Hurrah for Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, and the minister for children and families in the Tory-led coalition government until September, when she was sacked.
I was sorry to see Sarah under the yoke of this hideous government, because she clearly had more humanity than all the other ministers, and, although she undoubtedly was trying to do her best for those in need, it was also clear to me that she would be unable to do anything much that was worthwhile in a government so dedicated to making the poorest people in society suffer as much as possible. I knew of her humanity, and of her dedication as a constituency MP, because she had very actively campaigned for one of her constituents, Jamil El-Banna, a prisoner in Guantánamo who was released five years ago, and I had met her during that time.
On Sunday, Sarah Teather broke her silence in fine style, telling the Observer, in no uncertain terms, that the government’s welfare reforms are unacceptable, and that, in particular, the one-size-fits-all benefit cap, being introduced in April, is cruel and immoral.
For the interview, Teather was visited in Brent by Toby Helm, the Observer‘s political editor, who noted her dedication, writing that the 38-year old and her team “offer advice sessions to constituents not once, as is normal, but five days a week,” because of her dedication to her job and her constituents, and because of the extent of the problems her constituents face. Brent Central is “one of the most ethnically diverse constituencies in the country,” as Helm explained. “More than 200 languages are spoken in its schools. There are high levels of deprivation. Unemployment is high and the percentage of people on benefits and in rented accommodation is among the largest in the country.” Teather calls it “a classic deprived, multicultural, inner city constituency.”
Immediately the interview began, Teather also told Helm about “the issue that disquieted her most during her time in government — the £500-a-week cap on welfare that ministers will place on families from April next year.” He added, “When she was in government Teather kept fairly quiet about the issue — though she refused to vote for it in parliament. Now, free of collective responsibility, she feels it is her duty to speak out.”
Although she acknowledged that “an incentive in the benefits system to encourage people to work is a good thing,” the problem, bluntly, is that what has been brought in instead by the government is, as she describes it, “a system which is so punitive … that it effectively takes people entirely outside society, so they have no chance of participating.” That, she added, “crosses a moral line for me.”
No one knows quite how many thousands of people will be affected by the changes, which cap the total receipt of welfare payments at £500 a week, even though unscrupulous and unregulated landlords, in London in particular, are taking much of this money — or all of it — in rent. The answer should be genuinely affordable housing, and a vast new programme of not-for-profit social housing, but instead there will be social cleansing, of a type never seen in London before. A minimum estimate of the chaos that will be caused, as families have to uproot themselves, take their children out of schools and move elsewhere, is that 40,000 families will have to move, and that the majority of those affected will be in London (also see my articles here and here).
As Helm noted, “The local council estimates that more than 2,000 people in Brent will end up losing at least £50 a week when the cap comes in. At the top end, 84 families will lose about £1,000 a week. Many will be driven out of the area, including thousands of children.”
Teather accurately accused “parts of government and the press” of “a deliberate campaign to ‘demonise’ those on benefits and of failing to understand that those in need of state help are just as human as they are,” as the Observer put it.
Specifically, she said:
Whenever there is any hint of opposition they wheel out a caricature of a family, usually a very large family, probably black, most likely recent immigrants, without much English, lots of children, apparently chaotic, living in a desirable neighbourhood that middle-class people would like to occupy. That is the caricature and of course it is a partial spinning of the truth and it allows the demonisation to take place.
I would really urge particularly Conservative colleagues but people in all parties to be careful. I don’t think we can afford to preside over a society where there is a gradual eroding of sympathy for people at the bottom end of the income spectrum and a rapid erosion of sympathy for people on benefits.
I think deliberately to stoke up envy and division between people in order to gain popularity at the expense of children’s lives is immoral. It has no good intent. There are all sorts of things you have to do when times are tight that have negative consequences but you do them for good purposes. To do something for negative purposes that also has negative consequences — that is immoral.
She added that “the benefits cap was never intended to save money,” as Helm describes it, because, when she was a minister, “she saw work showing that the policy would not save any money because emergency accommodation would have to be found for people who would inevitably be thrown out of current homes.”
