Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: May, 2013

Shouting into the void: One family’s battle against cuts that hit the most vunerable

My heart sinks each time another cut to the welfare budget is announced. First the universal credit, then the disability living allowance, the bedroom tax and now the fiasco about introducing the universal credit.
The announcements of welfare cuts come thick and fast and we can easily fall into the trap of accepting the logic that welfare cuts are necessary if we are ever to climb out of recession. It is surprising how easily we have bought into austerity and saddening how we have tolerated cuts in the living standards of the poorest and least able in the community.
In the last month, applications for discretionary housing relief, as a result of the bedroom tax, are up 500% in Gateshead, North Tyneside and Northumberlnad. The numbers become meaningless.
And then something happens that challenges my resignation. I receive an email from a friend asking me to support his petition to Ian Duncan Smith to change his mind about closing the Independent Living Fund.
The Fund supports 20,000 people with severe disabilities to enable them to live in the community. It pays for carers who support their clients with dressing, toileting, eating and getting out, which most of us would regard as our basic human rights.
The recipients include paralympians, actors, TV presenters, chief executives, a life peer and two stand up comedians ( according to Independent journalist Laurence Clark who relies on ILF himself). They also include Anna Worsley, who is my friend’s niece.
Mike is extremely proud of his 40 year old niece. Since her family organized a care package for her in 1997, which involves day care facilities, respite care, disability living allowance and the independent living fund, life for Anna has been much enriched. She is well known and liked in her community.
Anna’s father died in 1997 and Mike is convinced that the years battling to achieve the life style for which Anna was entitled shortened his life. I mention this in the context of the Royal College of General Practitioners report last week that carers neglect their own health and are more likely to suffer depression.
Anna’s mother is now 67 and on medication for depression. She has lived through three years of bad news and dubious consultations about the future of welfare benefits for people with severe disabilities. She now faces reassessment of Anna’s condition for benefit purposes. All this at a stage in life when Helen sees her friends retiring, whilst she is taking on more responsibility for Anna.
As expected, government consultation showed that the majority of ILF users were opposed to the ending of the Fund because it threatened their livelihood. The government claims to have ‘listened’ to their concerns but has pressed ahead regardless.
Last month, five ILF users lost their judicial review in the Royal Court of Justice, that the consultation process was flawed. The judges ruled that the minister had properly considered the facts and reached a decision to close the Fund. The appellants were baffled by the judgment and will appeal. They were not present as the court room was not accessible to wheelchairs users.
The Department of Work and Pensions had always maintained that ILF was being handed over to local authorities so that all welfare payments were dealt with locally. In the course of the appeal, the Department was forced to admit that the money was no longer available and that the benefit would end in 2015. In other words, what had been described as a reform was in reality a welfare cut.
Many ILF users will no longer be able to live at home because ageing parents not be able to cope without the additional support. The cost of ILF is £320m and the comparable cost of residential provision is bound to be much higher.
Where does this leave Mike, his sister Helen and Anna? They feel as if years of battling for a decent life for Anna are coming to an abrupt end; that her quality of life will deteriorate and that the strain on her family will increase
They feel as if they are shouting into a void. Two articulate people with campaigning skills feel helpless to do anything about a politicians decisions and a high court judgment.
People with learning disabilities do not have a voice or political muscle. They are an unseen community. Most parents and carers will suffer in silence. Their unpaid work is estimated to save the taxpayer £119bn a year.
The severely disabled are a curious object of government ire. They cannot be accused of being scroungers and skivers. The costs involved are low compared to other welfare costs – the largest welfare beneficiaries are the elderly – and much less than the £1bn on tax reliefs for the nannies of high tax payers.
It doesn’t make sense. The ILF users have been caught in the Coalition’s passion to cut back on welfare dependency and make people stand on their feet. None of the party manifestos before the last election was committed to clawing back benefits from the severely disabled.
There is little public sympathy for the learned disabled. As Mike puts it, “ Even friends don’t get it”. And there is something horribly populist about the welfare cuts which are vote winners and greeted with glee in the Daily Mail.
It was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Lord Beveridge last week and, in a small hilltop church in Northumberland, the Archbishop of York remembered his work in protecting us against the giant evils of the day. What a coup for the local vicar, Mike Slade, by the way.
What would Beveridge make of the way we are now victimizing the most vulnerable in our society and taking away hard fought benefits that have improved their quality of life? Is this the kind of future that we want for ourselves?
It is time to make the case for welfare; that in a humane society we should look after those unable to do so even if at a personal cost to ourselves.
If you feel the abolition of ILF is a step too far, please sign Mike Worthington’s petition at

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene

We learned to get lost in a book and discover a sense of adventure

Seventy years after The Famous Five set off to Treasure Island for their first adventure, an Enid Blyton book is still  bought every minute of the day. In a Guardian poll last year, Enid was voted children’s most popular author.

