In the 1960s, many people arrived in the UK from its former colonies in the Caribbean. They were encouraged and welcomed by the British government, as workers in the growing public sector. Albert Thompson’s mother was one of these people. While she worked in the NHS, her son was left behind in Jamaica. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for both of them. Lucky me.
My parents arrived in the UK in 1970. Like Mr. Thompson’s mother, they were entitled to enter and stay in the UK as Commonwealth citizens. They brought their child with them.
In 1971, the UK government passed an Immigration Act which removed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to live in the UK. Nevertheless, the act stated clearly that people who were already settled in the UK, like my parents, would not lose their rights and were to be treated as having been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. If Mr. Thompson’s mother had already been in the UK for five years by the time the Act came into force in 1973, she would have been given the right of abode in the UK.
In 1974, Albert Thompson came to the UK to be reunited with his mother. I cannot find the relevant regulations at that time, but I expect he either had a work permit or was given leave to enter on grounds of family reunification. He was 18 or 19. He settled in the UK, found work, married and raised his children here.
Also in 1974, my parents took their two children to Australia to visit relatives. The 1971 Immigration Act had granted them indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and this was duly stamped in their passports when they returned. This tiny stamp was the only proof of their (and my) right to live here. If they had not travelled abroad, I believe they would not have been able to easily demonstrate their status. Of course, they were never asked to.
In 1981, both major parties supported the British Nationality Act, which further redefined the status of citizens of Britain’s former colonies. Among other things, it:
- removed the automatic right of children born in the UK to be considered British citizens, if their parents were not British. If my sister had been born after 1983, she would not have had automatic British citizenship, despite having been born in the UK and lived here her whole life. The same applies to Albert Thompson’s children.
- removed the right of Commonwealth citizens to acquire British citizenship by a simple process of registration. After 31st December 1987, they would have to go through the more expensive and demanding process of naturalisation.
- made it impossible for Commonwealth citizens who did not already have the right of abode to obtain it.
My family joined the protests against this Bill, understanding it to be racist in both intent and effect. At that time (as now) racism was often couched in terms of concerns about immigration, but I understood very clearly that my own status as an immigrant was never considered relevant by the boys who carved NF into the desks at school.
The measures in the 1981 British Nationality Act did affect me, but I was not their target. As Imogen Tyler argues in this excellent 2010 essay, “Whilst race and ethnicity were never directly named, the 1981 Act effectively designed citizenship so as to exclude black and Asian populations in the Commonwealth while leaving ‘routes home’ for white nationals born within the boundaries of the empire.”
The 1981 Act was the foundation of a decades-long establishment consensus on immigration that has prevailed ever since. Each successive government has tightened the rules yet further, reinforcing and feeding on popular racist myths about scarcity, overcrowding and invasion. From the 1990s onwards, both Tory and New Labour governments focused their rhetoric on asylum seekers, laying the foundations for the shameful conduct of the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
Before the option was withdrawn, I decided to apply for registration as a British citizen. This took some time. I must have applied before 31st December 1987, but my eventual certificate of registration is dated 31st January 1990. It cost money (I can’t remember how much) and I had to relinquish my Australian citizenship. I had to send in all my previous passports, with the all-important indefinite leave to remain stamp. None of this was a particular problem for me.
I was prompted to do this mainly because I wanted the freedom to travel and work within the EU, and because I didn’t fancy having to swear allegiance to the Queen as part of the naturalisation process. So I am now safe, unlike poor Albert, whose lack of documentation means he has been asked to pay £54,000 for his cancer treatment by the NHS.
Should anybody ask me to prove my eligibility for lifesaving treatment, I am ready. I had travelled abroad often, and had passport stamps to prove it. My parents haven’t moved house since 1974 and all the documents were easily available to me. I had enough money to pay the registration fee, and knew the deadline was approaching. All these things are a consequence of the dumb luck of being white and middle class.
