Roy Mason – 1986 Speech on Poverty in Barnsley

Below is the text of the speech made by Roy Mason, the then Labour MP for Barnsley Central, in the House of Commons on 30 January 1986.

Rapidly increasing poverty in Barnsley over the past five years has had a dramatic and depressing impact on my town. I have represented Barnsley for nearly 33 years, and I have never known such misery on such a large scale as today. I lived through the 1930s and the pre-war depression years, but have never witnessed so many personal pictures of soul-destroying unhappiness through being penniless and pleading for help as are evident in Barnsley today.

That awful and worrying rise in poverty in Barnsley over the past five years of Tory administration has shattered individuals, many families, our small communities and our local economy. The crucial poverty indicators, such as the local level of unemployment, the number of social security claims and the increasing demand on social services section 1 moneys all reveal a sharp decline in personal and household incomes against a background of increasing job losses, redundancies and pit closures. That scale of poverty is placing intolerable pressure on our local services and resources, both statutory and voluntary, especially the social services, the advice services and housing.

Although Barnsley metropolitan district council has responded with various practical initiatives, trying to stave off the harshness of personal distress, Government cuts in the rate support grant, and the further cuts proposed in the so-called reform of social security will only exacerbate the serious poverty levels and the social security problems in Barnsley.

One might ask, where is the evidence? I believe it to be the frightening catalogue of social concern, which is the most distressing that I have ever come across in my time. One in five people in Barnsley is now without a job. In January this year 16,897 people were on the dole, and there was a 20 per cent. rate of unemployment, approximately 6 per cent. higher than the national average and 9·2 per cent. higher than in 1981.

The mass of poverty is startling. The social services, working on Department of Health and Social Security criteria, establish Barnsley’s poverty line as being a family of four on supplementary benefit receiving £69 weekly income. In Barnsley, there are 7,875 people on the poverty line and, below the poverty line, 3,375 unemployed and 1,500 in work—a total of 12,750 poverty-striken people in the town of Barnsley. Is it any wonder that I decided to bring that to Parliament’s attention?

In November, 16,739 people were claiming unemployment benefit in the Barnsley travel-to-work area. Most disturbing was the rise in the number of long-term unemployed. Although most people believe them to be in the older age brackets, that is just not true in my town. Of the registered claimants between 19 and 24 years of age, there were 1,087 people unemployed over the year. That is 45·4 per cent. of all the registered unemployed in that age category. What a damning indictment of the Government it is that so many young people in one small town in Britain should be condemned to the dole for so long with no hope on the horizon. What, then, of their poverty? ​ Since the beginning of 1981, 11,420 redundancies in Barnsley have been notified to the Department of Employment. Barnsley council is on a fast-moving treadmill, struggling to fight this surge of job losses. The Regional Manpower Intelligence Unit in January 1985 compared the vacancy levels in travel-to-work areas throughout England. Barnsley was ranked as having the second highest number of unemployed per vacancy in England, with 128 registered unemployed for every vacancy.

That is an appalling picture of misery thrust upon my town and constituency by a Government who have used monetarist controls, who have squeezed the economy, slashed regional aid, ruthlessly closed steelworks and coal mines, cut social services and caused massive job losses in coal mining towns like Barnsley. Yet the Government cannot provide any answer to the problems in such areas.

Barnsley council has made strenuous efforts to stem the tide. It has established an employment strategy, built an enterprise centre, small factories, seedbed workshops, and an information technology centre. The council has 35 staff working in teams to help new firms to set up, to help existing firms to survive and expand and to attract new industry and training. I have led teams to Brussels to obtain European regional development grants for the development of a business and innovation centre. This worked has saved and created 1,000 jobs in 1985.

Barnsley council launched the coal field communities campaign, which now involves more than 60 local authorities representing 16 million people, in an attempt to draw attention to the social, economic and environmental problems facing coal field areas like Barnsley. The community campaign was also intended to advocate policies to alleviate poverty, misery and unemployment in the declining economies of the coal fields.

