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The poor and the comfortable of Britain

05 October 2012


From the Revd Paul Nicolson

Sir, - Your two recent leader comments (21 and 28 September), about current attitudes to people in pov­erty and the unruly behaviour in the banks, point to questions about poli­tical leadership over the past 30 years.

Cabinets have put their faith in an extreme model of the free market. It has been as if Moses goes back up Mount Sinai, deregulates the Ten Commandments, and then puzzles about why there is so much theft. The growing imbalance between the comfortable and the poorest in Britain began in the 1960s, when the Conservatives set about creating a property-owning democracy.

They gave massive tax breaks to people buying their own home - far more than has ever been paid out in housing benefit by the taxpayer to the poorest citizens on housing benefit who rent their homes.

The ethics-light free market took off in the 1980s, when the Conserv­atives deregulated lending and allowed the free movement of capital in and out of the UK. A housing market in short supply was flooded with money, forcing up the price of a home and rents.

Tax Justice estimates that $21 trillion tax-free dollars are parked in overseas accounts. The 1979 Labour government let it rip until the finan­cial sector, free of all govern­mental ethical restraint, brought the nation to its knees in 2008.

Our poorest fellow-citizens are now trapped between, on the one hand, the political parties' need for power and, on the other, the tax­paying electorate's owning homes with substantial positive equity, who provide the 40 per cent of the vote needed for a parliamentary majority.

Politicians judge that they are unlikely to vote for parties who create two crucial policies needed to reduce poverty: first, minimum-income standards; and, second, a reduction in the value of land to create a housing policy that provides afford­able homes of all tenures rather than lets a scarce natural resource be exploited by specula­tion.

The Christian priority for the poorest citizens is echoed in the works of modern economists and philosophers. A market governed by John Stuart Mill, who considered Bentham's utilitarian criteria for political action of a choice between creating pleasure or pain too narrow, would be regulated with concern for right and wrong, aesthetics, sym­pathy, and love.

Adam Smith understood "neces­saries to be not only the commod­ities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without".

Rowntree promoted a human-needs standard at a level below which the community should not allow people to fall. J. K. Galbraith, in his 1992 The Culture of Content­ment, forecast the developing tend­ency of political parties to appeal for the votes of the 40 per cent of the popu­lation who vote and pay income tax, and own their homes, by not increasing their taxes, and so leaving the minority of the poorest citizens out in the cold.

Too many of today's politicians preach that the poverty is the result of individual moral failure, the relief of which should be dominated by penal methods; but moral failures in the UK are to be found at the top, and continue unabated and unpunished.

Taxpayers Against Poverty
93 Campbell Road
London N17 0BF

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