I could have made different choices, had worse luck, been less well-informed. If I had, maybe I would be in Albert’s position.
But of course, nobody will ask me. Nobody has ever asked me to prove my right to live here. I acquired British citizenship purely for my own convenience, not because I was treated with suspicion and hostility in a country that would never truly acknowledge me as its own. That is the real privilege of my white skin.
This is an edited version of the speech I gave at the final event of my Welcome Blanket project, last night.
This evening is the moment for me to say farewell to the blanket. I am handing it over to A Thousand for a Thousand, an amazing local community-based charity. I understand it will be used to welcome and comfort a refugee family who are struggling to find a new home here in Brighton.
The Welcome Blanket has been a large part of my life for the last 10 months. I want to say a couple of things about that experience.
The blanket was made by many hands – everyone who contributed squares, everyone who donated money, everyone who sewed names, everyone who talked to their friends about it.
Thank you to all those people. It’s been a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and bringing everything together. I’ve loved working with the fabric and taking care of each person’s contribution. I’ve made new friends.
But it’s also been an unsettling experience. I’ve been reading and learning about the reality of migration in the UK, and thinking about the meaning of the words on the blanket, as I worked on them.
One thing that has become clear to me is that living in the UK as a migrant is often a conditional existence.
People make their lives in temporary spaces that can be snatched away by one ‘if’ after another. If they renew the visa, if they accept the asylum application, if they believe we are really married, if we can raise the money for the fees and so on.
The verse on the blanket – which stands at the entrance to our city – is lovely. But I’ve noticed that the people who respond most positively to it are white people like me, who have indeed found that Brighton accepts us without asking us to justify ourselves.
Yet for many people in our community, there is a positive epidemic of asking, and the reality for them is nowhere near as welcoming as we may fondly believe it to be.
Many people have said to me that this blanket should be hanging in Brighton Museum or somewhere like that. I understand the sentiment. But I think having produced this beautiful object is not the thing that needs to be remembered and marked.
What would be worth putting in the museum would be a story about how the people of Brighton took action – at this time of crisis – to live up to their image of themselves. It’s all very well having these fine words, but what matters is how we act.
The Welcome Blanket project is above all a call to action. Action is required from all of us to help bring these words to life.
For most of 2017, I have been working on my Brighton Welcome Blanket project, a large scale, collaborative piece, which incorporates the verse carved on one of the Patcham Pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
This verse appeals to progressive white Brightonians, like me, because it encapsulates something we feel is distinctive and characteristic about our city – its openness and acceptance of diversity, its willingness to provide sanctuary to those who don’t belong in the places they come from.
As I worked on this blanket, I photographed each crocheted word, sharing my progress on Facebook in order to encourage other people to take part by contributing their own textile squares. The slowness of working by hand with yarn means that there is time to develop an intimate relationship with a piece of work. I tried to reflect on the significance of each word and phrase as I went along.
For instance, when I had finished the word hand, I posted this on the Facebook group:
In Sophie NL Besse’s show, Borderline, there is a scene in which a young refugee is told, after travelling across Europe to Calais, that because his fingerprints had been taken in Italy, he must return there. His response is to take a lighter and try to burn away his fingerprints. For others, stranded in camps and sleeping rough across Europe and beyond, a photo of their hand sent to the grassroots Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees brings in return the precious gift of a chance to talk with loved ones or summon help in an emergency. But this word is simply about a greeting, human to human, hand to hand.
As I read and learned more about the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and the UK specifically, I began to feel differently about the verse. Two thoughts have crystallised for me, as the blanket reaches its final stage.
1. ‘We ask not’ is the key phrase
Not asking means starting from the basic assumption that all humans are equal, and equally worthy of respect. It is a risky stance – as explained in the verse. There’s always a chance that you are unknowingly welcoming a foe into your home. But it is the only way to maintain your own humanity.
