By Rachel Sylvester in THE TIMES, 13 November 2018
It’s the children who stick most vividly in my mind. There was ten-year-old Daniel, who calmly described how he had been homeless. It was frightening, he said, and he was often hungry because the only food he got was at school. Luke was 16 and studying for his GCSEs. He spent every night at the library because there was no internet connection in the dangerous and drug-infested industrial estate where he had been housed by the council.
Capone had recently been caught with six knives, including a machete, when I met him; excluded from school, the 14-year-old had been lured into joining a gang and, as one of the youngest members, put in charge of carrying the weapons.
If these children are not a symptom of the “burning injustices” Theresa May promised to tackle when she became prime minister then I don’t know what is, and yet the government is doing so little to tackle the deep social problems that are spilling out on to the streets in violence and destitution.
Researching a series on poverty with Alice Thomson over the last few weeks, I have been shocked by the deprivation that exists around the country.
In Oldham, there were 150 people queuing for cheap food. In Doncaster, council staff had organised a collection of sanitary products to give to local schools because so many girls could not afford tampons or pads. In London, a head teacher pointed out a pupil who was wearing one of her own children’s coats that she had given to him because he had nothing warm to wear.
Frank Field, chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, says that “we are worse than the Victorians”, because at least in Dickens’s day the workhouses made sure that people got enough to eat. Now even the food banks have to limit the number of visits each family can make because they have too much demand.
Welfare cuts and the introduction of the new universal credit benefits system have tipped too many into poverty, but it’s not only about money. Domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health problems and debt are prevalent in often chaotic families. Children, lacking boundaries and affection, look for an alternative source of stability in gangs.
The education system has made matters worse because the focus on test results has fuelled a rise in exclusions as schools ease out pupils who might bring down their league table rankings. Failing pupil referral units have become recruiting grounds for gangs.
Knife crime and street violence are spiralling out of control: there have been 119 murders in London alone this year, including 69 fatal stabbings and 14 shootings. A ten-year-old boy was found trying to hang himself with his school tie in a park in a provincial town. He had been sent from London on a gang “county line” operation but had lost the drugs and was too scared to go home.
It’s appalling, yet the government is so divided and distracted by Brexit that it seems incapable of dealing with a growing domestic crisis. A prime minister who promised from the steps of No 10 to lead a “one-nation” government and build “a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us” has presided over deepening social, political and economic divisions. “She cares in a Middle England suburban dutiful vicar’s daughter kind of way, but there isn’t the anger,” says one senior Tory.
In any case, the Brexit negotiations have subsumed the whole Downing Street machine. “There’s no central mission apart from survival,” according to a Whitehall source. The lack of a parliamentary majority has further stultified a government that has run out of ideas.
Cabinet ministers with a sense of purpose could still overcome the vacuum of leadership at the top, but those are sorely lacking. Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, seems more interested in Brexit pizza plots than in tackling poverty. Damian Hinds, the education secretary, has done nothing to stop excessive exclusions: the coalition planned to force schools to retain responsibility for any pupils they expel, which would have encouraged a market in good alternative provision, but this government is still faffing about with a review.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, at least has a sense of urgency about knife crime, insisting that “we don’t have ten years — we don’t have ten months”. But he is hampered by Mrs May’s reforms to stop-and-search powers, which have led to a dramatic reduction, making it harder for the police to seize blades. Even Michael Gove, the Tories’ great social reformer, is too busy worrying about the backstop to the backstop and plastics in the ocean to focus on the lost boys he once championed.
The rail network is in chaos, planning reform has stalled and the social care shortfall remains unresolved as all the political energy goes into internal Tory rows. According to Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the former national security adviser, crucial meetings of the National Security Council have been cancelled because the government is “consumed” by Brexit.
Of course, if Britain leaves the EU with no deal, or with a bad deal, it is the poorest who will suffer most. Although the Leave vote was driven partly by frustration about the direction in which the country was going, nothing is being done to fix the causes of that anger and so the danger is that it will only grow, whatever is agreed in Brussels.
It is not true that governments are helpless in the face of overwhelming social forces. Over the past 20 years, pensioner poverty has been halved as a result of deliberate changes to the tax and benefits system. Now child poverty is rising, disadvantage is being entrenched in the education system and ministers should make it their mission to shift the balance again.
For the Conservative Party, it is politically toxic to be seen to ignore the poorest in society; for the vicar’s daughter in No 10 it should be morally repugnant that Daniel, Luke and Capone are growing up as they are in the country that she runs.