Saturday, 22 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 3

This week, inspired by the Bishops of Oxford I chose budget day to fast. In the run up to Wednesday, as I read about Osborne's plans for 2014 and beyond, I found myself recalling his first budget in June 2010. At the time of that budget, in the honeymoon period when most people seemed to think the coalition was a good thing, there was an article on the BBC website asking for comments. I signed in to say that his plans made me afraid for the future of public services, and in particular for the future of people with disabilities who I feared would be at the forefront of any cuts. I hoped that I would be proved wrong; sadly I wasn't

Eighteen months after that budget, Helen and Mark Mullins took their lives after struggling to live on £57.50 a week. The reason for their limited income cannot be laid wholly at the coalition's door. They were trapped in a Kafkaesque situation where Helen was deemed not fit to work and therefore unable to claim JSA, but lacked a medical diagnosis for her learning disabilities that would have enabled her to claim incapacity benefit. Helen should have been offered support from Social Services, but somehow fell through the net. Given that all political parties apart from the Greens are wedded to austerity budgets, it is quite possible they'd have had the same experience under a Labour government and made the same choice to die. However, one thing that can't be disputed is that Helen and Mark were victims of an increasingly punitive approach to people claiming benefits. An approach begun by Thatcher, perpetuated by new Labour and accelerated by Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith. Nor can it be disputed that Osborne's approach to cutting the deficit is the most vicious of any Chancellor, hitting  sick and disabled people more than any other groups in society. It is also clear that the cause of their suicide - no longer being able to cope with living off a few vegetables donated by the soup kitchen as they huddled for warmth in one room - has become more common place in the last four years.

I spent my day's fast thinking of Mark and Helen, praying as I did so that this year we had a budget with humanity, a budget that recognised the impact of cuts on the poor, a budget that would end hunger today. Unfortunately my prayer was not answered. Instead I was forced to listen to George Osborne boasting of his economic achievements (a tiny recovery spun as growth, a deficit that has increased since 2010). As the evening progressed, I became increasingly angry, the sick feeling in my stomach, partly due to hunger and partly due to disgust at his refusal to acknowledge the needs of the country. The most depressing moment of all was realising that the proposal to cap the benefits bill, was not only going to be made into primary legislation to ensure it continues for the next four years, but will be supported by Labour. In other words, when the money for welfare runs out, as it undoubtedly will, there will be more no more left for those in need. So we will see more queues at the foodbanks, more people go hungry, more suicides, whilst wealthy politicians on all sides of the house stand by and let it happen.

As with last week, the last couple hours of my fast were difficult; I was hungry, I felt sick and I was raging. And then something rather wonderful happened. Grant Shapps tweeted what must rank as one of the most crass political messages ever, celebrating the cut in tax duty "to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy."   After a quick check that it wasn't a spoof, Twitter and Facebook was soon full of hilarious parody versions (this was my particular favourite). Suddenly, angry and sick as I was, I began to laugh and laughing felt good. Because four years ago, when I commented on the BBC website, I felt isolated and alone, drowned out by waves of people celebrating attacks on the workshy.  On Wednesday  "Torybingo"  made me realise that, despite the lies of this government, the majority of people know exactly what we are up against. And that's more than a little encouraging.

In the mean time, we can keep doing all we can to raise awareness of these issues. Keith, Simon and Scott are on day 18 of their fast, nearly half way through. I'll be fasting again next week, and everyone is invited to join in the National Day of Fasting on 4th April.

So please help us, by fasting if you can, and if you can't, please help by spreading the word. Together we can End Hunger Fast.

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