FAR from being a long-term vision for Britain’s future, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement (News, 24 November) was “a whispered croak from a governmental death-bed”, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, told the House of Lords in a debate on Wednesday of last week.
The statement displayed a “tiredness and lack of ambition”, he said. “Early in my years as a parish priest, I learned that one of the saddest signs of human decline and the approach of life’s end is a narrowing of horizons, physically and metaphorically, until they barely reach beyond the bedroom walls.”
The Bishop welcomed the increases in working-age benefits and the national living wage, but he said that money made available to the lowest income households should not be subject to annual political whims. “We need an independent mechanism to ensure that benefits always cover the basic essentials of living.” He encouraged support for that same proposal from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust.
He welcomed the uprating of the local housing allowance, but deplored government action in freezing it during a period when private-sector rents had risen rapidly. “We have seen rent levels become one of the principal drivers of homelessness — now including homelessness among people who are in steady employment, especially in major cities such as my own.”
He referred to the parish of St Barnabas, in Oldham, which is operating a free laundry service for those who cannot afford a washing machine or dryer, or to travel to a launderette. “We all know what happens when you try to dry clothes in a cold house: you get the kind of damp that we have seen wreak such havoc on people’s health,” he said.
“I applaud that parish’s initiative, but I deplore the need for it, and I do not see measures in this statement that are sufficient to render it no longer necessary.”
Dr Walker turned to issues of mental health, calling for a significant increase in funds to enable the handover, in A&E departments, of patients with mental-health issues. Police officers were currently spending hours of time waiting with them. “We have a mental-health crisis. I would be grateful if the Minister could give this House a commitment in principle for funding in mental-health care, even if it is not possible to make money available today,” he said.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, put a question for short debate to the Lords the following day: “To ask His Majesty’s Government what impact the removal of free prescriptions for benefit claimants who fail to look for work will have on their health, and the health of the work force.”
The Back to Work Plan and the Autumn Statement had both announced that people on Universal Credit who did not “engage in activities designed to increase their skills and improve their employability after 18 months of support” would have their claim terminated. Accompanying benefits, such as free prescriptions, would also be stopped.
Prescriptions are free elsewhere in the UK. The Bishop was concerned that the plan could serve to exacerbate inequalities, and pointed to the findings of a Royal Pharmaceutical Society survey this year, showing a 67-per-cent increase in patients’ asking about cheaper, over-the-counter alternatives.
These were all serious concerns, especially when, in so many other ways, “the cost-of-living crisis has been an incubator of the gaping inequalities that remain,” Bishop Mullally told the House. Those unable to engage with Jobcentre Plus were most likely to be subject to poor conditions that determined their health or ill health: “It is important that all engagement with them is not lost when their claim ends.
“To use or to threaten to use health measures in any way as a punitive consequence for disengagement is, I believe, a misuse of power, and could have a significant impact on the lives of people who need to be helped, not punished.”