The Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, at his recent party Conference described the Conservatives as the party of strivers. Someone has suggested that the sub-message here is that they are the party of “strivers not skivers.” Certainly there is in rhetoric and action from government and its supporters, particularly in certain sections of the press, a concerted move against so called “skivers.”

Now, truth be told, there are, I am sure, people on benefits who ought to be working; people unemployed who could be employed; people who are not as disabled as they would have others believe. There are people, no doubt, who might be considered an unwarranted drain on the public purse. I have no problem with that view. If people are claiming benefits fraudulently then they should be prosecuted. It is a form of theft. Fair enough? Ah, but what of those who are evading tax, not just avoiding it (and there is some very dubious morality there)? I know the money from those who don’t pay their fair share of tax hasn’t actually gone into the public purse, but it is still theft. The payment of legal taxes is part of the social contract in any civilised society. Put it this way, if I sold my car to someone for £100 and they took the car but withheld half the cash, what would you call that? Looking after what’s theirs by right or theft? I know what I’d call it. So it is with unpaid taxes: you want to live in the state you play by the rules and pay your way. So, if people aren’t paying taxes, they too should be prosecuted, not invited in for a cup of coffee with HMRC and allowed to choose the amount of tax they pay.

There are large sums of money at issue here: HMRC apparently wrote off £11bn last year “by mistake” on top of £105 billion uncollected tax. [1]

There is a cost to this money not appearing in the exchequer. For example, The Mirror ran a story about how the money owed by the top 20 tax dodgers would pay 25,000 nurses for a year.[2]

We are not just talking about income tax: “The average salary package paid to each member of Facebook staff in the UK last year was more than the entire amount the internet giant paid the Treasury in corporation tax. Facebook paid just £238,000 to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs during 2011 despite annual revenues for its UK arm being estimated at £175million. In comparison, the average staff remuneration package was £270,000 during the year.”[3] Nothing illegal there, as far as I know, but is it morally right?

If you are on PAYE, you have no say at all in whether or not you pay the full whack of tax due: it is deducted before you get your needy or greedy hands on it. Not so for those who can set up companies for themselves and pay themselves a dividend, as has been found to be the case for some BBC and Public Sector workers – and we’re not talking about canteen staff or home helps here. [4]

There is more to be said on this but suffice to say that if we all paid our fair shares and we all stuck to the rules, legally and morally, the tax take from the poor would be a lot less. But that, it is said, would be bad for the economy because the wealthy would then bail out to the Cayman Islands or some such place. Not necessarily. The trouble with the poorer end of the population is that they do insist on spending their money, rather than stashing it away offshore and that might just give more of a boost to the economy than bank bailouts that have served to do little more than finance continuing extravagance in senior banking remuneration.

Yes there are skivers, Mr Cameron, and you will find them among the wealthy and the poor, and the folk in the middle.

But what of your valued strivers? Well, you may not believe this, Mr C, and perhaps that is because you and your government have little experience of we lower orders, but strivers, too, exist at all levels of society. They’re here in this community I live in in West Cornwall: fishermen, for example, and farmers – no easy job either of those; voluntary sector and public sector workers who go well beyond the hours they are paid because of their commitment to the people and causes they serve; people who spend hour upon hour working tirelessly for charities and contributing to the public good. I remember a friend who died earlier this year and who, despite his severe illness, worked for a number of charities and was a great help to many people. He was a striver. So too are the volunteer and paid members of the fire and rescue service and lifeboats, some of whom I am privileged to know well. They are strivers, as are many in every sector of business and society. Paid or unpaid, in employment or voluntary work, all around me I see people who are striving – and the interesting thing is that their striving is not all about money. Yes, most of us want enough to live on but much of the effort I see around me is not for personal gain but for public good. These are, often, people striving for each other. Your predecessor was wrong: there is such a thing as society.

But back to that business of making a living, keeping body and soul together, and the hard working families that were the order of the day before the emphasis on strivers (which focus group suggested that change of emphasis?). Many, many people are now employed on what are called, without any apparent irony, “zero hour contracts.” Some may be a little better off. My son once had a four hour contract with a firm. My niece, in a similar position, had a good week recently, 12 hours.  What’s the problem? Just this, the hours people like this work are at the whim of their employers. Fair enough? Maybe, if that’s where it ended but they are also expected to be available at any time the employer requires them. So the four hours might be Tuesday this week and Thursday next, or two hours one day and two another. Because of this, they are unable to add to their hours and if they do try to juggle two similar employment options they are likely to lose one or both.  They are striving, Mr C, but the odds are stacked against their striving bringing the results they need to make a decent life for themselves. There is a lot more to be said about employment, about wages being so low that there is no chance of buying a home (Have you seen the gap between wages and house prices in Cornwall?) while rents, artificially inflated by the holiday trade, are high. More to be said, indeed, but I must move on to my next point.

