So you want to make a difference…

Put aside all those fantasy manifestos for a moment, urges Richard Digard, and spare a thought for those faced with the real issues in a supposedly prosperous and caring Guernsey

TRIGGER words. Those that set off an immediate response, often emotional. At an elemental level ‘Goal!’ probably suffices, although the Sun’s header on Caledonian Thistle beating giants Celtic in the Scottish Cup – Super Caley go ballistic Celtic are atrocious – was pure genius.

So too was Paddy Pantsdown, referring to then Lib Dem leader Mr Ashdown’s affair with his secretary. More serious was the New York Times’ ‘Headless body in Topless bar’, which relied on a strapline to convey the full horror: Gunman forces woman to decapitate tavern owner.

Sometimes, though, that trigger can be completely unintentional. In my case, it was Squash, Biscuits, Coffee – respectively, orange or blackcurrant, family friendly and small jar.

These are the items most needed by the Guernsey Welfare Service, which runs the island’s largest foodbank. Think about that for a moment and it’s a jaw-dropper. People in ‘prosperous’ Guernsey for whom a packet of biscuits is an otherwise unaffordable treat. A small jar of Nescafe, luxury.

That, of course, is before you say, ‘…largest foodbank? What, there are others? Here in Guernsey?’ Talk to the staff, as I did this week, and you quickly realise that its Holy Trinity Church Centre is literally a lifeline for hundreds of islanders and their families.

The foodbank received about 1,800 individual visits last year and more than 600 new households accessed the service over the last three years. With repeat users, the number is far higher.

This statistic is one of the reasons that the complementary charity Citizens’ Advice issued its Citizens’ Manifesto to alert the 118 candidates in the general election to what CAB says are the real issues facing the island.

Like those experienced by the Trinity Centre, these are essentially caused by low incomes and high rents, but expand into insufficient protection for people not well off enough to fight things such as cowboy builders, having a flat deposit ripped off or managing debt.

In all, CAB dealt with just shy of 12,000 issues affecting 4,031 clients last year, so we can see there’s a considerable problem sitting out of sight here in wealthy Guernsey.

To be honest, it’s worse than the statistics indicate. As Guernsey Welfare says, ‘[we] only help in small ways to help keep people fed or warm for a few days’. By that it means it can’t allow people to become dependent on it, ‘therefore we can’t help too often’.

You can understand why and no criticism intended, but given this is a safety net service underneath that provided by Social Security, it’s a heartbreaking situation.

Why it exists is because poor people, as an issue, aren’t sexy. Climate change, equality, parading with rainbow umbrellas… bring it on. Mums facing a choice between repairing the washing machine or feeding the kids? Who cares?

That last is a real example by the way and repeated in different ways every day of the week among single parents, lone pensioners, those with disabilities or long-term medical conditions. Poverty’s not choosy who it targets, but it’s always cruel.

So is community indifference – hence the heads up from Citizens Advice to starry-eyed candidates about how to make a real difference – but successive Assemblies have been pretty uncaring.

It’s why the now sadly late Jean Pritchard was shouted down all those years ago for daring to suggest the States take a proper look at poverty and financial exclusion. There isn’t any, she was told.

Well, after a significant struggle, the research was done and the position revealed was worse than anyone cared to acknowledge. Has it improved? Yes, but only by degrees.

That’s why distraught parents have relied on the Trinity Centre to fill their nippers’ lunchboxes or to put a meal on the dinner table. Candidates are talking grandly about renewables and green initiatives while those they want to vote for them need vouchers for a few hours’ electricity.

My biggest criticism of this island is its complacency. Global financial crisis? So what? We’re good as we are. Covid-19? What’s all the fuss? We like it this way. Ah, but then you’re not just-about managing, or on income support – if the computer remembers to send it to you.

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Look at it this way. Minimum wage £8.50 an hour. Graft for a full 40 of them, and that’s £340 a week or £1,360 a month. But rent on a two-bed flat? About £1,200? Managing on what’s left is the underlying issue.

States members regularly complain that what they receive – a minimum of £40,521 this next term – is far too low, but these are film-star salaries for many of those helped by Citizens Advice or Guernsey Welfare, the sector we’d rather not discuss.

My views on the economy, the growing size and cost of the public sector, demographic issues and connectivity are, I hope, well known. The intervention by CAB and the work done by the Trinity Centre underline how important reasonably paid jobs are if those just-about coping are to have any chance.

‘We will be among the happiest and healthiest places in the world, where everyone has equal opportunity to achieve their potential…’ this Assembly declared in 2017.

Yet today there are households for whom tea bags, sugar, rice pudding and custard or soup would make all the difference. Add the CAB ‘manifesto’ of basic consumer rights and a rented accommodation deposit scheme and it still doesn’t seem too much to ask, but still is.

Squash, Biscuits, Coffee. Remember. And react.

FOR fans of social policy based on lobby groups, Citizens Advice annual report noted that of its near 12,000 inquiries last year, most were for housing (2,070), law and rights (2,034), work (1,682) and debt and money (1,589). Discrimination? This year’s dominant theme? Just 32 inquiries.

As it says in its letter to candidates: ‘We wish you luck with your election campaign and, when you take office, we trust that you will help to develop and push through policies that address real issues.’

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