Her books have stood the test of time. An author brought up in Edwardian times, who wrote over 1000 books on a portable typewriter, is the second most downloaded children’s author. How modern is that?

The typewriter takes pride of place in a new exhibition about Enid  Blyton’s work at Seven Stories, where I am a trustee. It is the first ever exhibition of her work and we were privileged that members of different branches of her family came to the launch.

I can remember reading the Famous Five novels with a torch under the bedclothes as a boy. The Five  were a happy go lucky gang of children that I wanted to belong to. They were gallant and courageous and their lives were full of adventures in which they emerged victorious by the skin of their teeth.

In the last chapter, they were praised by parents who had all  been mysteriously absent in the preceding pages. In those innocent days, children were  apparently allowed out to play without supervision.

I learned from the exhibition that the first Famous Five adventure  was published in 1942 when children must have needed some antidote to the terrors of the war. New adventures were published regularly   through days of post war austerity when cake ,pop and other treats were  still  in short supply.

I owned a complete hardback set of Famous Five adventures. Each birthday seemed to bring a new addition  to my collection  as Enid Blyton had a prodigious output and I now regret that I did not take more care of them when I left home for university.

The Famous Five was  reinvented on television in the eighties,  parodied by French and Saunders who came up with the catch phrase  ”lashings of ginger beer”  and reprinted with new illustrations  for their seventy anniversary last year. Seven Stories has made a new video of a culturally diverse  Five played by young Enid Blyton fans  prancing around the Ouseburn valley in current  day gear which is featured in the exhibition..

I had  imagined that Enid Blyton’s  popularity had waned over the years as her detractors pitched in with a mixture of envy and political correctness. Her books were removed from library shelves because of their perceived racist and sexist content – though the so called  ‘Blyton bans’  were much exaggerated by the press.

The boys seek out the villains liar and the girls do the washing up. Dishwashers  were not invented. The boys always seem to act out of chivalry (that’s  an old fashioned concept) and though their actions would now sound demeaning of their sisters, that was the way of the times.

Rereading them now, I am struck at  how the middle class smugness fades into insignificance as the story takes its grip. You could say much the same of Jane Austen.

It is the subtle inneudo that I notice. Julian, leader of the pack, tells the tom boy George that it is no wonder he is sulky because he does not have brothers and sisters.  What did I make of as a ten year old brought up as only child?

When I read Noddy over and over again at the request of my infant son, I realise that he is a  merciless little business man, who will hike up the taxi fare at any opportunity. He would be a great keynote speaker at the Entrepreneurs Forum. The gollywogs, rightly or wrongly, have been thrown out of Toytown in the current editions.

Blyton herself was a canny businesss woman, who juggled a number of different publishers to obtain far more paper, which was strictly rationed in the 1940s, than her competitors and so corner the market in childrens books.  She developed a fan club and published a magazine in which children entered a competition to name her house in Buckinghamshire where domestic bliss appeared to be the order on the day.  The Seven Stories exhibiton includes Pathe newsreel of her reading stories to her children at Green Hedges.

Blyton  has been portrayed in biography and film  as someone so wrapped up in her work that she neglected her children. In a rare and perceptive interview about her grand mother, Sophie Smallwood points out that other children’s authors – Roald Dahl for example – did not make good parents either perhaps they lived in a fantasy world that enchanted children.

Other novelists and critics have suggested that  Enid Blyton’s prose is bland. The BBC did not broadcast her work because they felt it lacked literary merit. We are rather  sanctimonious when it comes to childrens books and would never say the same of a Agatha Christie or a Catherine Cookson. Like them, Enid had a gift for getting  inside relationships.

Try any Mallory Tower novel. It may be set in a  lost world of boarding schools for privileged girls, but the friendships, rivalries and heroics are so sharply drawn that they transcend their time and setting. Jaqueline Wilson’s stories of children in care and single parents were yet to come.

Enid Bltyon has never been out of the top ten bestselling authors across seven decades and so, as Kate Edwards, Chief Executive of Seven Stories, said at the launch of ‘Mystery, Magic and Midnight Feasts’, it is impossible for the National Centre for Children’s Books  to tell the story of children’s literature in Britain in the 20th century without Enid.

Seven Stories was fortunate to acquire a wealth of Enid Blyton manuscripts in 2010, including, to the delight of the curating staff, a lost and yet to be published Blyton novel. Much of this material is on display along with  her handwritten war times diaries and other artefacts loaned by the Enid Blyton Society.

Children will make a beeline for the magic faraway tree and  Noddy’s car in the square at Toytown.  Blyton fans from all over the country will flock to Newcastle. But for me, and others I talked to on opening night , the exhibition takes us back to the days when we learned to get lost in a book and discover a sense of adventure. And for that, I have to thank Enid Blyton.

The Enid Blyton exhibiton Mystery, Magic and Midnight Feasts – the Many Adventures of Enid Blyton’  runs until Spring 2014.