Government cuts are hitting Oxford’s poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, writes Shaista Aziz, Labour candidate for Rose Hill and Iffley.

The last eight years of disastrous Conservative government and the implementation of its cruel, counter-productive, and sweeping austerity measures has had a profound and devastating impact on this country. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, in the next five years 5.2 million children in the UK are projected to be living a life of poverty.

A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. On the basis of this statistic, plus the unfolding crisis in social care and support services for the elderly, and the record numbers of rough sleepers on our streets, this is a government not fit for purpose.

Up and down the country, austerity has ripped the heart out of communities and destroyed the services so many depend on.

Over the past year our newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media have been discussing issues of rising poverty in our country. Terms such as “period poverty”, “holiday hunger”, and “JAM”, short for “Just About Managing”, have become part of everyday discourse. 

Last week, head teachers from various parts of England and Wales told the BBC that malnourished pupils with grey skin were “filling their pockets” with food from school canteens due to the lack of food at home. These are scenes straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, being played out in 2018 in Tory Britain, a land where austerity is dehumanising the most vulnerable in our society.

I’m standing as a Labour candidate in the Oxford City Council elections in Rose Hill and Iffley ward, less than four miles from the city centre and the picture postcard ‘city of dreaming spires’, in order to combat this ongoing austerity.

At the start of 2018, figures released by The End Child Poverty coalition found that 7351 children are estimated to be living in poverty in Oxford, equivalent to 26.4 per cent of the child population. Some city wards, including Rose Hill and Iffley, have poverty rates of up to a third.

If you talk to people in Rose Hill and Iffley, as I do regularly whilst out canvassing, you will hear the stories and concerns of decent, hard working people describing how they are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. These are people working long hours. Often, women are working in more than one job. These are the people known as the “working poor”, again terminology straight out of a Dickens novel.

One man I spoke to a few weeks ago described the challenges he faces: “Look at my hallway. It’s full of damp and I have these little children here. Three of them have breathing problems because of this damp. I work hard. I am at work pretty much all the time, but everything is so expensive and it’s not easy.”

Many of the people I’ve spoken to in Oxford over the past six months are earning the minimum wage and work very long hours in low paid, often unstable work. It is these conditions that are also creating uncertainty for children forced into further poverty with their families.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, almost 70% of children in poverty live in a working household, as opposed to an unemployed one, and as demonstrated, the situation in Oxford is no different. This statistic reflects the stark way poverty has changed over the past twenty years. Work no longer pays, with poverty increasing as real wages have fallen and salaries have stagnated. Austerity has exacerbated this crisis of poverty by hitting the most vulnerable in our society the hardest. Many people are trapped on a hamster wheel; they are working harder than ever to keep the wheel turning, exhausting themselves into the ground, only to find themselves overstretched by the end of the month.

Yet the Conservative government in Westminster continues to press on with its damaging agenda. In March, it announced changes to benefits, which could cause as many as one million children to lose their free school meals. Under the new legislation, families in England on universal credit will have their income threshold for free school meals slashed to £7 400 a year. 

Sam Royston of the Children’s Society, writing in The Guardian, concluded that the total number of children impacted by the changes to the benefit system could be as high as one million, the majority from working class families.

According to Labour, the government’s net expenditure on services for children and young people has seen a real terms cut of £960m. At the same time, the Local Government Association (LGA) reports that local authorities are finding it increasingly challenging to provide support for vulnerable children and families, with stark funding gaps hanging over the head of many local authorities like the one in Oxfordshire. 

In October 2017, a survey conducted by the National Children’s Bureau showed that two-thirds of local councillors responsible for children’s services said their local authority didn’t have the means to provide universal services such as children’s centres and youth clubs. At the same time, more than four in ten reported not having enough funds to meet one or more of their statutory duties to children.

Benefit cuts, the result of an ideology that is hell-bent on attacking the most vulnerable, has massively increased demand for children’s services. The National Children’s Bureau describes it as an “unprecedented surge.”

2018 is set to become even harder for the poorest and most vulnerable children in our country and city to secure three meals a day and to have a warm, secure, and safe place to call home. This is one of the most disgraceful in an every growing list of shameful legacies this government will be judged and remembered for.

Shaista Aziz is a journalist, writer, and equalities campaigner. You can follow her campaign here: https://www.facebook.com/ShaistaLabour/

You can also find Shaista on Twitter: @Shaista Aziz

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