Even though it's January, and it's 2013, it feels like a Victorian Christmas. It's not just because of the beautiful snow, and the laughter of kids throwing snowballs. It's also because Britain is returning to levels of inequality not seen since the time of Dickens. And because of a welfare bill which makes Dickens's Christmas Carol feel disturbingly current:
"External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty."
The Welfare Uprating Bill, which returns to the House of Commons on Monday for its third reading and report stage, is a cold-hearted bill. It will stop maintaining benefits by inflation rates and cap them at just one per cent for the next three years. When inflation is taken into account, this is a cut. Through our work on the ground with organisations like the Trussell Trust, we've seen a dramatic rise in the number of people resorting to food banks.
Last year 120,000 people in Britain relied on a food bank to stave off hunger. That's double the number the year before. And it is predicted to double this year again. Poverty in Britain is real, and it is getting worse. In a decent society, nobody should be forced to go to a food bank in order to feed their kids or be forced to go without heating when temperatures plummet. But even the government admits that this Bill alone will put 200,000 more children into poverty.
One third of the people whose benefits are being cut are out-of-work. Government figures show that most people who are out of work are out of work for months, not for years, which illustrates that they have not chosen a life on the dole. They need help in hard times as they look for a new job. They are people like the staff of the famous High Street stores now going bust every week. In our work with communities we find people want to work, and we support them in finding work: but we also find, as they do, that it is hard - especially hard, today.
The other two thirds of the people whose benefits are being cut are in work. Yet wages are so low, rent so high, and even food prices growing at double the rate of inflation, that they still struggle to make ends meet. They are the cleaners who look after our offices, the nurses who take care of us when we are sick, the teachers who educate our children, the soldiers who put their lives on the line. The IFS have predicted that if the welfare uprating bill passes it could make seven million working households worse off. They are also the people on whom local economies depend. Slashing the incomes of those at the bottom is not just cold-hearted, it is also wrong-headed. It will depress the economy further.
And there is an alternative. We do have a choice. Rather than making the poorest people in Britain pay for the financial crisis, Oxfam proposes we should start at the top. People earning a million pounds a year should have their £40,000 tax cut cancelled. Out of control casino banking should be tempered by a Robin Hood tax to raise funds to tackle poverty. Tax dodging companies who pretend the money they make in Britain was really transacted in a tax haven should be made to pay their fair share, in full. This would balance the books, but not on the backs of the poor.
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