A challenge to Mr Blair: come and meet the poor

by
02 November 2006

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Bob Holman invites the Prime Minister to sample life in poverty: 'The Blairs could head a mission to tackle inequality'

WHEN HE WAS leader of the Conservative Party in 2002, Iain Duncan Smith visited Easterhouse in Glasgow. Shocked by the reality of poverty, he said: "I came away a changed man." As a result, he founded the Centre for Social Justice.

Tony Blair, like Iain Duncan Smith, had a privileged background - public school, Oxford, legal training. He is sometimes accused of being out of touch. During the last general-election campaign, he could not appreciate what a woman was talking about when she complained of difficulties in seeing her GP. He and Cherie Blair moved their children across London to a top state school. Poor parents cannot do that.

I believe the Blairs are good people. Yet, having lived in deprived areas for more than 25 years, I do not think they understand what it is like to be poor. Mrs Blair experienced a working-class upbringing, but now, as a wealthy lawyer whose friends are the famous and powerful, she has lost touch with her roots.

Mr Blair is advocating harsh measures to drive recipients of incapacity benefit into work. The ones I know lost their jobs when heavy industries collapsed, and, after intermittent employment, sank into depression and reliance on incapacity benefit. If Mr Blair had friends among this group, he would realise that cutting their income is not the answer.

Again, he calls for punitive punishments for anti-social young people. As one who has been threatened with a cleaver and a knife, I share his concern and anger. None the less, my experience is that such youngsters need an adult they can trust, as well as tough sanctions.

There is another reason why the Blairs should reach out to the sizeable minority who are considered to be socially deprived. The Blairs are Christians, and the Bible is full of exhortations to help the  poor. Jesus never condemned poor people, although he had stern words for the rich. I believe that as all human beings are made in the image of God, so all should benefit from the resources he has provided.

My suggestion is that the Blairs live in a flat on a deprived estate for a couple of months in the next summer recess, on an income no higher than the minimum wage and associated allowances, but with no savings. They would record every penny they spend on food, clothes, rent, and so on.

They would be volunteers with a locally run community project, where their legal training would be useful. For instance, they could advise adults paying 200-per-cent interest to legal loan sharks, and youngsters brought before the courts. At the project's summer camp, Mr Blair would make an excellent sports officer, while Mrs Blair's interest in fashion would engage the teenagers. Living under canvas is not the same as the Blairs' usual vacation in the West Indies. The compensation would be to have fun with kids, and friendships with parents who give up their time to look after them.

The question of friendship is important. On the estate, the Blairs would not be able to afford opera, ballet, or premier-league football. Instead, they would have time to relate to neighbours: perhaps the widow struggling on an inadequate pension; the middle-aged mother who has been abandoned by her heavy-drinking partner, and finds it difficult to control her teenagers; the unemployed man in his 50s who lacks the confidence even to go into town, but who cleans the project's building.

I also go to these summer camps. This year, as usual, a local man took his only "holiday" to toil in the cookhouse. A low-paid security guard, he and his wife care for two grandchildren. A week after camp, their flat was burnt out, and they lost most of their possessions. They carry on in temporary accommodation. They are hard-working, caring people - and still poor. I'd like the Blairs to know people like them.

On their return to Downing Street, I hope the Blairs would reflect on the following.

First, low incomes mean hardship. Even those just above the Government's stringent poverty line get into debt. If the Blairs' cooker had broken down, they might have had to replace it on credit that doubled its price. The Prime Minister might then question his Government's recent refusal to put a cap on such interest rates.

Second, in general, poverty is not down to individual fecklessness. Rather, it occurs when ordinary citizens are crushed by overwhelming disadvantages.

Third, the problem is inequality, as well as poverty. Numerous households have incomes of more than £100,000, own two homes, enjoy costly leisure, and holiday abroad. Others struggle on less than £10,000, live in inadequate accommodation, can afford little leisure, and never have a holiday.

Fourth, many residents of deprived areas support local projects that serve their neighbourhoods. The Prime Minister might like to investigate why his ministers pour millions into regeneration agencies run by outsiders, while tossing financial peanuts at grassroots organisations.

Equipped with greater understanding of the problems, a deeper respect for poor people, and a new passion for action, the Blairs could head a mission to tackle poverty and inequality. They could do so during the Prime Minister's remaining period in the Commons, and later as a lifetime commitment.

The proposal that the Blairs identify with the poor will be dismissed as unrealistic. Cynics will say that they are more concerned with fame and property than unknown people in poverty. But the precedent exists. George Lansbury was leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s. As a Christian, he lived alongside the unemployed, and befriended neighbours, not the establishment.

Today, numbers of Christians are moving into disadvantaged areas because they believe that to do so is to obey God. The Son of God spent his life more with the powerless than the powerful. The Blairs might choose, even for a few months, to follow in his footsteps.

Bob Holman is Visiting Professor of Social Policy at the University of Glasgow. Since 1987, he has run a project on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow.

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