Let's put this into context in as simple terms as possible - the fact that poverty is as wide-spread as it is in one of the richest places in the world should make us utterly ashamed.
It should be the top priority of every government in every country to eradicate poverty.
Never has so much wealth and knowledge existed on this planet, so it is simply inexcusable that poverty can still exist when we as a human race have all we need to make sure that everyone has what they need to survive and for society to run itself in a sustainable way without destroying the planet.
The reason why such a society does not exist can be summed up with one word - Politics.
Or, more specifically (and the subject of this blog post), conservative politics.
My main motivation for being a political person is my incapability of containing my indignation when I see injustice not just in Jersey but across the world. Having been brought up in a family with very working class roots but which had made it's way up to the middle class, I could see very clearly the "two-nation Jersey" we live in, where there are people who face daily struggles that many in Jersey couldn't even begin to understand, and which the government has no comprehension of how to deal with, because of how out of touch it is.
In the two elections I have stood in, I have been out meeting hundreds of people in St Helier and I have come across things that most people just wouldn't believe exist in Jersey. I've been in social housing where families are living with mushrooms growing out of the ceiling. I've met more people than I can count who have been drunk before midday when I've knocked on their door because it is literally the only thing they can do with their lives that brings them any sort of satisfaction. I've met people who have their disability benefits cut despite every recommendation from their doctors being that they need it, so they are literally too ill and too poor to afford to see a doctor.
But the most important thing you see from these people is their resilience. The vast majority that I meet are decent people, non-judgmental and not bitter at the wrong people for the conditions they have to endure. But for them, without any shadow of a doubt, they are completely disillusioned with Jersey politics because there is a clear perception that those who feature in our government do not have the solutions to make their lives better.
So I read today's JEP with great interest to see the Chief Minister's comments on poverty in Jersey and I just can't help but be cynical.
The recognition by someone at the top that poverty in Jersey is a real problem is important. Many will bury their heads in the sand and say that because we aren't a third world country that even those worst off in Jersey have it better than most around the world, so they should shut up and be grateful for what they have.
But where this acknowledgement leaves me pessimistic, is that alongside it came not even the slightest hint that there will be any change in direction on policy from the government.
The Jersey Annual Social Surveys of the past few years have all shown that people are struggling to make ends meet, people are not getting the hours at work that they need and that things for those people are actually getting worse, not better.
This has happened during the tenure of a government which has introduced and then raised GST, a regressive tax which hurts those on lowest incomes the most.
The defenders of GST will say that it isn't so bad because the worst off get given a rebate to help cope with it, as if it is a good thing for more people to be more dependent on on the state rather than being able to survive comfortably with their wage alone.
We have had '20 means 20' which has hurt those on middle incomes. Those being the people who give the most to government, but get the least back in terms of benefits and state support for things like university tuition fees etc.
We find out soon (officially anyway) whether or not Jersey has a deficit, and what sort of deficit it is. All the indications so far are that we do have a deficit and that spending plans up until now have been based on an unjustifiably optimistic prediction for income tax receipts.
Now, ideologically I have no problem with running a budget deficit if it is done for the right reasons, to stimulate growth or as part of a wider long-term aim for public finances. But when you have a deficit creep up on you by accident, having ignored the warnings, and to simply pay your day to day bills, that can only be described as fiscal recklessness.
If it turns out we do have a deficit, there are only two things a government can do to try and eliminate it; 1) cut spending, or 2) raise more revenues. Or aspects of both can be used in different areas of an overall plan.
During the election and at every moment before and since, when Senators Gorst, Maclean, Ozouf, Bailhache etc have been asked how they will plug the financial black hole, they will unequivocally reject tax rises. But then when challenged to show how they are going to find savings of tens of millions of pounds a year from States budgets, they have no answer whatsoever.
Now, there is plenty of room for cutting spending by internal departmental efficiency savings and (aspects of) the wider programme of public sector reform and eGovernment which will reduce bureaucracy and end duplication. But will that save us the £95m we need to find? Anyone who thinks it will is living in cloud cuckoo land.
If there are no tax rises, there will have to be cuts to public services and we are already close to breaking point.
It's nearly impossible to recruit nurses in Jersey because of how poorly their pay and working conditions compare to their counterparts in the private sector and in the UK public sector. The same goes for teachers. If we want decent public services that the poorest in our society can rely on, those areas need more investment, not less. How is that reconcilable with the government position of cutting costs without raising taxes?
The Chief Minister speaks of implementing family-friendly policies, yet it was under his tenure that we saw the changes to university grants which would see the brunt of costs saved from broken families where kids have divorced parents.
How can a government preach, without any hint of irony, that they wish to help reduce poverty in Jersey, yet they refuse to fund social projects by raising taxes on the highest earners in Jersey? It is staunch conservative dogma gone mad. It is the same principle adopted by the coalition government in the UK (thankfully soon be replaced by a Labour government) that has seen the conditions of the worst off in society plummet, with specific focus on the disabled, students, pensioners and women, and they haven't even succeeded in denting the deficit to any notable degree, as was it's alleged purpose.
Even the United Nations has acknowledged that the economies that perform the worst are actually the ones where the gap between the richest and poorest is greatest. In his recent speeches in the States, Senator Maclean has been quoting economic textbooks that Deputy Southern has joked that he hasn't heard anyone use with a degree of seriousness since the 1960s. That is the position we are in.
For poverty to end in Jersey, we need better public services and it is simply impossible to do that whilst cutting costs and keeping taxes low. The low tax low spend model is broken. If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to accept that we need a new model built around values of social inclusion, mixed with economic realism and responsibility.
There is only one conclusion I can come up with from this focus on poverty - it is insincere.
So Senator Gorst, put your money where your mouth is. If you are genuinely committed to reducing poverty in Jersey, then join me and Reform Jersey in promising these things -
- Focus all government contracts with private sector firms to businesses which pay their workers a living wage. Make it profitable for businesses to pay their workers a decent salary.
- Raise the cap on social security contributions for high earners to fund a programme for free access to GPs for Islanders with chronic illnesses, pensioners and children.
- Use your influence as shareholder of utilities to stop price hikes in bills for heating and electricity, which is crippling poor families and pensioners.
- Legislate against abusive zero-hours contracts. We could ban 'exclusivity clauses' tomorrow, so let's do it.
- Initiate a root and branch review of the income support system to identify the changes we desperately need to make sure benefits are reaching those who genuinely need help.
These are just the first 5 ideas that came to my head. Much more is to be done. But we're in for a bumpy ride in 2015.
Happy new year to all my friends and supporters!