To say in advance that you will extend a hand of friendship to every visitor, without first questioning their status or motives, means that you relinquish your power to pick and choose who may enter. It means you opt not to see people from outside as a resource to be exploited or as victims to be rescued.
On the other side of the coin, not being asked is an experience that many progressive white Brightonians like me take for granted. It feels great, to be accepted at your word. We want to celebrate that feeling and that freedom, and share it with everyone.
But unfortunately, it is a lie.
2. We ask all the time
The unpalatable truth is that the welcome we offer to people who turn up in Brighton, the UK or Europe is very far from the open acceptance suggested by the words on my blanket.
In reality, the experience of arriving in Europe or the UK is one of being asked repeatedly what your value is, and whether you can prove you meet the (arbitrary) standards we set for people to settle here.
We ask at the border, and we keep on asking. The UK’s hostile environment for “illegal” migrants is a system that is designed to bring the border into every aspect of day-to-day life.
We ask at hospital
From 23rd October 2017, hospitals and other providers of secondary health care will be legally obliged to ask people about their immigration status and to charge overseas visitors in advance for the treatment they need.
We ask at school
Schools carry out a pupil census every term. Campaigners revealed last year that since December 2015, the Home Office has had an arrangement in place to regularly request access to the data gathered for immigration purposes.
In September 2016, new questions about nationality and country of birth were added to the Schools Census. The purpose of gathering this data is nothing to do with ensuring adequate funding for schools or support for pupils with additional language needs. It is directly related to the hostile environment programme, as Against Borders for Children explain:
In 2015 then-Home Secretary Theresa May outlined proposals to be included in the Immigration Bill that would bring schools under the government’s agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. According to the BBC, those plans included schools withdrawing places offered to children of irregular migrant families and checking immigration status before accepting new pupils. After the then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressed ‘profound concerns’, they reached a compromise, and the DfE agreed instead to collect nationality, COB and and expanded language data through schools “to improve [the DfE’s] understanding of the scale and impact of pupil migration on the education sector.” The new data collection is explicitly linked to the government’s policy to create a hostile environment for migrants, and is part of an attempt to make schools a proxy for immigration enforcement.
We ask at the letting agency
Since February 2016, private landlords have been required to check the immigration status of all adults they are letting property to. Landlords must check up every year and report tenants to the Home Office if they find they no longer have the required documents
Deeds not words
If you were not aware of this epidemic of asking, you are probably white, with a British-sounding name. Many of us will most likely never experience the impact of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to assume we live in an accepting, welcoming country. We do not.
If we want to make our idea of ourselves a reality, we have to take action. Take a risk. Make a stand.
Here are some groups of people who are doing that. If you like the idea of the Welcome Blanket, you can help to make it less of a lie by joining and supporting them.
Thousand 4 1000
You can sponsor a square of the Welcome Blanket by making a donation to Thousand 4 1000, Brighton’s community response to enforced homelessness of forced migrants.
Prints and cards of the blanket are also on sale, with all profits going to Thousand 4 1000.
Docs not Cops
This campaign brings together healthcare providers and patients to resist the introduction of charging into the NHS. Download their toolkit and take action in your local area.
Against Borders for Children
Their September 2017 update has a list of clear actions you can take to disrupt the use of the school census to enforce immigration controls, whether you are a parent, teacher or anyone else.
I spent most of last week in Liverpool, on holiday. I had never visited the city before, and found it impressive and fascinating.
The centre of town is full of beautiful, grand buildings, monuments to the British Empire and its swift and bloody accumulation of wealth from around the globe, large amounts of which passed through the port of Liverpool.
The Museum of Liverpool tells a multitude of stories, revealing a place that is constantly reinventing itself, grasping the opportunities of history and incorporating new ideas, people and technologies as soon as they sail in on each new tide.
The holocaust we deny
I was aware, of course, of the central role of the transatlantic slave trade in making Liverpool rich. In the city museum there was a display of some of the bizarre and unexpected things brought back by traders – vast quantities of whalebone, mummified cats, exotic animals, and so on – while in the International Slavery Museum I read about a single boat journey which netted the owners a profit of £10,000.
