We all depend on trade unions

What is one day of paralysis compared with a lifetime of poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

Who knew that a student blogger with a pet peeve for public sector workers could incite so much anger? Sara Malm, a journalism student at the University of Kent, probably had no idea when she ranted against "disgraceful, selfish and, quite frankly, passé" industrial action.

Her post, published on the Independent's iWriters section on Friday, has inspired 300 comments, as well as a response from blogger Lucy Snow denouncing her "vitriol." And while anyone sympathetic to workers' rights should denounce Malm's insulting article, you have to wonder why people are surprised.

Britain is seething with anti-union sentiment. Be it Michael Gove proposing to abolish teachers’ staff rooms in order to save money, or the right-wing press attacking “Red Len” McCluskey’s call for strikes during the Olympics. Thatcher used all she had in her to curb the power of unions, but the return of a Conservative-led government is reflected in our media, our fellow citizens and, now, our youth.  

Criticise the cash-for-access scandal that erupted last month and the ensuing revelations of the power of big businesses over the Conservative Party, and you will be met with claims that the Labour Party is just as reliant on its union funding. Well, yes. But unions speak for thousands of ordinary people who share similar stakes in society – which, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think necessarily appeal to the chairman of the world’s largest interdealer broker (Michael Spencer, who enjoys Downing Street dining so much he paid nearly £4m for the luxury).

But the problem is that many of these ordinary people don’t recognise the beneficial nature of unions – including Malm, who doesn’t seem to realise that she has the right to union support herself. The very fact that Boris Johnson prides himself on his pledge to limit the power of the transport unions shows how far this has gone. If elected next month, he promises to make key underground lines driverless within two years. Rather than arousing concern for the inevitable job losses this will create, the move is hailed as somehow freeing commuters from the constraints of irritating tube drivers and their endless demands; the picture painted of tube unions is not unlike the terrorising hostage-takers that Malm describes. And Boris, saying “I want to be the Mayor who does that” (create more driverless trains), has tapped into the public contempt that his own party has helped to fuel.     

A lot of the time, people who moan about industrial action don’t understand the reasons behind it. And this is something that Malm fails even to address. The strikes that the NUT proposes for later this year are about defending national pay rather than a performance-related salary – akin to much of the private sector – that Gove is suggesting. The education secretary wants teachers’ pay to be more “market facing” – a flagrant example of the creeping veil of privatisation with which this government is stifling public services.

But performance-related pay works both ways: bright young graduates should be attracted to a career in teaching with decent salaries, pensions and working conditions. Otherwise, what is to stop the best potential candidates preferring professions that don’t immediately benefit society? Don’t we want our children, Britain’s future, to be taught by people who are intelligent and enthusiastic rather than worn out and grumpy? Ironically and perhaps unknowingly, Malm hints at what the NUT is complaining about, claiming that strikes have “no place in a market economy, especially not one four years into a recession.” But that is the very problem: that the recession is incessantly taken out on people like teachers. It’s no good creating – and maintaining – a consumer-driven society that conditions people to be motivated by success, only to devalue on so many levels the careers that really matter.

Of course a strike across the London transport network is devastating on any day, let alone during the Olympics. Thousands of ordinary people will not be able to get to work, children won’t be able to go to school and the capital’s economy will dip – for a short period. But people strike to make that very point: we are all reliant on public sector workers. We need to stand by them while they protest job cuts, pay freezes and pension reforms. After all, what is one day of paralysis – to borrow from right-wing rhetoric – compared with a lifetime of badly-organised, poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

Workers at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of their factory on the Wirral. Photograph: Getty Images.
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.