On Saturday, I was listening to the repeat broadcast of the BBC’s Any Questions, this week broadcast from our very own Sir John Cass secondary school in Stepney. The panel was composed of the Conservatives’ Michael Portillo, the former poet Laureate Andrew Motion, the Daily Mail’s Ann Leslie and the Lib Dems’ Evan Harris, and on the agenda were phone-hacking, the economy, and religion – on which some great points were made by a bright and articulate pupil at the school.
But perhaps the most prescient question raised was surrounding the issue of child poverty, and I was pleased to hear that it was asked by James King, a bright young lad who I have known for some time through the local Labour party. He asked ‘over half of all the children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. With this in mind, would the panel like to tell me what they think the government should be doing to tackle child poverty?’
Regrettably, the panelists seemed loath to engage with the issue. I was dismayed but not surprised to hear Michael Portillo dismiss host Jonathan Dimbleby’s observation that the poorest in our society would be far poorer in real terms in the coming years as ‘a narrow, technical point’.
He went on to condemn British poor people for not ‘loving’ education enough, and having ‘no ambition for their children to have a better life than they have’.
To hear these millionaires telling poor people they should think themselves lucky as people were starving in Africa was deeply worrying.
The panelists lined up to attack our ‘culture of welfarism’. No-one reminded the audience that whilst benefit fraud costs the taxpayer £1billion per year, tax evasion costs us £60billion – and the latter crime is far more common among the group of people who got us into this financial mess.
Here in Tower Hamlets, we are taking real action to tackle poverty. We’re increasing by a third our contracts that pay people the living wage, we’re building thousands of affordable family-sized homes and we’re replacing the scrapped EMA grants with a new allowance for our teenagers to stay on at school. If, as Michael Portillo says, education is the ladder out of poverty, he need look no further than our schools, where the number achieving 5 A-Cs including English and Maths, at 60.4%, trumped the national average.
James was right to raise this question. It’s an important one. But I feel this programme was a lost opportunity – there’s a real need to talk about ways to counter poverty, and I do believe that other places could learn something from our programme here in the East End.