Altogether, over 12 million African people were captured and transported into slavery between 1500 and 1900. The scale of this horror is difficult to contemplate and shamefully seldom acknowledged or considered by mainstream culture and education in the UK. The Slavery Museum rightly includes a focus on both the impact on the development of African societies and slavery’s complex legacy for black populations across America and Europe, rather than presenting the story of the trade itself in isolation.
One story from the museum that stuck in my mind was a reminder that not all slaves in north America were put to work on sugar plantations. Some found themselves in cities – their labour was used to build places like New York, creating the infrastructure and working on the docks from where goods were shipped back to Liverpool.
The echoes of slavery – and the colonialism which flowed from it – permeate every aspect of European and American society – from infant nutrition to policing, from film casting to the structural causes of mass migration.
Children of the Disappeared
Back in the Museum of Liverpool, there is another hidden story, shocking because it is so little known and yet it happened directly to people who are still living.
In 1945, under the post-war Labour government, a meeting took place at the Home Office, to formulate a plan for deporting hundreds of Chinese seamen who had settled in Liverpool during the war years.
There was a long history of Chinese sailors settling in Liverpool, dating back to the late 19th century, when Alfred Holt and Company began running steam ships to China. However, during the 1939-45 war, this population was boosted by thousands of Chinese sailors who were recruited to the British merchant navy, to keep the country supplied with goods, despite the obvious dangers.
As the war dragged on, many settled in Liverpool, forming relationships with local women and fathering children.
Once the war was over, the Chinese seamen were surplus to requirements. The exact reasons for the decision are not entirely clear – the government feared mass unemployment, the local council faced a shortage of housing, the shipping company wanted rid of some troublemakers –in any case, a decision was made that the Chinese men had to leave.
People were snatched into cars in the street. Others set off to look for work at the docks and never came home. Despite married men having a right to stay, they were packed off along with everyone else. Their wives, partners and children – who have uncovered this shabby tale – were left without a word, without any money coming in, without a link to the Chinese community.
Just as in the years of empire, the centuries of slavery, Britain plunders the world. People as well as goods are treated as chattels – used and disposed of at the convenience of state and capital.
A hostile environment
As we absorbed this tale in the museum, another visitor voiced her shock:
“They would never get away with that now.”
But they would. They do.
There are currently an average 12 of immigration raids per day across London. As part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants, people are taken from their homes and workplaces to detention centres, where they can be held indefinitely. Some are later deported on specially chartered flights, while many more are carried on regular scheduled flights.
Since 2014, the government has been deporting people before their immigration appeals have been fully heard. After a protracted legal battle, this has been found to be unlawful, but not before families have been split apart, and their access to justice denied.
No one is illegal
I will be taking my Borders Kill banner to the Brighton Pride parade tomorrow, to join Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton). Their contingent is a necessary reminder that Pride is rooted in campaigning for justice, and that governments, police, immigration services and multinational corporations will not think twice before criminalising our brothers and sisters if it suits them. They are no allies of mine.
As we come together at Pride to celebrate the fact that our love is no longer deemed illegal, we need to reflect on where the focus of that state oppression has relocated. We will march not only because we are proud to be who are we, but because we are proud to defend the rights and freedoms of those other communities that are now criminalised by the state and demonised by the mainstream media.
We are proud to march alongside and in solidarity with Brighton’s migrant communities and to oppose racist immigration raids, detention and deportation across the UK. With this year’s parade being sponsored by Gatwick Airport (where migrants are routinely deported and detained) our message is more crucial than ever.
I am working on a large collaborative textile project at the moment – the Brighton Welcome Blanket. The finished blanket will incorporate the words carved on the pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest, we ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
On Saturday I went to a Great Get Together event at my local community centre. There were several such events over the weekend in Brighton & Hove and around the country, remembering the shocking assassination of Jo Cox MP a year ago, and bringing people together to emphasise that whatever our differences, we have more in common than that which divides us.
