Fags, scratch cards and Sky TV!

Thursday 29 October 2020

Today I buy my first ever scratch card! Let me explain why…

A 6 mile run takes me from and to the garage, as hardworking Windsor indulges in an Autumn service. I also rake garden leaves, file my tax return, turn the house upside down looking for Small Boy’s missing coat and get through tons of washing. By 7pm, my thoughts turn to a treat. But as I pour a modest Bombay Sapphire and ginger beer, toxic voices on a local radio phone-in make me realise that I am really selling myself short and missing out on a whole world of wild living. Apparently the rest of the single-mum sisterhood are out squandering their child benefit on a giddy cocktail of fags, scratch cards and … Sky TV subscriptions?

Seriously? Who are these people?

They’ve been spurred into vitriolic action by the last week’s Free School Meals vote in the Commons. Here a majority of MPs chose not to extend the provision of holiday meal vouchers for our poorest families; an additional Covid -19 measure that was secured over the 6 week Summer break in response to a campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford (MBE).

Following the rejection of the Bill, the media is initially swamped with positive stories of local business and councils stepping in to provide free meals in place of central funds. Campaigner Rashford reflects on this spirit of generosity, avoiding any anger or political posturing with his comment that he ‘could not be more proud to be British’. However, at heart, Britain is not a united country. The splinters of division deepen as this current crisis wears on and the ‘undeserving poor‘ are always an easy target for those who thrive upon judgement and scorn.

Because this debate revolves around responsibility for ‘hungry children‘, parents in general and mothers in particular are quickly in the firing line for those aiming their guns at ‘state handouts‘. John Penrose, husband of NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Dido Harding, blames ‘chaotic parents‘. Pompous, middle aged men blame modern women and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when their mother’s fed the entire family for a week on a bag of turnips and a couple of potatoes and ‘no-one ever went hungry’. Personal responsibility is hurled like a weapon at struggling parents.

“Why should I pay for other people’s children’

Dont’ have children if you cant afford to feed them!”

As for single mums, well let me introduce you to the root cause of those empty food cupboards! It’s us… prioritising flashy mobile phone contracts, TV streaming services, cigarettes and alcohol … oh and let’s not forget the scratch cards … above feeding our offspring!

Is there any truth in these stereotypes? I search for some facts and find that whilst data on smart phones, and ‘on demand’ TV platforms does show a growth in ownership amongst ‘lower income’ families in the last decade, the proportions still do not match those of more affluent groups. Meanwhile, more conclusively, the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) reports a sustained rise in child poverty between 2010 and 2020, and cites the proportion of children from lone parent families living in poverty at 44% in 2018-19. Both the TUC (2019) and the CPAG highlight a ‘jump’ in the proportion of poor children from ‘working families‘. The pandemic has made the situation ever more stark, a Guardian article this month highlighting the “surge in numbers” of pupils applying for free school meals.

In many ways I am lucky. Eleven years ago, lone parenting did not push me into the ‘eligible for free school meals’ bracket but it did transform me overnight from a woman who for 40 years had scarcely considered money, to a person who thinks about, worries about and loses sleep about it all the time. I will survive and my children will not starve but my point is this; shit happens! Having walked in these toughest of shoes, I know that these tired and clueless stereotypes of single mothers as “uppity and irresponsible women” (Boris Johnson 1995) are not only cruel and unfair, they also draw attention away from the real issues; those of deprivation, division and inequality in our 21st century society. They scream out about how little many of our leaders (and smug radio callers) know about the lives that the population lead.

Which is why I trust and align myself behind those that do. Marcus Rashford has used his profile to campaign for a fairer world than the one he grew up in. And speaking in the House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Griffiths whose family relied on free school meals in the 1940s also makes a striking contribution, describing how he ‘can still smell and taste the panic’ of holidays in what was a ‘threadbare existence‘.

Because when money is an issue on top of everything else, life is ‘threadbare’ in many ways, stripped of fun and an endless battle of stress and worry. One of the nicest posts I saw this week, came from a bakery who were delivering food parcels to local families and including a bunch of flowers, to “brighten someone’s day”. Now they really do understand!

It is at this point that I decide stick 2 fingers up to the snobbery and prejudice of the radio callers and buy my first every £1 scratch card. As I uncover my numbers, it a moment to dream of a carefree life, cushioned from financial crises by a windfall of a few thousand? Not really – 11 years have taught me that there never is an easy way out! It is however engrossing for 10 minutes and everything else melts away for a few blissful moments. In a life of sometimes relentless grind that seems priceless…

Towards a new normal?

Sunday 21 June 2020

Over the last fortnight we have talked more about the Black Lives Matter protests than Covid 19. Not only does this suggest that we are starting to move away from an existence dominated by the corona virus, it also invites reflection upon the world we want to build, as we emerge from many weeks of Lockdown. Do we want life to go ‘back to normal‘ or do we want to create a ‘better normal’?

This week, major British cities continue to see Black Lives Matter marches and the appropriateness of statues and popular culture to the history we want to learn from and value is debated widely. Poverty is also on the news agenda. Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford, drives a government U-turn over the issue of summer holiday food vouchers for our most disadvantaged children. Twitter takes the decision to permanently ban far-right commentator Katie Hopkins from its platform, for violating the hateful conduct policy. Could we really be heading for a more tolerant and fair society? Whilst I hope so, I fear we may still have a fight on our hands. The ruling classes seem unlikely to share their power toys quite this easily! One battle-ground this week, footballers and MPs, illustrates the challenge.

Small boy and I rejoice over the restart of the football premier league. We order a take-away and tune in for the match, where players wear shirts that display a blue heart badge in tribute to the NHS and on the reverse, in place of names, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. Ahead of kick-off, we admire the dignity with which opposing teams observe a minute’s silence, in honour of front line health workers, and then also ‘take the knee’ to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it appears that Boris’ boys are not ready to welcome this group of sportsmen into the ranks of influencers any time soon.

Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, dismisses the knee gesture as ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’ originating in Game of Thrones. And who can forget the criticism rained upon football clubs, and no other profession, by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for using the Goverment’s furlough scheme to pay staff?

Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice… I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.

By contrast, the chief executive of NHS Charities Together has not only welcomed Premier League players getting together to help the service cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic but has also noted that

This is what footballers have always been like….What they wanted to do here is come together as players and say ‘NHS, we’re rooting for you, we’re behind you’, and hopefully that can inspire other people to do the same.”

Marcus Rashford epitomises the courage of one young footballer to use his platform to enact positive change in society. So, why the reluctance of our leaders to recognise the contribution that the wider footballing community can undoubtedly make towards a fairer Britain? Many commentators point to class and race issues. At least a third of Premier League players are from BAME backgrounds, well above the UK average. Additionally,  Sutton Trust report found that only 5% of British footballers went to private school. The report investigated the educational backgrounds of ‘Britain’s leading people’ – those considered to have influence and prestige. Out of all the sectors, football was the only one where you were less likely to have gone to a private school than the national average. (Source: Novaria Media).

It is food for thought, Rashford describes as our systems as,

not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked

Is it the case that, even if you do, our ruling parties will view you as a group less worthy of respect than their more expensively educated peer group? Or see you as a threat to their power and influence and hence an easy target for scapegoating?

As we emerge from Lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement has momentum, and the ‘undeserving poor’ have some high profile champions. For many, our society seems kinder, united around better values and ready for change. Do any of our leaders however share this conviction, or will they instead want us to steer us back to their normal. Time will tell…