Chris Hughes, a member of Church Action on Poverty’s local group in the North East, recently wrote to the new Prime Minister to continue a conversation begun in 1992. We’re pleased to share Chris’s letter here.
Dear Prime Minister
I appreciate that you would have met thousands of people and attended scores of meetings, events and hustings in the campaigns you have taken part in, and I do not expect you to recall an event you took part in during the 1992 General Election campaign. You represented the Conservative party at an event at the Brunswick Methodist Church in the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne organised by Church Action on Poverty North East (CAPNE). I chaired that meeting and remember you advocating how your party would address the issue of poverty.
A generation on from that meeting, there have been some positive developments. For example, I look at my own parish which has the Meadow Well estate within it; as you may recall, riots took place in this estate in September 1991. Local and national governments have put in resources that have improved, to some extent, the quality of housing and the standard of living for many. However, 24 years ago I think I would have been incredulous at the idea that there would be the need to start an ‘End Hunger UK’ campaign or that Ken Loach would be motivated to make his I, Daniel Blake film which not only focuses on the extent of poverty in the North East but also on the human misery and dehumanising effects of visiting food banks and facing benefit sanctions.
I was encouraged by your words outside 10 Downing Street on 13 July. I genuinely believe that this was not your ‘Prayer of St Francis moment’ where nice words are said ‘off the cuff’ without any strategy or vision to fulfil them. I sense that you are aware of the concerns and struggles which we at CAPNE are seeking to address. An important aspect of CAPNE’s work is to seek to be attentive to what people’s needs are, rather than presuming what they may be. We also seek to enable those who are victims of poverty and injustice to be able to address decision-makers with their understanding as to what solutions would address their needs, rather than solutions also being presumed and imposed ‘from on high’.
If your colleagues in the Cabinet and those working in Government departments that are addressing poverty issues have not done also already, I would encourage them to hear stories and experiences of those living with poverty. I will offer two brief examples I have recently encountered. One was listening to a woman who has to make a choice of putting on the oven to roast the Sunday joint or instead have a sandwich but then be able to heat the house for the remainder of the day. The second example is two accomplished graduates who are committed parishioners here in North Shields. They married in 2014 and are expecting their first child in the January of 2017. They are faced with increasing financial pressures as they eke out low incomes from zero-hour contracts working as carers. It is when I have these face-to-face encounters that the stark reality that people are struggling with confronts me, calling for a response.
Having met you in 1992, I have noted your progress from being a parliamentary candidate to your present role, and I genuinely wish you well. You appear to acknowledge the gravity of the challenges, while seeking to make the most of the opportunities of this present time. In your address outside 10 Downing Street on 13 July, you reflected on the concept of ’Unionism’ for our nation at this present time. A profound sense of understanding, solidarity and unity will not be achieved unless there is a willingness to fully acknowledge, appreciate and understand the stark dehumanising reality that so many people encounter at this present time; you appeared to appreciate this reality. I hope other members of your Government will be able to follow suit and be attentive and responsive to poverty in its multiple expressions in the UK in 2016.
With prayers and best wishes
Revd Chris Hughes
Parish Priest of St Cuthbert’s and St Joseph’s R.C. Parish, North Shields