British Day? Let's have lots of them

A British Day would mean an extra day off work, so why should we stop at just one?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the possibility of having a ‘British Day’. Ruth Kelly and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne, in a Fabian Society pamphlet, are proposing this as a new public holiday, and have stimulated a wide debate and many headlines along the lines of ‘What is Britishness anyway?’.

The Daily Mail was on fine, frightening form, ridiculing the emphasis on better community relations in the ministers’ statement, and wondering how a government that banned fox hunting could lay claim to any kind of national pride. Hmmm.

More reflectively, Derek Wall, my counterpart as Principal Speaker of the Green Party suggested 1 May as a candidate for a British Day. May Day is at least an ancient festival, and its modern-day connotations of progressive protest are also appealing, but I reckon we have got enough holidays in the spring already.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the proposal has hardly been mentioned. We are being offered a new bank holiday, and not before time. Workers in the UK get a raw deal on public holidays compared with almost everywhere else. With eight a year, we’re on average three days behind Europe, and even America trounces us with eleven federal holidays plus a range of state holidays on top (Texas has six!).

We also work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe, and our mental and physical health suffers as a result. One in three British employees thinks they are less healthy thanks to their working patterns and a 2006 survey showed that the average lunch break had declined to under 20 minutes, with most people eating lunch at their ‘workstations’.

And the bosses are as badly off as the rest of us, at least in their work-life balance: one in five managers in the UK works the equivalent of a seven-day week.

We are badly in need of more time off. So, if we can’t agree on what to celebrate with one new bank holiday, why not create three or four?

There are plenty of ideas already out there, with various campaigns taking advantage of this week’s debate to make the case for a public celebration of their cause. Alex Salmond called for St. Andrew’s day in November to herald the start of a winter festival, and campaigners for a St. George’s Day holiday in England also seized the chance to speak up, citing the fact that "in Ireland they go berserk on St Patrick’s Day". Apart from everything else, 23 April is also part of the spring glut, so this one doesn’t get my vote either.

From a practical point of view, July has to be the prime candidate for an extra day off. It's the month that usually has the best weather and – frustratingly – is a bank holiday-free zone at present. If it was given to me to decide I think I’d pick my birthday, name it ‘Lido Day’ and then put plenty of Lottery funding into making sure everyone had the chance to lounge around at a nearby pool.

There’s a lot about local communities in the ministers’ proposals. So, another suggestion of mine, for the similarly blighted run up to Christmas, is ‘Buy Local Day’ where shops selling plastic and electronic goods from the far east are closed and we visit independent shops to buy locally made, seasonal presents.

The day would of course be finished off with a huge feast of local food and a pint of local beer.

So that’s two sorted out. How about a national vote on the other two, pitting the nationalist campaigners against those in favour of commemorating Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday, the Magna Carta, Waterloo or the day we invented Blu Tack? That would keep us occupied for a while, and might result in some interesting choices.

I don't think it really matters what we go for. Finding things to actually ‘celebrate’ is a bit of a minefield, as Ruth Kelly has found out; and whatever you choose is likely to raise someone’s hackles.

Perhaps instead we should have holidays to promote things that are still works in progress, such as peace, justice, democracy, or indeed protecting the environment. Or, given our chronic need for rest, why not just pick a few dates at random and call them ‘days off’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.