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UK government has a cruelty problem

Image: Marla Showfer

This morning, observant people in Cardiff will have learned from their local paper (these things never make the national news) that:

“A 32-year-old woman has been found dead in a Cardiff park.”

In homelessness, at least, it would appear that government attempts to promote gender equality are paying off.  As Dawn Foster writing in the Guardian last winter warned:

“Rough sleeping has doubled in the past five years, with increasing numbers of women: women who are often existing or expectant mothers, fleeing violence, or who have disabilities or health problems.

“Homeless women are even more vulnerable on the street than men. Research by Crisis, the homelessness charity, found 58% of women sleeping rough had been intimidated or threatened with violence and force in the past 12 months compared to 42% of men…

“Rising rents and stagnant wages, mean many more people are unable to keep up payments on private rental accommodation, and are evicted. Swingeing cuts to councils mean their ability to house people presenting to them with a housing need is limited.”

The death of that unnamed Cardiff woman was not a fluke, it was the direct consequence – whether intended or otherwise – of the austerity policy pursued by this government since it returned to office in 2010.

In the same week, on the other side of the UK, the Great Yarmouth Mercury informed us of the conviction of Terrence Brooker, who used a concrete block to break into his local jobcentre, and then proceeded to trash the office equipment inside.  What caused Brooker to act in this way?

“Brooker said he was summoned to the Jobcentre Plus on The Conge on August 30, shortly after he had secured a new room in the town.

“’They wanted proof of tenancy and a sickness certificate, which I provided to them,’ Mr Brooker said.  ‘But when I got there, they said they wanted another back-dated certificate, which takes two days to get.  Because of that, they said I would need to make another appointment [next month] and they were not going to pay me.’

“Brooker, who had been sleeping in a recycling bin prior to finding new accommodation, said he left the centre with not even enough money for food.”

Given the circumstances, Brooker might have been better off with a jail term; which would have at least provided food and a bed.  However, even in this, the intransigent face of the state bureaucracy was to be found – he was given a suspended sentence and sent back to his recycling bin.

These are just two recent human examples of the way high-level government policy unfolds in the real world.  In the course of the last decade, the UK has split into two very different countries – the affluent districts of London (around Westminster, the City and the Silicon roundabout) and their commuter-belt hinterland, together with the globally-connected metropolitan districts of the big cities on one side; the rural towns, ex-industrial districts and run-down Victorian seaside resorts on the other.  Increasingly, those on the wrong side of this divide believe they have been impoverished for nothing more than the entertainment of those on the other side.  It is no accident, of course, that they also voted in droves for Brexit (would have voted for Trump given the chance) and will support even greater extremes if nothing changes.

In 2010, hardly anyone in Britain knew what a foodbank was.  As with homelessness, they were the preserve of a tiny minority of people each experiencing a range of complex problems such as drug addiction and mental illness.  Today, foodbanks are ubiquitous.  And far from dealing solely with those at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, foodbanks increasingly have to provide emergency parcels to working families.  The government’s social security reforms are designed so that new claimants in December will not be entitled to support until January; causing the Trussell Trust – which runs 420 foodbanks across Britain – to predict even greater demand that last December’s record usage.

At this point, I hear you asking what any of this has to do with last week’s debate about animal sentience – i.e., whether animals can feel pain and emotion.  That story was, perhaps, what is usually meant by ‘fake news.’  The Independent, along with several other online journals, ran with a story that claimed that the Tories had voted that animals cannot feel pain or emotion. As is the way with social media, the story went viral.

It wasn’t long before environment minister Michael Gove was obliged to tour the TV and radio stations to explain the nuances behind the vote.  In fact, the supposedly animal-friendly provision that they were being asked to vote into law apparently contained exclusions for such things as bullfighting, cockfights, veal crates and live animal exports.  Rather than pass these into law only to have to amend them later, their plan had been to introduce a separate and more animal-friendly piece of legislation at a later date.  While I have no reason to doubt this, I am reminded that the Tory election manifesto for this year’s general election included the pledge to overturn Britain’s ban on fox-hunting.  All animals are equal, it would seem, but some animals are more equal than others.

The point, however, does not concern the technicalities of the EU Withdrawal Bill.  Rather, it is a matter of perception; as the Tories themselves now seem to have acknowledged.  Rowena Mason in the Guardian informed us yesterday that:

“Conservative MPs have been briefed by No 10 on seven new policy principles underpinned by a focus on the environment, after internal polling suggested the party is not seen as caring enough…

“The party has been particularly stung in recent weeks by a social media campaign claiming Tory MPs voted against recognising animal sentience, after they rejected an amendment to write the principle into UK law tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas.”

The irony here is that the Tories are treating this as a presentational issue.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of working families are going hungry; that homeless young women are dying of hypothermia in our public parks; that disabled people are being callously driven to an early grave; and that destitute people have target-driven bureaucratic obstacles put in the way of their receiving enough money to feed themselves, it seems, is something to be spun rather than reversed.

Remember too that in their younger days, members of the Cabinet are known to have burned fifty pound notes in front of homeless people as a perverse membership ritual for the Bullingdon Club – an organisation that deserves the level of disapprobation normally reserved for the Britain First or Islamic State.  Of course the Bullingdon Boys believe that animals feel pain – that’s the point.  The kind of psychopath who takes pleasure in seeing a fox ripped apart by a pack of dogs (or watching the desperate tears of a homeless person watching a £50 note go up in smoke) derives his pleasure precisely from the fact that his victim is suffering the very worst emotional and physical pain he can inflict.  If animals (and working class people) did not feel pain, there would be no point inflicting it.

The question for Theresa May’s government is more than just whether they wish to present themselves to the electorate in this way.  Very few people follow the nuances of the political process.  Most get up and make a cup of tea when a politician comes on the TV.  Few understand the difference between an Act, a statutory instrument and an amendment.  Rather, most people get a “feel” for a political party.  When a newspaper prints a headline that implies the government doesn’t care about animal welfare, they don’t rush to the online version of Hansard to see whether it is true.  What they do is ask themselves, does animal cruelty fit with everything else the Tories have been doing since 2010?  And the answer, clearly, is yes!  A party that can preside over hunger, homelessness and destitution while devastating public services does, indeed, sound like the kind of party that would happily inflict pain on animals.

The best advice I can offer the government – advice that I came across in a social media discussion – is simple enough: “If you don’t want people to think you are a bunch of sociopaths, stop acting like a bunch of sociopaths.”

As you made it to the end…

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