The Rev Paul Nicolson

In July the General Synod of the Church of England will debate a motion passed unanimously by the Oxford Synod in March 1999. It invites the General Synod to encourage action and to support policies to which will improve the health of the poor. It also welcomes the consideration by the Oxford Synod of four reports which were published shortly before the 1999 debate. They were the Acheson report into inequalities in health, The Family Budget Unit’s research into minimum income standards for families with young children, the New Policy Institute’s “Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion” and Professor The Rev Nicholas Sagovsky’s  “Low Cost but Just” a theological response to the Family Budget Unit’s report a copy of which is being sent to every member of the Synod. It was a private members motion to the Oxford Synod which I initiated. The background is as follows.

I was for seventeen years the Vicar of Turville in the Wycombe Deanery of the Oxford Diocese. The sale of council houses for the high prices, which the beautiful location in the Chiltern Hills can demand, has led to the evacuation of the children of the indigenous poor to social housing in High Wycombe.  One of them is a single father with three sons. In 1995 John’s (I have changed the name) parents asked me to call on him because he was in unemployed and in debt. He had obtained legal custody of his three boys aged 9, 7 and 5. His wife had left him and was unable to look after them due to the stormy relationship with her new partner. The youngest son was partially sighted and deaf in one ear.

The Local Council housed them all in a B&B in High Wycombe having ruled that his mother and father’s house was overcrowded. They were then moved to Slough because Wycombe was short of B&B accommodation. To provide some stability in a very disrupted childhood John decided to commute the boys back to school in Wycombe. The cost of running a car for a daily return trip from Slough to Wycombe was beyond his means. When he was allocated his permanent accommodation in Wycombe he had no money and owned nothing. The flat was completely empty the day they all moved in. A local charity with second hand furniture equipped the flat and an emergency loan was taken out with the Social Fund. His debts were £2964 and his income support £98 a week after deduction of £10 a week by the DSS to repay the emergency loan at £8 a week and arrears of poll tax at £2 a week. Among his other debts was a loan from Provident Financial of £500 rising to £774 in 31 weeks to be paid off at £25 a week out of the already inadequate £98 income support.

I put his circumstances to the Magistrates in High Wycombe as a McKenzie friend. I noted in my written report to them that he was under great stress. Magistrates have power to vary and remit the repayments of fines and local taxes in cases of financial hardship and they were rightly sympathetic this time. The High Court has decided that everyone is entitled to a friend in court after this had been denied to a man called McKenzie. We may advise but only speak with the permission of the Magistrates.

This, and many other cases, led to a course for McKenzie Friends run under the auspices of the Chiltern Christian Training Programme. Out of the course came a team of six of us. We now have a contract with the Wycombe Magistrates Court to provide a McKenzie Friend at means enquiries to help people prepare their means statements of income, expenditure and debt. Another upshot of work in the courts came from a group of us who had been meeting in Cambridge to discuss the injustice to the poor of the enforcement of the poll tax. We began to ask around Whitehall what adequacy report is available to governments when they set the level of income support. The answer was none.   In 1992 the Health Select Committee of the House of Commons reported that the Department of Social Security cannot comment with authority on the adequacy of income support rates in the absence of research to support their view.

The self evident inadequacy of income support, the absence of independent help to impoverished debtors in court and the lack of any government research into adequacy led to the foundation of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust. Chris Moss a Jesuit Astronomer, Alan Murdie and I were all members of the group in Cambridge. Chris wrote the constitution and became a patron. Alan became a Trustee and was joined by another barrister Ian Wise of Doughty Street Chambers. We all got to know each other through opposition to the poll tax and a shared indignation at the imprisonment of the poor for debt. Ian has taken over 800 cases of unlawful imprisonment for local tax arrears by the magistrates through the High Court. Examples are the arrest and imprisonment of pensioner Betty Jack in July 1998, a 71 year old suffering from Parkinson’s disease, for a £529 poll tax debt for which she was liable in 1992, and a single mother for £20.

