Monday 9 March 2015

Welfare Reform - A response to Councillor Daniel Thomas

Yesterday a reader of the Barnet Eye emailed me to ask my views on a blog written by Councillor Daniel Thomas, the Deputy Leader of the Barnet Conservatives in the Town Hall. The blog was entitled "Welfare Reform".  Several things about the email surprised me, not least that the email was from someone I know to be a "natural Conservative".  They are a business owner, a home owner, a high band tax payer and a supporter of Boris Johnson. They are also a professional property Landlord. I would be very surprised if they voted for anyone other than Matthew Offord at the next election. So you may wonder why such a person would be emailing the Barnet Eye, to take issue with a senior Conservative and his views on how much people receive on benefits. Well my correspondent saw the twitter exchange between myself and Cllr Thomas, clicked on his profile and was horrified at what the Deputy Leader of Barnet Council had to say. Why?

The answer is simple. To paraphrase them, London is different to the rest of the Country. My correspondant was extremely worried that Mr Thomas clearly has no understanding of the cost of living in London and his views regarding benefits are very extreme. There are many things in Mr Thomas blog that I find unpleasant, but the thing which I find most worrying of all is the complete lack of understanding of the environment in which the people who put Mr Thomas in power live.

Let me start with the cost of living in Barnet. I live in Mill Hill, in a 4 bedroom Semi Detatched house. I share this with my wife, a daughter doing an art foundation course, a daughter studying for A Levels and a son Studying GCSEs. I may have a distorted view of the world, but I don't think that it is unreasonable for children to have their own bedroom, when teenagers. For studying it is highly desirable to shut the door and get your head down. My eldest daughter achieved 10 A* and an A at GCSE, along with 3 A's at A level. I believe that a stable home life was a key factor in this. My next daughter is predicted similar grades. They all attend(ed) local state schools.What has this got to do with Mr Thomas statements?

Mr Thomas states in his blog
I’ve long supported benefit claimants having to do some ‘work for the dole’ and always thought the £26,000 cap was way too much, as is the proposed level of £23,000.  Many working households have to get by on less than that, why should those out of work be able to claim more?
As I said, I believe a stable home is a prerequisite of educational attainment, for the vast majority of people. So the first question to ask is "What is the cheapest rental property I can find in Mill Hill? The most popular letting agency in Mill Hill is Cosways Estate Agents. A quick trawl of their website shows me that the CHEAPEST 4 bedroom terraced house in Mill Hill costs £507 a week to rent -  - This is a modest property in Grenville Place. £507 a week equates to £26,364 per annum. So in short, if my family had to rely on benefits, there is no way my children could benefit from a room to themselves and remain in the area, unless they were able to find social housing at a massively discounted rate. The figure suggested by Mr Thomas would leave them over £3,000 short of even being able to pay the rent, let alone pay for electricity and food. So much for a stable home for the kids. So much for the kids equipping themselves with an education.

Mr Thomas is either out of touch with local property prices, or he believes Mill Hill should not have people on benefits living locally.  Many people find themselves on benefits through now fault of their own. Let me give you two examples of friends in Mill Hill.

The first case was the family of my former business partner, who helped me set up the studio. My former business partner and myself spent seven years working day and night (literally) to build up our business. When people talk about hard work, they do not know the meaning. At the time I had a day job as a freelance IT consultant. In the evening, I'd return home, eat, then go down to the studios to work on renovations. I have a City and Guilds level qualification in Building Studies, so did much of the brickwork, plastering, painting and decoration of the studios as we got the business off the ground, working night after night. With my partner, we put every bit of spare cash and spare time into renovating run down buildings and transforming them into music rehearsal and recording spaces. If you have ever worked a 40 hour week in a 9-5 job, then done a manual labour job until 1am in the morning, for months on end, you might have some idea of the efforts we put in. In mid 2000, just as the business was starting to find its feet and take off, my partner developed pancreatic cancer. He died in Feb 2001.

His wife was left with three children under the age of 7, all who had been traumatised by the death of their father. The youngest child was 2 years old and she was in no position to work. From having a husband who worked tirelessly, she was suddenly completely dependent on the state. Her husband had previously (before joining me to build the company) spent years working for the London Ambulance Service. But in Mr Thomas world all of this counts for nothing, She would be on a benefit cap and off out of Mill Hill. Her children would have been forced out of school, compounding the stress of the terrible experience of seeing their father die.  Mr Thomas states
Welfare reform is supported by the vast majority of the British public and even a majority of Labour supporters agree that benefits are too generous.
Do you think that simply allowing a widow in my friends situation to get back on their feet is being "over generous?". I think it is what a civilised society does.

The second example I have is of a friend who was a very successful businessman. He was struck down with cancer and has endured a living hell for the last few years. He is unable to work and needs constant care from his wife. He has childen of a similar age to mine. His youngest is 12. Seven years ago all of his children were in private education and he lived in a very posh property.  The 2008 crash virtually destroyed his business. A year later he was struck down with cancer, I don't believe this was unrelated to the stress of the economic climate.

