Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: March, 2018

I have never felt more demoralised about national politics….

There is just over a year to go and  I feel utterly despondent. Over the weekend, some called for it to be postponed and others said that would be a betrayal. The centre cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats once said at a terrible time in the history of his nation.

When I bring the subject up with my friends, they shake their heads in dismay. A  malaise  descends over the political life of the nation and quite possibly contributes to our dismal rating of 19th happiest country in the world.  Even the United States, with all its troubles, in 18th place is happier than us.

I believe that the country took a terrible wrong turn when it voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 but that is not the point. “Winning isn’t everything” Matt Busby said. “There should be no conceit in victory and no despair in defeat.” So why do I despair?

I just do not see how we can come out of the negotiations with Brussels with any satisfactory agreement, even less with any honour. The politicians in charge mouth platitudes. They dither, deny and contradict each other in a desperate way. No one seems to have any practical solutions or any political savvy to square all the conflicting factions involved.  Many are boxed into corners.

The truth slipped out in the questions that followed Theresa May’s latest speech at the Mansion House. The Prime Minister had been placatory. She had accepted there must be compromises . Then a German reporter asked she still think it was all worthwhile. After a long pause and a grimace, Theresa said  that the British people had voted and she would deliver.  I take her answer as a ‘no’, don’t you?

It is ironic that we have a Prime Minister leading us out of of Europe who is, in her heart, a remainer and a Leader of the Opposition whose  party is edging towards Europe against his better judgement.

Politicians dismiss each new opinion and deride each new piece of research, even if they have commissioned it themselves.  There was never a worse time to be an expert or a lobbyist.  The never ending drip feed of reports and research  that are forgotten the next day is like a slow torture.

Both parties are divided. They are failing in their duty to propose and oppose, to debate and test the issue to exhaustion in parliament.  The debate on a customs union has been postponed.  The  Labour party avoided  debating  Brexit at least year’s conference  because it was too divisive. They all ought to be considering what is best for the nation rather than being bound by so called ‘will of the people’.

I bemoan the overwhelming  failure of political leadership. Who is going to make a film like The Darkest Hour out of  this mess? There are few precedents to draw on, precious little experience in the civil service and no political majority to force through a solution. Problems are parked or hidden behind ever more obtuse terminology like “full regulatory alignment”.. I cannot believe that such intelligent people can be performing so badly abd that someone cannot come up with a clever scheme for the Irish border.

Neither do I see much sign of cross party cabals  or popular  protest movements emerging. Where is the march to support or the petition to sign? This is the greatest issue of our generation and we feel  paralysed  and unable to lift a finger of political activity. I have never felt so demoralised about national politics and have avoided the subject in this column for some months now.

In these dour times, it is too much to hope for moral leadership on other issues either. I admire Jeremy Corbyn’s measured  response to the attempted assignation of Sergei and Yulia  Skripal. He makes a better contribution that Gavin Williamson who tells the Russians to  “go away” and “shut up”.

If I was Prime Minister, I would pull England out of the World Cup to be played in Russia this summer. The Mail and the Sun briefly touted this idea but Mrs May meekly says it is up to the governing bodies to decide. What a cop out. If we want to make an impact, we must do more than the traditional tit for tat dismissal of diplomats.

Neither, if I was Prime Minister,  would I sell arms to the Saudis so that they can bomb the Yemenis.  BAE Systems has acted in a corrupt and contemptible ways for years aided and abetted by royalty and ministers. It was poor judgement of those running the Great North Exhibition to approach them as a sponsor.

But defence is a major employer  and politicians will not damage the economy. Neither will they put their own nest eggs at risk. Russian oligarchs donated almost £1m to the Conservative party last year.  Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important, so who would want to offend  the fans on the terraces  who will sooner or later head to the ballot box.

This government that will not offend anyone. As soon as there is the slightest criticism of the eminently sensible suggestion to withdraw copper coinage, the idea is dropped. If you cannot look after the pennies Prime Minister what chance of managing the pounds?