We then set about finding where in academia research was being done into the adequacy of minimum incomes. The search took us to the Family Budget Unit at King’s College London. There Hermione Parker, the FBU Director, and Dr Michael Nelson of the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics were already contemplating such a project. We agreed to raise the money and we published their ground breaking work with the Policy Press in January 1999.

The FBU has developed a robust approach to measuring the minimum income needed for good health, an adequate diet, other essential needs and some participation in the community. Menus for a week are created by the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, tested for consumer acceptability with low income groups in ten different locations in the UK and then costed at supermarket prices. The budgets for housing, heating, clothes, transport, leisure etc are all treated with the same rigour. The FBU focuses on the minimum costs of human need. The research produces frugal minimum budgets called Low Cost but Acceptable (LCA). In January 1998 income support for a couple with two children under 11 at £121.75 was £39.07 a week below the frugal LCA minimum. For a single mother and the two children the figures were £98.70 and £23.51.  In annual terms income support was inadequate by £2032 and £1223. This made no allowance for debts such as those experienced by John and commonly experienced by the poor in the UK. On coming to power the Labour Government promptly increased that inadequacy by £130 a year for single parents by abolishing the lone parent premium.

Late in 1998 HMSO published the Acheson Report of the Inquiry into Inequalities in Health. More recent information from the Office of National Statistics has confirmed Acheson’s concern about inequalities in mortality. In 1972 male unskilled workers could expect to die on average   5.5 years younger that professional workers. By 1996 that gap had grown to 9.6 years. Also in 1996 among the 45 to 64 age group 17% of professional men reported a limiting long standing illness compared to 48% of unskilled men. Acheson also expressed concern about the inequalities in infant mortality. The report of the Confidential Inquiry into Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Infancy (page 82) published by the Stationary Office confirms that concern too. Last year they reported after 5000 interviews "research interviewers (in 1993-1996) encountered examples of poverty and deprivation of a degree which they could hardly believe possible in late 20th century Britain. This striking association of absolute poverty with the risk of infant death remains as clear as when first described by Templeman in 1892". Acheson reported, "Empirical evidence comes from research demonstrating that people whose income consist entirely of state benefits may have insufficient money to but items and services necessary for good health".

The injustice of poverty in the UK was very, very much deeper when the Labour Party came to power in 1997 than they or any other political party has been willing to acknowledge. The government has set itself a target for 2004 that the number of children living in households which an income of less that 60 % of the median will be reduced by a quarter and completely after 20 years. That is a very leisurely target.  So leisurely that it demonstrates the failure to acknowledge depth of poverty in the UK.  The computer simulations of families at the Treasury record changes in benefits and taxation since 1997. 60% of the median in 1997 does not tell us whether or not the lowest incomes were, or are now, enough to maintain good health.  In March the Social Security Select Committee in its report on the Social Fund wrote; "We repeat the recommendation first made in our report on Integrated Child Credit, that the Government should establish a specific budget to fund research into the levels of income needed to avoid poverty; and that it should set up a working party involving policy makers, academics and other interested parties to assist the Government to devise publicly acceptable measures of such levels”

The incomes of the poor in the United Kingdom are so inadequate that sometimes they are forced into debt or petty crime, like small-scale shoplifting, to subsist. Others are forced by threats of violence into distributing illegal drugs or prostitution to pay off their debts to the loan sharks. From the 1st April this year the weekly income support rates are as follows:

Asylum seekers    £35
18-24 year olds     £42
25 and over      £53.05
Childless couple     £83.25
Lone parent with 2 children under 16  £130.45
Couple with 2 children under 16  £160.65
Asylum seekers with children 70% of income support
and 100% of child benefit.