Realising that the family finances were under  severe threat, he downsized, even though he took a hit on the property, took the kids out of private schools and got a modest car. Sadly for him and his family, this didn't fix the problem. Loans were secured against assets and as he wasn't able to work, he ended up in a rented home on benefits. He has calcuated that over the last 30 years, he's paid over £2 million in taxes. Now when he is in dire need, Mr Thomas reckons he's only allowed £23,000 of the cash he's paid in back. He is depressed, his wife is depressed and the children are traumatised. He is facing a situation where he is being forced out of London whilst he is under specialist care for a life threatening illness. He recently told me that he hopes the Doctors screw up and kill him, so his wife can sue them for medical malpractice. He said then his kids will have a chance.

Now it may shock you to hear that I recently took him out for a pint. He'd protested that he couldn't afford to buy me a drink, but he clearly needed a change of scenery. After two pints he told me that he couldn't stand the fact that he was "poncing off me". I pointed out that in 2008, when my mum died, he'd taken me out for a slap up meal on the town, and hadn't let me pay for a thing. We ended the night with a curry and his wife told me that it was the first time for months he'd "been himself". What has that got to do with Mr Thomas? Well in his blog he wrote

In the 1990s, my mother voluntarily ran a Saturday play scheme in a neighbouring village.  The National Children’s Home had previously resourced the scheme and when they withdrew she led efforts to keep it going.

I occasionally helped my mother out and was impressed by how much the children enjoyed attending and how my mother selflessly kept the scheme open.  I have several good memories of this period but one incident opened my eyes to a way of life not known to me and helped influence my views on the ineffective welfare state.

To attend a day trip organised by the scheme, each child needed a parental consent form.  One afternoon, a young brother and sister arrived but with no such form.  Their parents had sent them unwashed, wearing dirty clothes and with rumbling stomachs.

My mother went to their house to ask their parents to sign some forms.  They weren’t in but a neighbour told her where they’d be: the social club.  My mother went to the club and found them sat outside, well presented, enjoying the sun with pints of lager, crisps and cigarettes.  A professional and tactful woman, she simply asked for the forms to be signed and promptly left to feed their children and get the trip started.

I later found out the parents concerned were living entirely on benefits and their children were often in the state in which they arrived that afternoon.  I was saddened and annoyed that the parents looked after themselves with the benefits they received, but not their children.

Mr Thomas uses one unfortunte example from his youth to draw all manner of conclusions. Anyone seeing myself and my friend having a few beers and a curry and knowing that he was on benefit, may have taken the Dan Thomas "Look at him, he shouldn't be enjoying himself, he's on benefits" even though he didn't pay a penny. It is easy to draw conclusions. Mr Thomas knows far more about South Wales than I do, but I was always under the impression that the residents of South Wales were caring and community minded. He mentions the couple in question were in a Social club. I belong to such a club and if a member is going through a hard time, we help them out.Can he be sure they paid for the beer and crisps (which in my world isn't exactly a luxury).

In the case Mr Thomas talks about, the parents knew that the Children were in good hands, going on a day trip with a respectable and organised group. I know from my own experiences of parenting, if you have young children, then if they are out and in a safe environment, it is often an ideal chance to catch up with friends. As for sending the kids out "unwashed and dirty, with their stomachs rumbling", Mr Thomas doesn't state whether the form said food would be provided (often the case on such trips), or whether old clothes may have been appropriate. My kids used to partake in all manner of activities which would invariably ruin clothes when small. One assumes that a day out for kids involved fun and in my experience, for wee nippers this usually involves getting covered in muck.

From reading Mr Thomas comments, I immediately had visions of a Little Lord Fauntleroy type turning up and being totally unable to have any understanding that not everyone has a mummy and daddy who can afford the good things in life.  Neither myself or Mr Thomas knows the whole circumstances or the thought process of the parents, but he has jumped to a whole set of conclusions and used it to back a highly dodgy set of hard right ideological clap trap about benefits. I may be making unfair assumptions about Mr Thomas, but as I am 100% certain from his comments that the parents in this case were not part of his social circle, I am also 100% certain he didn't have a clue about their lives and challenges. He says he later found out that the parents lived entirely on benefit I wonder how he found this out. Did he spy on them? Did he ask them about their finances? Did he simply listen to gossip?

It is no secret that in parts of South Wales where Mr Thomas orignates from, the policies of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, decimated many pit villages and other heavy industries, creating a culture of benefit dependency, where previously there had been one of civic pride and self sufficiency. It is bad enough to support a party which by and large created the problem, but to then demonise the victims of this policy is truly horrible.