I do think events and initiatives like this are worth doing, but for these ideas to make a real difference, they need to be built on a stronger and less self-congratulatory foundation.
What is ‘our way of life’?
This morning I was listening to the radio 4 news coverage of a van being deliberately driven into a crowd of people leaving a Muslim community centre in north London last night.
At 7.30am they played a report by Nick Robinson, who had spoken to eye witnesses soon after the event. One witness said that two of the attackers had run away, and one had been caught by the people at the scene.
This was followed immediately by John Humphrys interviewing Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
JH: Do you have any evidence that there is a wider movement out there that supports this sort of horrible thing?
Miqdaad Versi gave evidence – the reported rise in islamophobic attacks, research showing that many people believe islam, or muslims, to be a threat, the normalisation of islamophobia in public discourse.
At 8.00, the news bulletin played a statement from an eye witness, stating that the attacker who was caught shouted “I want to kill all Muslims”.
At 8.15, while interviewing Sadiq Khan, Humphrys said:
“Is there a danger that we might overreact to something like this?
If it turns out… that this was a lone individual acting out of some crazed impulse.
There are and always have been lone individuals doing insane and wicked things. That’s the way life is. There is a danger, isn’t there, that we might turn it into something it isn’t?”
“Should we be careful, should politicians particularly, specifically, be careful about the sort of language they use after events like last night. ‘Getting through it’, ‘We can get through it’.
Who would doubt that we can get through it? There’s absolutely no question that somebody who did something horrible – horrible, wicked though it was – last night, a single individual is actually threatening our way of life in any way at all, is he?”
The narrative being built by John Humphrys, the main presenter on the BBC’s flagship news programme, is that this is an isolated incident, the work of a lone madman, and is therefore no threat to our way of life.
Sadiq Khan responded by drawing parallels between this incident and other, similar attacks recently carried out by individuals or small groups of people, such as the Westminster Bridge attack and the Manchester bombing. He talked about people being ‘inspired’ or brainwashed via the internet, without necessarily coming into personal contact with a wider network.
He stopped short of confronting the less palatable fact that the wider network which inspires islamophobic and racist attackers, such as those who attacked the Finsbury Road social centre, and the man who killed Jo Cox, is not a subterranean, subversive operation, hidden from decent society. It includes the mainstream news media and large parts of the British political establishment.
Why is the attempted murder of worshippers not an attack on our way of life, when the attempted murder of concert-goers is enough to bring armed police onto the streets? Is it because “our way of life” is not considered to include observing Ramadan?
The distressing truth is that our way of life is not based on a set of innocuous “British values” such as tolerance and democracy. Those ideas are present within British culture, of course, but our history is also one of brutal invasion and colonisation.
Britain – perhaps especially London – is a place where people can make connections across their differences and create diverse and supportive communities. But it is also a place where people can be snatched from their homes and detained indefinitely in order to meet a bureaucrat’s target. It’s a place where the lives of dozens (more likely hundreds) of black people count for less than the few thousand pounds needed to ensure their homes would not become an inferno.
No one is illegal
The 2014 Immigration Act has brought the border into daily life. Workers in hospitals and schools, landlords and homelessness charities are being enlisted to ensure a hostile environment for people whose presence here has been decreed illegal.
If we truly have more in common, if we really want to welcome refugees, then we have to challenge the racist foundations of our political, economic and cultural life. For a powerful, clear and erudite example of how to do this, please find 15 minutes to listen to Akala:
When I was collecting signatures for my petition about the road crash hotspot at the bottom of Elm Grove, a few people asked how redesigning the road could improve safety. How different could it really be?
Following the council’s invitation to submit ideas for their forthcoming review of this junction, I got together with a few friends and we have come up with two options for a safer junction, plus some other ideas to think about. I’ll be emailing all these ideas to the council’s Travel Planning team tomorrow, just in time for their 1st November deadline.
