Page 11, 28th February 2003

28th February 2003
Page 11
Page 11, 28th February 2003 — Low life

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Organisations: Foreign Office


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Low life

Philippa Toomey warms to Polly Toynbee

Hard Work: Life in Lowpay Britain by Polly Toynbee, Bloomsbury £6.99

polly Toynbee says very firmly that she is not a Christian and has no time for any Church. However, when challenged by Church Action on Poverty to spend Lent living on the minimum wage of.£4.10 an hour, she accepted. She moved from her comfortable life and her extremely comfortable Guardian salary to a flat in a horrible, hard-to-let block of flats in Clapham, quite near her own home. living as though she had only a job seeker's allowance of £53.05 week.

This is. of course a paper exerLise. in that she did not, in fact. take money from the state: but she did do the work, applying for jobs in her married name. No one who was really unemployed could afford to change jobs as often as she did.

Toynbee points out that the job seeker's allowance stops the minute you get a job, but frequently you don't get paid for the first two weeks. Low-paid work as a hospital porter (backbreaking) care assistant for old people (heartbreaking) cold calling (awful) cleaning, cooking, dinner lady, nursery assistant — all came as agency jobs.

It was dispiriting and upsetting to discover the

lack of human contact between the job and the organisation. No one asked about skills, or references. Few in the National Health had any time for the porters, as they were not staff, and their potential help and abilities were ignored. All tasks had to he completed in 15 minutes, Once she was almost recognised, as a part-time nursery helper at a very upmarket nursery for the Foreign Office (f6 an hour, three 8 hour shifts). With the children, she walked past Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould, both of whom she knew well. Peter Mandelson gave her a half smile and an "I know you, don't IT' look, while Philip Gould stared straight through her. Lower paid workers are. generally,

Her block of flats stank of rubbish and urine. No one used the lifts if they could help it, In the basement, an alcoholic allowed crack dealers and prostitutes to use his flat. When a water tank on the roof burst and flooded the flat, it took days to repair.

Her modest fixed sum a week (water rate £2, social fund repayment, £8, gas and electricity £15, bus pass £8.50, phone £8, TV licence £2) amounted to £43.50.This did not include rent of £54.09 a week, as soon as she got a job. It is not surprising that she soon found herself in debt, beinr not what she would term ",1 good manager".

Thirty years ago ,when she was 25, she had done something similar in a soap factory, then assembling car parts, as a cream spreader on angel cakes, as a ward orderly. Though the national wage has doubled since 1970, she feels there has been a halt in social mobility, so that the poor stay poor. This seems odd, in view of the increase in higher education. and the reduction in class consciousness. Her remedy would be to raise the minimum wage very considerably. The present emphasis on the work ethic is all very well, but not if there is a perpetual state of grinding poverty, from which families have few prospects of escaping.

She gets on very well with her fellow workers and tenants, who are afraid to answer the door or go out in the stinking corridors, and exhibits true kindness. She was glad to return to her own life after living.on "the shabby side of everything".

This a fascinating book, though the curse of the Guardian ensures that "Attlee" is spelled with one "t" throughout. Christians should applaud Toynbee's efforts, and, in the words of the founder of the religion she despises: "Go, and do 'likewise".

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