“The policy was essentially conceived as a political device,” she told Helm, adding, “It is simply not in the same league as other policies that are challenging in their consequences but done for a good purpose. I don’t think it was even remotely conceived as a financial cost-cutting device. I think it was conceived as a political device to demonstrate whose side you are on.”
Summarising her stance, Helm wrote that the core of her argument is that “the entire policy will not only be cruel and socially disruptive but also self-defeating because families and — most tragically — many thousands of children will be driven out of their homes and schools and forced to live in areas where rents are lower but where there will be less chance of adults finding jobs.”
When the cap is introduced, in April next year, there will, she said, be a “reverse Jarrow March,” as “many thousands of people leave London.” She added, “My fear is that a lot of people will effectively just disappear from the area in which they were living. I think some very horrible things are going to happen.” Speaking of the children, she also said, “Obviously not all of those children will be made homeless and it is difficult to tell how many will be, but a substantial number will be required to move and that will have a destructive effect on their education. It will remove them from their friends. It will have a destructive impact on the support networks that their families have.”
Tellingly, as Helm puts it, she also recogniss that many of those visiting her surgery “have little idea that the benefit cap will hit them so soon.” As she put it, “I see people who come to see me about something else and I realise that they have three children, that they are not working and I think ‘there is no way you are not going to be affected by this cap.’” She added that middle-class people “would only notice the effect when their children lose their friends,” as the Observer described it. In her words, “When the child in the nice middle-class family comes home and says ‘my friend has just disappeared,’ I think then it might hit home and they might realise a set of children have disappeared from the class — kids who last week came to Johnny’s birthday party. Then it will start to be real. We are in a vacuum phase where I am frankly terrified about what is going to happen.”
In conclusion, Toby Helm noted that, at times, Sarah Teather was “close to tears.” The day she failed to vote for the government was “extremely difficult,” she said, but it “was a moral judgment she felt she had to make.” As she described it, “Driving a sledgehammer through a fault line that already exists between the working poor and the non-working poor — setting up that hostility — is the thing that I find most difficult morally.”
It takes someone properly attuned to what is happening to even notice that these fault lines exist between the working and non-working poor, and are being exploited by this horribly unprincipled government, which wants to portray anyone not working as a scrounger — which is outrageous during this seemingly endless recession — and which, moreover, wants no one to recognise that much of the benefit system has been masking the true poverty of those paid far too little for their work to actually afford to live in modern rip-off Britain (and especially London and the south east), where middlemen and shareholders are everywhere, leeching off everyone, but disproportionately off the poor.
The sad truth, moreover, is that people are being played off against each other, when we should all be united, and should be demanding that private landlords be reined in, and that a new age of social housing needs to begin — one that will create work in construction, but that is designed not to make profits for anyone. These are ideas that, 33 years on from Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, have been almost entirely eradicated, as people have been encouraged to think only of themselves, and not of others — or, in other words, of the “society” that Thatcher so malevolently boasted about destroying.
We need a return to a way of thinking that doesn’t commodify everything for the benefit of the idle entitled rich, a way of thinking that recognises that, when the median income in the UK is £14,000 a year, as it is, at least half the working population is struggling, and most people cannot afford to pay the kinds of disproportionate rents charged by unprincipled landlords in London and the south east.
Without these changes we are, I believe, genuinely doomed as a society; so numb and so selfish that the forced exodus of poorer people to other towns and cities where there is no work, creating ghettoes of hopelessness, doesn’t even register, as people look out only for themselves, and continue to regard the rich as entitled to whatever they have managed to grab, by whatever means, and the poor as deficient — as workshy scroungers. The most horrendous manifestation of this tendency to date has been in the demonisation of the disabled, but in April next year its impact on the working poor and the unemployed will begin to have the devastating effect on families and on children that Sarah Teather has so courageously spoken about.
She needs our support, especially as her words will have spread ripples of panic throughout the Lib Dem leadership. Despite praising Nick Clegg and calling on her colleagues to fight hard to stop George Osborne from imminently cutting a further £10 billion off the welfare budget in his autumn statement (on December 5), her words will have reminded many members of the public that it is only with the Liberal Democrats’ support that the dreadful Tory butchers leading this government are laying waste to the British state more thoroughly than at any other time in history.