If you think these are good suggestions, there’s still time for you to drop them a line to say so – feel free to link to this blog post if you want to. Or, of course, send in your own thoughts about what’s wrong with the junction and how it could be improved.
Preferred option – London-style
Move the central islands on Lewes Road, both north and south of Elm Grove, to create a wide, protected, two-way cycle track on the western side of Lewes Road, connecting with the cycle paths around the Level and continuing past Union Road, Park Crescent and Elm Grove, as far as (approximately) Kendrick’s Property Services.
Convert the bus stop opposite to a floating bus stop, and provide a signalised crossing for southbound cyclists to enable them to join the two-way track as they emerge from behind the bus stop.
Here’s a picture of a similar crossing already in place in London:
Introduce a two-way protected cycle track at the bottom of Elm Grove, accessible both from Elm Grove and Islingword Road (provide a cyclist-only cut-through at the bottom of Islingword Road).
Use signals for cyclists on the two-way track to allow them to turn left or right into Elm Grove (via Islingword Road) and for cyclists turning left or right out of Elm Grove.
Add a pedestrian crossing just south of Elm Grove. This will make it quicker and easer to access the GP surgery. Straighten the crossing north of Elm Grove, as the distance to be crossed would be reduced by the width of the cycle track. Remove all the railings.
Option 2: Copenhagen-style
One-way raised or wand-protected cycle lanes on both sides of Lewes Road and Elm Grove.
Vehicle traffic stopped further back from the junction than cyclists and left turning vehicles held, with a large “mixing zone”, giving cyclists a clear head start as the lights change.
If there is to be no alteration at all to the road layout, the council could still introduce:
- Advance green signals for cyclists, or simultaneous green for cyclists
- Low level lights, so that cyclists can easily see the signals
- Traffic lights which hold vehicles from making a left turn into Elm Grove until cyclists have had a chance to clear the junction
A broader view
In order to allow the structural changes outlined above, it may be necessary to reduce the number of vehicles passing through the junction. The council could explore the following possibilities for doing that:
- Preventing vehicle left turns into Elm Grove (except for buses). This may require some other changes to prevent rat-running.
- Making the southbound left-hand lane into a bus lane.
- Preventing vehicle right turns out of Southover Street, to minimise traffic turning left into Union Road.
- Making Lewes Road one-way northbound (except for buses, taxis and cycles), and Upper Lewes Road one-way westbound (except for cycles)
I am aware that the brief for the council’s review is to focus on efficiency, and that the budget is tight. Our suggestions may seem unrealistic. However, I think there is a very strong case for designing streets that feel safe for cycling, in order to enable a significant shift away from private car use and towards cycling for most short journeys.
This is why people are moaning about gridlock. This graphic is all English journeys (so will include inter-urban pulling averages up). pic.twitter.com/oz0IvTfISj
— The Rancid Zombieman (@RantyHighwayman) October 16, 2016
All the evidence from Europe is that protected infrastructure provides that sense of safety, and that it is possible to create the circumstances for a much higher modal share for cycling than we currently see in the UK.
More people cycling would relieve congestion in the city and therefore improve the overall efficiency of the road network. It would also make a big contribution to our air pollution problem and give more people an opportunity to take everyday exercise.
Even if the council does not currently have enough money to transform the junction fully, I think it would be worth producing a tested and costed design that would afford adequate protection for people on bikes, so that they are able to quickly bid for the necessary funds in the future.
Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, is a hard-hitting illustration of the cruel chaos our social security system has been reduced to. If you’ve had to deal with this system in the last few years, or if you’ve simply been paying attention to the voices of disabled activists over that time, you won’t be surprised by the events of the film. But Loach’s presentation of them through the fresh eyes of Daniel, a skilled carpenter rendered unable to work by a heart attack, deliberately highlights the shocking fact that our safety net is truly in tatters.