Published in Newcastle Jounral on 20th March 2018

We live in Food Bank Britain and should be furious

I am glad I braved the snow to attend the Food Bank AGM. I came away shocked, grateful and angry in equal measure.

I went with low expectations. As a veteran attender of such events, I expected an interminably long meeting which would not explain the finances followed by vast mountains of stodgy food when everyone just wanted to get home.

How wrong I was. I was offered a hot drink and finger sized portion of cake on arrival. The co ordinator gave a succinct power point presentation, the treasurer talked us confidently through the accounts and, with an eye on the weather, all was wound up in 40 minutes. Job done.

And what a job they do. This was the lesser known West Northumberland Food Bank, based in affluent Hexham with outposts in Prudhoe and Haltwhistle. It is a leanly run organisation, four years old, and a superb example of what a small  charity can achieve.

I was shocked by the facts presented to the meeting and they bear repeating. Requests for food parcels doubled in the last year with 2194 requests for help. These are not a few habitual attenders. 35% of the clients only visited the Food Bank once and a further 42% made less than 6 visits. Food poverty is widespread even in well to do areas.

18% of the requests came from people in low paid employment who typically worked few hours, often on zero hour contracts, with no job security. This is the desperate state of the modern job market.

42% of the requests came from people in debt, with talk of loan sharks prevalent in Haltwhistle. 30% came from people with mental health problems and a further 30% from people with physical health problems. We are not looking after the sick in our society.

22% of the visitors were experiencing delays in receiving their benefits and 11% had been sanctioned. We have devised a pernicious benefits system  which reduces claimants to hunger.

I was grateful for the generous outflowing of public support for the Food Bank. Local people donated an estimated £46,000 of food and household goods last year. Others made regular cash donations which, the Treasurer pointed out, are needed to pay modest wages.

In all, 83 volunteers provided 1,400 hours of their time last year to help run the Food Bank including a group of 19 volunteers trained in welfare rights. I realised there is much more to the Food Bank than giving out food. One of the recipients, quoted in the Annual Report, said this:

“ I was put on Universal Credit when I lost my job. I managed for four weeks without any money but was stressed all the time and ran out of food. Someone told me about the Food Bank and it took a lot of courage to go. When I walked in I burst into tears and could hardly speak I was so upset and ashamed. A lady took me to one side, made me a cup of tea and listened when I was feeling calmer. She was lovely and told me I could apply for an advance payment which I didn’t know about and she helped me phone the jobcentre to apply for one. I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for the Food Bank and their kindness.”

The Food Bank support worker predicted the situation will get worse as Universal Credit is finally “rolled out” in Northumberland later this year and as other advice agencies pull out. CAB drop in sessions at Prudhoe and Haltwhistle were cut  last year and  all that is left is the Food Bank.

I was angry that we are in this state. The Chair said that the original goal of the Food Bank was to be obsolete. It should have been a temporary sticking plaster. But he now sees food banks becoming part of the fabric of society. This is shocking. We are going backward to days of handouts  before the welfare state.

When  David Knayston comes to write the social history of our day, he should call this volume  ‘Food Bank  Britain.’  The rise of the food bank movement in the United Kingdom almost exactly mirrors the Cameron years and is due to the recession, austerity policies  and welfare reforms.

The government may be tearing itself apart over Brexit but it will be remembered by posterity as the time when private enterprise failed, local authorities went bankrupt, living standards fell and people went hungry.

The Food Bank tries to remain apolitical and says politicians only call at election time to have photos taken. When the next election comes, I hope everyone who uses and supports food banks ask candidates about their policies on welfare benefits and votes accordingly. Our compassion for the hungry needs to be turned into outrage at the ballot box.

Ursula le Guin died recently. I returned home earlier than expected  from the Food Bank AGM  and finished one of her classic stories written in the seventies  about an eminent physicist who travels to a more prosperous planet where he hopes his work will be appreciated. He finds himself cossetted in a well heeled university, dressed in the best clothes and served the finest food. He is oblivious to the living conditions of the oppressed  working people around him whom the government carefully keeps out of sight. Is this dystopian world so far fetched?

Published in Newcastle Journal on 6th March 2018