As everyone can see, Barnsley council has not sat on its backside. It is fighting the problem. Government policies will have to be radically changed if there is to be any hope of a solution to these problems. National Coal Board Enterprise Ltd. is not the answer. Even if it is creating 500 jobs a month, that is for Great Britain as a whole. Barnsley alone needs that figure every month this year just to stem the tide and avoid being swamped.

Some 50 per cent. of all Barnsley households are in receipt of housing benefit. Earlier this year the housing department undertook a review of the waiting list. The review revealed that there are now more than 4,700 people on the council’s waiting list. That means that over the past two years the waiting list has grown by 16 per cent. and in some cases in the borough the list has grown by more than 20 per cent. Of particular concern is the increased number of old-age pensioners on the list and the increasing demand for single person accommodation, which has increased by 22 per cent. over the past two years.

During that time the number of single persons sharing households has increased from 200 to 286, an increase of 43 per cent. That is another tragic story of social distress for which the Government must accept responsibility.
The ratio of new house building has declined markedly in the council sector due almost entirely to Government restrictions. The rate of council house building has declined from an average of 330 units per annum in the mid-1970s to 128 in 1981–82; 15 units in 1982–83; 19 units in 1983–84; and 33 units in 1984–85.

With regard to housing benefits, I quote the case study of a miner’s widow on a widow’s pension of £38·38 and an NCB pension of £8·43. She receives a total housing benefit of £11·53. Under the new scheme her total housing benefit will be £9·01, a weekly loss of £2·52. That sum will be taken away from a miner’s widow. Bearing in mind that 50 per cent. of all Barnsley householders are in receipt of housing benefit, thousands more people will be driven into deeper poverty because of the effects of the Social Security Bill now going through the House.

It is estimated that 29,000 people in Barnsley could lose some or all of their benefits. In Barnsley, more than 19,000 people are dependent upon supplementary benefit for the whole or part of their income. Local DHSS officers are so overstretched that they are taking up to six weeks to process the many claims for single payments for exceptional need. According to their statistics, the Barnsley, east office has 10,893 supplementary benefit recipients and the Barnsley, west office has 8,155. That amounts to 19,048, which is a considerable work load for an overworked staff.

Also noticeable is the number of supplementary benefit and family income supplement appeals listed for Barnsley. Between January and December 1985 there were 699. The abolition of the right of appeal and the review which has been mentioned are not satisfactory. They represent a major erosion of the legal right of Barnsley claimants. A significant number win their case on appeal. If the appeals procedure is abolished, a claimant’s only recourse will be to the local DHSS manager. I doubt whether many decisions will be overturned under that system.

Many more claimants will approach the local authority’s social service departments for financial assistance. It is inevitable that the demand on the limited section 1 moneys will be intolerable. How much more poverty will result?

In Barnsley, the most significant area of increased demand on statutory and voluntary services arising from increasing poverty is on the welfare rights officers. Within the social services department, referrals to the welfare rights officers have increased by 100 per cent. in the past two years. All staff record a dramatic rise in the number of cases with a primarily financial content. There has been an alarming increase in the volume of debt-related problems. Council staff have recently attended a training course on debt counselling. A special leaflet has been produced to help people to cope with enormous debts owed to building societies, fuel boards and hire purchase firms.

The emergence of loan sharks during the recent miners’ strike was a new and worrying social phenomenon. Mrs.Catherine Allan, the Barnsley citizens advice bureau organiser, wrote to me and said:

“During 1984–85 the bureau dealt with 1,751 social security inquiries —a 63 per cent. increase in one year…In December 1985 the Barnsley CAB dealt with 731 inquiries compared with 569 in December 1984 …Indicators of the increasing poverty of clients are the large numbers of debt problems.”

I received a letter from the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association. Mr. J. R. Foster. secretary of the Barnsley division, said:

“1985 saw an increase of 25 per cent. in the number of applicants, a 33 per cent. increase in the Funds disbursed, and of the total number of cases, 41 per cent. were for assistance with. fuel, light, water rates and funeral expenses … I have one case of a pensioner whose gas supply was cut off two years ago, one of a pensioner who has had no water supply since October 85 and some others who are or have been subject of court orders. Some ​ of these are elderly ladies and the thought of court action frightens them a great deal so they cut out other things to pay these bills. I may add that being the widow of ex servicemen or the men themselves, they are very uptight at having suffered the privations of wartime service they have to call on SSAFA and like organisations in their last years.”