Perhaps the most horrible of all the passages in Mr Thomas blog, is the bit about how he feels that people should be embarrassed to be on benefits
Not all benefit claimants make the right choices with their money and this is why I’m so pleased to hear Iain Duncan Smith’s announcement about benefit ‘smart cards’.  Cash is too easy to spend recklessly and, for some, when it isn’t worked for its value is decreased and purpose blurred. Determined money wasters may find ways around any system, but at least the Government is making it more difficult.  Simply by existing, the cards make the statement that benefits are for essentials, not to fund a way of life and certainly not at the expense of a dependant’s welfare. 
The main criticisms of such cards seem to revolve around stigma, however, this can be easily avoided by what the cards look like and how easy they are to use.  If it looks like a normal bank card I cannot see how it will prompt embarrassment at the shops.  A small proportion of a card user’s benefits may need to be available in cash for minor incidentals, birthday presents etc but that can be built in to the system.
Does Mr Thomas feel that the people I described above should be forced to be embarrassed when shopping? Should they have bright orange flashing cards labellled "scroungers" (even though in my friends case he's paid millions in tax). That is truly horrible.

 Before I finish, let me draw your attention to a little twitter exchange between Mr Thomas and disgraced ex Tory Councillor Brian Coleman (he who was convicted of assault for beating up a woman in the street).
    Glad you have been reading your Bible !!
  1. It's a beautiful one too, dated 1868 with Watkins binder.
  2. Excellent . Authorised King James I assume , known of this modern rubbish !

I think that in some ways, this sums up the character of Mr Thomas. I too have a copy of the bible. It is cherished and I often read it for inspiration. It is a bog standard paperback version. It may surprise you to note that perhaps the most inspiring quote in it for me is the dedication in the front cover.

"Thanks mate for all the toast. It helped get me through some bad times. So did this, if ever you are down it can help, appreciate your efforts and good luck,  Steve".

Steve was a homeless man I used to serve toast to at a homeless day centre I volunteer at. He'd just been housed and gave me the bible as a thank you present, for all the toast I'd served him over the years.  I'd told him about my blog and he'd checked it out on the day I'd published an entry in my Cancer blog series. Despite his terrible circumstances, he'd cobbled a few pennies together to get me a bible from a second hand book shop. He advised that if things got bad, I should keep it with me and read it. I guess that Mr Thomas would classify that purchase as a classic example of a benefit recipient not making wise choices with their cash.

I suppose that Mr Thomas has his 1868 copy in its Watkins folder and I have my stained old paperback version and of the two I know which one is the true item of value. Never the Twain as they say.

Dan Thomas and Brian Coleman are key supporters of Mike Freer MP. You can generally tell the calibre and quality of a man by the company he keeps.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

I read Thomas' appalling post. It, is as you say, an interesting insight into his character, and confirms everything I said to him, also on twitter, about his lack of empathy for those in need, based on his limited life experience and failure to understand - or care - about the circumstances in which others find themselves.

Like me. Thomas is the grandchild of a miner: my mother's family were from Durham, and my grandfather was I think the sixth generation to work in the pit. He wasn't meant to: he had a good education, at a private school, but made the 'mistake' of volunteering to serve his country in the the trenches of the first world war, and came home to find no job, no home, a wife and child to feed, and no option but to work as a virtual bonded slave in the mines, where he stayed for 40 years.

For most of that time he and his family lived in abject poverty, which meant no sick pay on the three occasions he was injured, starvation wages, no security of employment, slum standard housing, and no money for doctors: my mother's brother and sister died because the diptheria treament that would have saved their lives was too expensive for working class children.

As I pointed out to Thomas,the things which brought my family, and no doubt his, out of such poverty was - apart from the strnght of the miners' union - the creation of a Labour government: the NHS, free education, the welfare state.

Thomas then replied with a truly idiotic remark about the welfare state leading to 'a sense of entitlement', and 'lack of aspiration'.

To predicate such a puerile conclusion, on the type of example he wrote about, can only be the thought process of someone who has not personally experienced the reality of hardship and poverty.

I am glad to hear he has a nice copy of the bible. If he studued any social history, and informed himself rather better, he would know that it was the Methodist church which led the way in mining communities to form the first trade unions, and to provide the network of organisation that sustained the working poor in tnose communities, and encouraged them to unite against the exploitation which kept them in poverty.

I suggest Dan Thomas take that bible, open it, and read it more carefully, and try to understand the message of Christianity: one of empathy, love and helping those in need.

WHo knows: life is unpredictable - perhaps one day he may find himself in need of the compassionate support he thinks should not be extended to those living in misery now. The story you tell about your friends, after all, could happen to any of us, at any time.

I'm not sure you can learn empathy, but maturity is a process in which we learn from our mistakes, moderate our opinions - and learn some humility.

Time for Thomas to grow up, I think, and throw his schoolboy opinions in the bin.

I suggest a spell working for a charity for a few years, grounding himself in the reality of people suffering from the inquitous policies of this socially regressive government.

Or he could visit the residents of West Hendon, or Sweets Way, or Strawberry Vele, or Grahame Park, or Dollis Valley - the working poor, and those in need, and listen to their stories, rather than spout offensive ideological rubbish about 'aspiration'.

Alternatively he could simply do himself and us a favour, learn to keep off twitter, and keep his half baked views to himself.