Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Mother might have been arrested, if Westminster Tories have their way

MY mother was nobody famous. Brought up in a backstreet in Salford, she won a scholarship but had to leave school at 12 after her dad died, and was sewing buttons on overcoats to help feed the rest of the family soon after that. All the same, she acquired enough culture to put many of us 'higher educated' later generations to shame, learning poetry because she liked to recite it, rather than to pass exams, and saving money from her first proper paid job to treat herself to the D'Oyle Cart opera when it came to town.

To my education she contributed a familiarity with the library, and municipal art galleries, an acquaintance with the works of many good writers, and historical knowledge of, inter alia, the Peterloo massacre, the Russian pogroms, Keir Hardy, the General Strike, the Means Test, and the Jarrow Crusade. She even surprised me once by being able to sing "the Union Maid" -I'd got the words in a book but didn't know the tune. She did.

But the biggest surprise came one day years later in Town. Home on a visit, the great rebel intellect, I had agreed to go shopping with me Mam. Coming out of Lewis's, we crossed over to Piccadilly gardens to go for our bus. I barely paid attention to the tramp on the bench, holding his forearms across his midriff, as we passed. But Mum did.

"That man's hungry," she said. I shrugged. "I can tell by the way he is holding his stomach", she said, "that's hunger pain". I ventured, trying to be sophisticated, that the man had probably just had a bad pint, but she was not having any of it. "I know hunger pains", she said, stopping. "I can't just walk past"

Asking me to look in the shopping bag, which had a loaf and some cheeses at the top, and ignoring my protests that we'd miss our bus, or that there were loads of people about -"Bugger people", she replied - she went and asked the man on the bench if he would like some bread and cheese, then stood there in her best clothes fashioning a cheese sandwich for the man.

I was left to reflect that the other people in the gardens were eating lunch, or feeding pigeons. And that my mum, ever so conventional, was not the conformist she looked, and nor was I the big rebel I liked to think. I was also struck by the certainty with which she recognised hunger pains. I'd read about the Hungry Thirties, and even written essays, but though it was Mam who'd told me about them, seemed she had not told me everything.

My mam was nobody special. I never heard her making any speeches. She would not have been at any big charity dinners with the 'pompkes' (her derisory nickname for bourgeois society matrons). She was just a working class Salford woman who knew about things, knew about hunger, and could not walk past it.

I was reminded of this little episode twice in the past week or so. First when a friend on Facebook was inviting people to think of women who were special to them, for International Women's Day. (But my mam was nobody special). Next, when a cousin in Canada posted this about a man who feeds and cares for the homeless and destitute, many of them mentally ill, in Bangalore, India.!/video/video.php?v=1378237514624&comments

I was wondering how the man, who has retired from his job, manages to make a living and feed the poor, and then I remembered that I'd recently seen something on TV about a man who takes out a van with food to feed homeless people sleeping rough on the streets, or park benches, of London. Only now he may have to face prosecution for daring to continue his soup run, if the Tory-controlled Westminster council has its way.

The council spokesperson seemed to think people eating on the street are a nuisance, like the pigeons, and claimed that some of the people queuing for free food were not really sleeping out, and that if they were they shouldn't be. Feeding only encouraged them (on these cold nights? it must be good soup!). It seems even someone behaving like my mother did that day would be in breach of the law, even though it was not premeditated.

Let lawyer Liz Davies explain:

... Westminster Council - continuing its Shirley Porter tradition of punishing the poor - wants to drive out rough sleepers.

If that meant more night shelters, a more generous interpretation of its homelessness duties or more temporary accommodation were being offered, all well and good.

But Westminster prefers to criminalise both the rough sleepers and those who help them.

The council is consulting on a by-law that would make it a criminal offence for anyone to sleep on the streets or any other public place in a defined area just east of Victoria station.

The proposed boundaries are not natural or logical ones - to know whether or not he or she was in breach, a rough sleeper would have to carry a map of Westminster around.