Yes, we’re many of us striving, at the bottom, middle and top, but there is one more thing – where did you begin your striving, where did your cabinet begin? This is not the politics of envy. I have, truly, little envy in me, although I do marvel at the things people do with cut flowers! No, this is about justice. I really do not begrudge anyone having a good start in life, but it is very easy from such a position to fail to understand what it is like starting from somewhere else.

We tell a joke in these parts where a visitor asks a local the way to some place or other. “Well,” comes the laconic reply, “if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Striving is a darn sight easier if you’re half way up the ladder to begin with, and some people aren’t even on it. Don’t take my word for it. What do I know with my forty years of working with people in social work, careers, hospital and similar settings? I expect you may have read this:

We have found overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life. It is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life. The things that matter most are a healthy pregnancy; good maternal mental health; secure bonding with the child; love and responsiveness of parents along with clear boundaries, as well as opportunities for a child’s cognitive, language and social and emotional development. Good services matter too: health services, Children’s Centres and high quality childcare.

Later interventions to help poorly performing children can be effective but, in general, the most effective and cost-effective way to help and support young families is in the earliest years of a child’s life.

By the age of three, a baby’s brain is 80% formed and his or her experiences before then shape the way the brain has grown and developed. That is not to say, of course, it is all over by then, but ability profiles at that age are highly predictive of profiles at school entry. By school age, there are very wide variations in children’s abilities and the evidence is clear that children from poorer backgrounds do worse cognitively and behaviourally than those from more affluent homes. Schools do not effectively close that gap; children who arrive in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there.[5]

So said the Report of Frank Field’s Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances.

So, the truth is that we are not all striving from the same starting line, nor even with the same resources once we have heard the gun fired for the great race of life.

I was fortunate to be brought up in a stable and loving family. But there were no great amounts of cash around despite the fact that I know few people who worked harder than my parents. Well, not to claim too much for them, they did what lots of other working class families did. Worked hard, and got by but struggled when things got hard.

That need to work had seems to have been passed on, as my wife and I reared our own children by a succession of jobs, sometimes two or more at a time to make ends meet. Sometimes, we were glad there was a welfare system in place to cushion the shock when calamity befell. For example, we waited seven years after our marriage before starting a family, only to find that I was made redundant a few months before our first child was born.

Now our children, all adults now, and their contemporaries are struggling, particularly as a result of the disparity between the cost of rent or mortgages (if they could get one) and wages locally.

Still, we were fortunate, and my children are getting by but many are not so fortunate like the children Field’s report mentions who arrive (at school) “in the bottom range of ability (and) tend to stay there.”

I believe in striving, Mr C. I’ve spent my whole life doing it, but I also know that I’ve been dealt a better hand than many (and doubtless a worse hand than many, too), and it is for those whose struggle must begin with few if any resources that I plead for understanding, for compassion and most of all, for action.

There is a moral imperative here, but it is also for me a religious imperative, borne of an understanding that all human beings carry the spark of the divine within them, that we are brothers and sisters in the light of the divine, and that we have a clear responsibility for each other. It is borne also of the prophetic demand for the justice that is necessary for peaceful communities that we see, for example, in the words of Micah:

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes; they rob them of their inheritance. Therefore, the Lord says: ‘I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves. You will no longer walk proudly, for it will be a time of calamity.  In that day people will ridicule you; they will taunt you with this mournful song: “We are utterly ruined; my people’s possession is divided up. He takes it from me! He assigns our fields to traitors.”’

Strivers and skivers: they are there, Mr C, in every walk of life, there among the rich and among the poor and among those inbetween. But the least we can do in the cause of justice and social harmony is to ensure that those who begin at the bottom have the resources to run the race without unbearable handicap.

[1] http://www.metro.co.uk/news/889589-treasury-told-to-get-a-grip-after-11bn-in-unpaid-tax-written-off-by-mistake

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/top-20-most-wanted-tax-1263352

[3] http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19839836

[5] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110120090128/http://povertyreview.independent.gov.uk/media/20254/poverty-report.pdf

 

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