Sunday, February 22, 2009

I'd rather be hungry than cold

Last week I was in Belfast. I heard a story that no doubt could be multiplied thousands fold in this great country of ours. The story was of a young woman, 17 years of old, living alone. She was entitled from the state to £40 a week. £20 of this was paid in food vouchers. If she did not spend up to the amount, she lost the rest. She found this difficult - during a week there were items such as milk and bread that she could not buy on a weekly basis.

The past few weeks have been bitterly cold across the UK. This young woman could not afford heating, she has asked that she only be given £10 in food vouchers, so that she can have the other £10 to pay for her heating - she would rather be hungry than cold. The tears are again stinging my face as I write this. What are we doing to our children? A government that spews out weasel words about ending child poverty and yet creates a system that does this to one of our most vulnerable? A myriad of think tanks and policy wonks who pontificate about this and that and the other (I still haven't written my piece about the Centre Forum Equality debate a couple of weeks ago) in theoretical terms. Sorry, I confess, I am no academic - but I am someone who has spent most of her life working with "ordinary families" (can we come up with another term?) and extraordinary young people, surviving in spite of, not because of, enlightened public policy.

In May 1997, like many youth workers, I had high hopes that a Labour Government may do something to improve the lot of our young people. I am sure that they had similar ambitions - but - as is demonstrated time and time again - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you start with the wrong premise - you end up with nonsense. This government's obsession with control, its blind faith in private sector solutions and belief that young people can be coerced into being the people the government wants them to be - has ended in human misery and disaster for so many. They have from the beginning surrounded themselves with the great and the good, highly intelligent I don't doubt - in touch with the reality of people's lives?........I seriously doubt. Frankly, the people with the solutions to our most pressing problems, are the people themselves. But how often are they honestly and meaningfully consulted with?

I am unable to get the image of that young woman out of my head. By all accounts she is a feisty, determined character. But at 17, with no family to support her, is totally reliant on a system that is at best inept, at worst frankly criminal.

Do I think the Labour Party will ever be able to address this problem? They have palpably demonstrated they are incapable of doing so. Do I think "New Tory Party" will do so? They talk the talk, but walking the walk is not only unlikely it is totally against the values they hold dear. Do I think we can? If anyone seriously wonders why am I am in this party - this is why. I know, without a shadow of a doubt that this is the vision of Nick Clegg. I know, without a shadow of a doubt that this is the vision of our party. The only impediment to us really doing this will be trust in a flawed methodology. That is where our debate must be - that is where our battle lines must be drawn.

So, for this young woman and so many like her, who will tonight be going to bed hungry or cold, or both - will we be big enough for the challenge?

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