In addition anyone "distributing free refreshment in or on any public place" would also be committing a crime.

Quite simply, soup runs are to be criminalised. Indeed, if you give a chocolate bar to a chap who seems hungry as you walk down Victoria Street, you could find yourself up in front of the magistrates.

The council says the presence of soup runs is a disincentive for rough sleepers to use their night shelters.

But there are all sorts of reasons why people don't use night shelters. Sometimes they don't know about them, sometimes they don't trust the other occupants or they don't trust the system.

It's hard to see how those obstacles are going to be overcome by arresting someone sleeping in a shop doorway or preventing them from receiving food.

Westminster has more rough sleepers than anywhere else because of Victoria station and coach station and its central location.

Its Tory council has always disliked them but until now has tried to reduce their numbers by providing at least some night shelter support.

Locking up rough sleepers will just move them on - to other parts of Westminster, to other London boroughs - until all the local authorities get in on the act.

Then we'll end up with prisons full of "incorrigible rogues" who haven't hurt anyone or stolen anything.

You can read Liz's article, 'Begging to differ' in full at:

More on Westminster and homeless:

As Liz Davies notes, the problem of homelessness is going to get worse, as the government puts a limit on housing benefits, while doing nothing to increase affordable housing or hold down rents. Westminster as a local authority is obliged to provide for families with children, but not for anyone else. Back in the days of Dame Shirley Porter it was not only notorious for keeping council housing empty so it could be sold, but for putting homeless families in accommodation rotten with dangerous asbestos and rats. Some Tories had a stake in bed and breakfast accommodation which the council used.

Not for the first time, Westminster is attempting to export homeless people to other boroughs or out of London altogether, and does not want the poor and hungry cluttering up its streets. It's OK coming in to build, or clean them, or do other useful jobs, but once you're no longer needed or spending money you must go back to the bantustans.

...And his Mother came too

ALL this might have given the false impression that Tories do not approve of feeding the hungry, or not of free food generally (remember how Maggie first showed her mettle by taking away free school milk? A warning of what to expect, if ever there was.)

But one man has been giving the lie to that, and its our Barnet friend Cllr.Brian Coleman, who all in the course of duty has been accepting enough free dinners for everyone.

Much of this could be explained by the generosity of Barnet's communities, in gratitude for his services or him honouring them with his presence. But questions were raised a couple of years ago when it was revealed that a firm called Asset Co and its chief executive John Shannon had taken Brian Coleman to dinner on three occasions, and also presented him with a Harvey and Nichols hamper estimated to be worth £350. (I hope he does not take it for a picnic with his pals near Westminster City Hall). Asset Co. were awarded a £12 million contract with the London Fire Authority which Brian Coleman chairs.

Maybe that's the value for money in local services which the Tories have proclaimed.

But the critics are never satisfied, even when the bill for a beano is kept in-house.

"The man charged with making up to 25% cuts to the London Fire Brigade splashed thousands of pounds from the budget on a "completely excessive" meal for his colleagues. Chairman of the Fire Authority Brian Coleman used £2338 from the Brigade’s communications budget to pay for flowers and a three-course lunch for a retiring colleague.

"Authority members, the Deputy Mayor, and senior officials were served a 'Trio of Orkney Salmon' for starters, 'Corn-fed breast of Norfolk chicken served with date and apple stuffing' for mains, and an 'individual chocolate truffle with vanilla cream sauce,' for dessert".

One embittered Barnet blogger calculated that the amount spent on this dinner would have been enough to pay for Barnet's school crossing lollipop ladies, who are being sacked, to carry on their service for another year. Yeah, but as he admits, that's a different budget.

Anyway that dinner sounds nice, and I see that Brian's mother Gladys was among the guests. You can't fault a bloke who looks after Mum, can you?

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At 4:52 PM, Blogger Anna Chen said...

You mother sounds amazing, Charlie. A rare breed nowadays.

Perhaps we should have a feed-in, and go en masse to Westminster with food to hand out to those in need.


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