detached houses and investment will follow, except for when it doesn’t of course. Needless to say, the shortage of affordable housing is ignored by this ‘if you build it they will come' approach.

We need, desperately, to build the right sort of houses in the right places, with decent transport links and amenities. Gobbling up the wood at the end of the road or the scrubby bit of field where people have walked their dogs since forever to build a pocket estate of executive boxes will be of benefit to nobody.

In fact, it is hugely damaging to communities that have used these spaces for decades and risk along with being made more cramped and polluted as a result. It shouldn’t surprise anyone outside Whitehall that such spaces tend to get developed in areas that are already facing serious challenges.

The idea behind creating the national parks back in the fifties was that access to the countryside with all the benefits associated should be for everyone. In the spirit of which we should fight for every green space as a common good that should be held in trust for those to as much as those landscapes deemed iconic.

We may not always win; but it would send a powerful message about what we value and how we want to live.