19 June 2020

Poverty is on the agenda, like we haven’t seen it in many a year. On the agenda of the media, the politicians and the public as the Coronavirus crisis raises yet another lid on an unacceptable element of UK life.

The media who appear to be lapping up every story on how the people of this country are suffering and struggling, which is how it should be of course. Reporters and presenters normally reticent at challenging government ministers are tearing into them, demanding to know what they are doing about the record number of excess deaths, the racism rearing its ugly head on our streets and the scandal of families struggling to feed their hungry children.

Of course these three issues are integrally linked.

I’m in danger of repeating myself on this site, but It’s all about cost and priorities of government.

The COVID-19 scale of deaths across the UK is a shocking indictment of this government and their austerity programme over recent years, with a lack of planning and investment. The ongoing cuts to NHS and care services, highlighted by a lack of PPE to protect workers and patients, leading to more deaths than there could have been.

The eventual drip drip of information now coming out following inquiries into the extraordinarily disproportionate amount of deaths of BAME citizens in this country, again shows the links between poverty, health, class and race. The horrendous mortality figures around many BAME health workers is another catalyst in shining a spotlight on the wrongs of our system.

Ironically the three issues have been fired into the public arena through the mainstream and social media giving massive coverage to a young black man from a working class area in the North West. When have we ever seen a letter to the Prime Minister from such a source, garner the amount of press that Marcus Rashford has triggered.

A u-turn no less. No Thatcherite “the lady’s not for turning” here. Announcements that they were reconsidering their previous decision to exacerbate an already serious problem for too many families has gone viral. Tory minsters and MPs going on television saying they would vote with Labour against the government if there wasn’t a change of mind and policy.

Although some people might believe this u-turn was an announcement of the end of poverty. It simply allows 1.3million families who have a household income (with benefits) of £7400 in England and £14000 in Norther Ireland to access free school meal vouchers.

Marcus Rashford followed his letter with media interviews talking about the massive importance to children to get a square meal that their families could ill afford without state support. He was brutally honest about the struggles his single parent mother had bringing up five kids and trying to feed them and point them in the right direction. This straight from the heart speaking brings home the impact of poverty. Of how hungry kids can’t concentrate on school work or take part in sports.

Scratching the surface even more we can now see that Marcus and his charity, was only part of the campaign. Teachers unions were up in arms at the hardships they were witnessing and organisations such as Sustain and the Good Food Project were threatening legal action against the government. This joint campaign boosted by the Manchester United striker came together nicely with incredible social media support driving things onto a higher level. One Tory ex-minister apparently admitted his party has a “blind spot on poverty”.

But let’s look at what we still have and what people are still facing in light of that admission.

There is a major issue around poverty, there is a stigma and much humiliation at times. For example in this atmosphere of transparency we now hear of how the provision of supermarket vouchers worth £15 a week appeared to be a saviour for hungry families. Until it is reported by brave mums where they half filled the shopping trolley with half decent food, looking forward to seeing their children’s faces. That was until they got to the till and the vouchers failed to register and the queues built up behind them as a store manger was called for and they couldn’t get it working. And the trolley of food was returned to the shelves. Imagine the shame that would cause, the stress and pain of having to bear public humiliation. This wasn’t unusual, as we also heard that schools who were trying to access the vouchers couldn’t log onto the system and had to tell parents their visit to the supermarket to feed the kids was on hold again. Absolutely unacceptable way for people to be treated in this day and age, in this country.

Benefits claims are up 128% including to the 2.8million unemployed.

Universal credit is not enough to stay out of debt and pay bill demands.

In work poverty is a major problem as highlighted by Labour MP Rebecca Long Bailey this week even with the recent minimum wage increase of 6.2%. This means it goes up to £8.72 for people aged 25 and over and for those aged 18-20 yr old the not so princely sum of £6.45 an hour.

Parents going hungry to feed their children and food bank organisers panicking as they see a future which is only going to get worse as companies start to shed jobs. Our union and every progressive organisation need to come together and keep the Marcus Rashford initiative top of our agenda. It needs to be to the forefront of our minds when we step up to fight redundancies. These jobs under threat are ours and for future generations, unemployment drives down tax revenues and increases benefits demands, further undermining the economy and the downward spiral continues. Let’s not take our foot off the pedestal, fight poverty and look for a better way that what we have now.


GMB North West & Irish Region