Single adults have not received a real increase since 1980. After inflation has been taken into account families with young children are still short of the FBU 1998 frugal LCA level. Unemployed people are still very poor. Employed parents receiving the minimum incomes provided by the minimum wage and working families tax credit can be worse off in work than out of it after losing 100% housing and council tax benefits and paying the extra costs of being in work like travel to work, clothes, Health Service Charges and extra nutrition.

Inadequate minimum incomes force impossible choices between food or heating, school clothes or Christmas present for the children. I have often helped people prepare their means statements for the magistrates that show debts being repaid by weekly amounts which reduce these already inadequate incomes. On top of that I have known the magistrates hand down fines that are totally disproportionate to means. Even deduction at source by the benefits agency of the maximum of £2.60 a week to pay off local tax arrears from the already inadequate income support can be disproportionate.

I have considerable sympathy with the Magistrates because they have no guidance from the Lord Chancellor’s office about adequacy even though they are required to set fines which are proportionate to means. In the very large majority of cases there is no independent representation of the debtor at the means enquiries and they, like many professional people, do not comprehend the multiple problems and pressures affecting the poor in the United Kingdom.

The NSPCC is concerned that inadequate income causes stress, which exacerbates the health problems experienced because of poor diet, inadequate heating and poor housing. Low benefit levels also increase the likelihood of family tension and breakdown, which compounds the distress caused to children. Most of the children on child protection registers are from low income families. The most commonly identified stress factors in all registered cases of child abuse are unemployment and debt.

Work in progress at the University of Manchester has listened to people on low incomes talk about professionals being out of touch with their needs and not having a clue about how they live their lives. The impression given is 'we'll attend to your needs on our terms'. Some people on a low income who have chaotic and frightening circumstances feel that they are made to wait for services. Gatekeepers are believed to be the professionals who make decisions on their behalf. Accessing services is difficult and frightening for low-income people with symptoms, who feel the need for help but also confused and in an alien culture. They sometimes feel that their life is out of control. They struggle on a seesaw of being 'dependent and independent' (on family, friends and services). Their dependence on professionals hinges on wanting freedom from their symptoms and problems. But they are also dependent on professionals for support.

A survey of people who use mental health services and are on a low income published by the Mental Health Foundation asked respondents to describe their experiences on a low income.  The results show that many people had to forgo basic items such as adequate good quality food or 'decent' clothes.  People talked of not being able to pay their household utility bills or to afford bus or train fares.  Social activities and holidays were also beyond the limits of many of the people surveyed.  Respondents talked of feelings of depression, and what some people referred to as the degrading experience of being on a very low income.  The impact on people's mental health was clearly evident in terms of the high emotions in some of the responses.

'Out of the blue, your job has gone, and with it any financial security you might have had.  At a stroke, you have no purpose in life, and no contact with other people.  You find yourself totally isolated from the rest of the world.  No one telephones you.  Much less writes.  No one seems to care if you're alive or dead.

"All in all I find the experience of being on a low income degrading. I feel I am being punished for being ill and as if it is all my fault which in turn makes me more depressed.  You see others buying such lovely things and I can have none of it.  It really hurts.  '

The strain of managing on poverty level incomes claimed from the State exacerbates existing mental health problems and undermines the mental health and well being of adults and children. Work in the courts has taught me that those are the common experiences of the poor.  They are imposed by at least seven government departments in Whitehall writing disconnected regulations that become a nightmare for people receiving inadequate incomes in or out of work. The comfortably off regularly receiving adequate incomes never enter this underworld of stress and ill health caused by incessant conflict with one impersonal authority or another.

Nicholas Sagovsky in his theological response to the Family Budget Units research concluded “the Christian tradition sees wealth enjoyed by humans as ultimately the gift of God in creation. It affirms that wealth is to be used for the meeting of human need in accord with the will of God, which is a will for justice. The churches should press the Government to commission independent research which will lead to the identification of minimum income standards related to need”.

 Paul Nicolson is Chairman of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

by The Rev Paul Nicolson