Fiona Moss, the secretary of Age Concern in Barnsley, wrote to me saying:

“I am perturbed by the increasing number of enquiries related to the standard of living of this area. In fact some are individuals who through pride have deliberately avoided what they believe to be the acceptance of charity. Many tears have been shed in my office. We have miners widows with approximately £7 a week extra pension. Their claim for housing benefits are reduced by the same amount.”

She goes on to say:

“Can we afford to die? The £30 state grant is soon to be abolished. What will replace it? Our local paper states that elderly people worry about a ‘Pauper’s Grave’, and figures show that a Barnsley family paid almost £600 for a funeral in 1985 compared to £90 in 1972. I should know—it was my own mother’s funeral. In the past with fuller employment many elderly people were cared for by their own families. These families are also now in the poverty trap. I get many more of these families coming for advice about their parents’ problems —they themselves are at their wits end struggling to survive on low incomes.”

What a tale of woe and distress and more and more poverty.

The Barnsley Council’s co-ordinated welfare rights group, Barnsley’s anti-poverty team, has mounted several successful benefit take-up campaigns which have injected substantial amounts of cash to vulnerable groups such as the unemployed, the sick and the physically disabled. A team of dedicated civil servants and volunteers led by Roy Wardell, the director, and Councillor Judith Watts work well beyond their wage-related hours to alleviate stress and worry in the town.

Unfortunately, the council’s anti-poverty measures have to be seen against a background of appeals by central Government for restraint in spending and of targets set by the Government and block grant penalties. At present, Barnsley is penalised at the highest level. Existing spending plus allowances for inflation and current commitments will result in the target which has been set by the Government by 1985–86 being significantly exceeded.

Education officers in Barnsley have estimated that the percentage of schoolchildren on free school meals will be reduced from 26 per cent. to 18 per cent. under the proposed changes. This almost certainly will have an effect on the number of school meals staff employed by the council and increased poverty in many families.

The financial and housing restraints on the under-25 age group, forcing young people to stay in sometimes intolerable family situations, will lead to increased family stress and breakdown in Barnsley. I received a report from one welfare rights worker at the Barnsley centre against unemployment, which says:

“One of the most serious problems faced by the young unemployed is their inability to find accommodation. Shortage of rented property has forced up rents and many landlords refuse to let their property to unemployed people.

Consequently, many young unemployed people find themselves having to move into board and lodging accommodation, the disadvantages of which have recently been exacerbated by the new board and lodging regulations, resulting mainly from landlords charging exorbitant rates for their accommodation in the knowledge of DHSS payments. Although landlords have been largely to blame for the abuse of the system it is the young unemployed who have been ​ penalised by reduction in benefits and time limits on their receipt of payment. Within two days of each other two young men, aged 16 and 17, attempted suicide, one by an overdose of valium and the other by slashing his wrists with broken glass. They were both lodgers in the same boarding house and both faced penalisation under the four week rule. In the same week, the week beginning 13 January, an 18 year old girl also overdosed.

It is a nonsense to say that the under 25s should, if they have no employment, remain at home. The girl mentioned desperately needed her own accommodation due to her father’s violence towards her. Also unemployed families have their benefits reduced by having adult children at home leading often to domestic tension and violence.”

It is all so sickening to me and I hope that it is to the Minister.

Barnsley council and I believe that there is a direct link between economic decline, Government policies and the resulting fall in individual and household incomes —poverty. The local economy has suffered more than most from the effects of disputes in the coal industry. Punitive and inequitable legislation in social security reform and local government finance will serve only to increase rather than decrease the scale of the problem of poverty in Barnsley.

This is the story of poverty in Barnsley brought about by heartless and ruthless Tory Government policies. The town refuses to be dejected. We shall fight on, but we deplore being neglected. That is why the Minister has had to listen to this case today.