Getting ready for the General Election

By Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace fieldworker

When the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales asked, earlier this year, for the key questions that Catholics should consider ahead of the general election, the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) and Cafod responded with four particular issues.

These were climate change and poverty overseas, and housing and the living wage here in the United Kingdom. It was the latter two domestic problems which were at the forefront of a meeting at LACE on Saturday 18 April organised by Nugent Care and the Justice and Peace Commission.

‘Some say: It’s never been so bad’ was the title of the event which provided an opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of lives lived on the edges of society; to analyse what has gone wrong; to examine the promises of the different political parties; and to help people formulate the right questions to ask if canvassed for their vote.

There were moving stories from Nugent Care clients of some of the difficulties they are facing as a result of housing regulations, especially the bedroom tax, and of the problems caused by zero-hours contracts. It became clear that the government’s attempts to simplify the benefits system (well-meaning and necessary or not) have made life increasingly difficult for some very vulnerable people.

Father Mike Fitzsimons, chair of Nugent Care, pointed out that homes are not a luxury but a basic human right. He asked the fundamental question of whether housing policy should focus on home ownership or on the provision of decent homes for everybody, with the clear message that current policy prioritises ownership.

Mary Hallam, a member of the J&P Commission, had some shocking statistics: 4 million people living in the private rented sector are experiencing poverty, while 21% of private housing stock does not meet the decency standard. Professor Hilary Russell, Emeritus Professor of Urban Policy at Liverpool John Moores University, emphasised the importance of work as a way of developing human dignity and allowing people to develop their gifts and talents. She argued powerfully that the living wage is good for employers as well as for employees and their families.

A strong theme that emerged was that people do not suffer from one problem but from a complex mix of interwoven issues – including housing, work, wages, benefits, fuel, food, debt, and possibly mental health.

Participants discussed the possible questions they might ask candidates and these were written on Post-it notes and stuck on the walls of the hall – and you can read below a selection of them below. The next question, of course, is whether the new government can start delivering some credible answers.

• Are you going to abolish zero-hours contracts?
• Without the living wage and use of zero-hours contracts is work still a way out of poverty when more benefits are paid to those in work than those out of work?
• How will you reform the benefits system so that it helps the people in greatest need?
• What are your strategies for reducing unemployment?
• When will you review the minimum wage?
• Will you cap salaries at the top?
• Can you justify the current tax system? What would an ethical tax system look like?
• How will you support housing associations?
• Why do you keep selling off social housing when so many people are homeless?
• Will you legislate to regulate private landlords?
• How can you justify the bedroom tax when there is no alternative accommodation available?
• What are your views on abortion and euthanasia?
• Why are we not talking about help in the home for the housebound and helpless who need more than 20 minutes’ assistance a day?