I’ve been volunteering in the computer room at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project for a couple of months now. I’ve met several real-life Daniels. One thing the film doesn’t show is the soul-destroying effect of the grotesque merry-go-round of ESA rejection/JSA application/appeal tribunal when it is followed almost immediately by another assessment and another rejection, starting the whole ridiculous business again. I met a man recently who reckoned he could easily end up living on the streets because of this kind of instability. He didn’t think he’d survive it again.
It also didn’t show the knock-on effect of sanctions on people’s housing. Both Daniel and his friend Katie were sanctioned in the film, leaving them without income for four weeks. We weren’t shown whether they contacted the local council to ensure their housing benefit was not automatically stopped – despite belated DWP guidance to the contrary, many people in real life have gone into rent arrears because of this delightful bureaucratic hiccup.
Some of the most upsetting sequences in the film showed single parent Katie struggling to keep her head above water, alone in an unfamiliar town, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the charity of the foodbank. The latest survey of foodbanks in Brighton & Hove was published just this month by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. As you might expect, the city’s 15 foodbanks are dealing with increasing demand, due to benefit changes and delays, and high housing and transport costs. In 2016, local foodbanks are supplying 298 food parcels in an average week.
But real-life Katie is unlikely to be able to stay in Brighton for much longer, even with the help of her local foodbank. Right now, the weekly benefit entitlement for a single parent with two children of opposite sexes is a total of £455.18. That’s £73.10 in JSA, £117.40 in Child Tax Credits, £34.40 in Child Benefit and £230.28 in local housing allowance.
Brighton & Hove Council reports that there are currently no 3-bedroom properties available in the city that are affordable for a family on this level of housing benefit. If Katie were living in Brighton & Hove, she would already be paying at least £100 of her weekly rent out of her remaining income, as well as around £4 a week in council tax, leaving her and her children with less than £120 a week to live on. No wonder she needs the foodbank.
But next month – from 7th November 2016 – the new benefit cap will come into force. That will reduce Katie’s housing benefit to £159 a week, and her remaining income – after rent and council tax – to £50 a week.
£50 a week to feed and clothe a family, and pay the bills? It’s clearly impossible.
Some of my fellow students at the welfare benefits training course I attended earlier this month were council staff from the Housing Options team. Their job is to advise people about what to do if they are in danger of homelessness. Based on these facts, they are making it clear to people now that if you have children, your only options are to get a job or leave town.
To put it another way, there is no longer a safety net in our city for people with children.
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t been told before. Groups like Boycott Workfare, Disabled People against Cuts and Black Triangle have been campaigning about this stuff for years. Bloggers like Joe Halewood, Johnny Void, and Kate Belgrave have been valiantly trying to get the word out.
They’ve had to fight a battle to be heard, because benefit claimants were being relentlessly demonised by the press and broadcast media. Even the Labour Party’s former shadow secretary of state for work & pensions ended up joining in.
Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who was listening all along. Debbie Abrahams’ announcement at this year’s party conference that Labour would abolish the Work Capability Assessment has already made a difference, with the government immediately announcing that people with chronic disabilities and terminal illnesses would not have to be endlessly reassessed for ESA. Why they are still insisting on the same people being regularly reassessed for Personal Independence Payment remains a mystery.
If you haven’t yet raised your voice to support those who are campaigning on these issues, please take some action, however small. Write to your MP, pledge a ticket on this Facebook group to enable someone else to see I, Daniel Blake – or find someone who has pledged one so you can afford to see it, organise a community screening in January, when the DVD comes out, start a discussion in your own social network about the film, or how the benefit cap is forcing families out of our local communities, volunteer at a food bank or join a political party. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do – we need to build a diverse and broad social movement that changes the public mood, not just swap one lot of managerial politicians for another.
After all, if there’s no safety net for some of us, there’ll soon be no safety net for any of us.