One of the most important letters I ever received was from a Member of Parliament, the Honourable Judith Hart, MP, Later Baroness Hart of South Lanark. (Photo taken the year I was born). When I needed a Local Authority grant to afford further education my application was declined for reasons beyond my control, and which seemed at the time unjust. Judith Hart intervened and I was able to afford a year full time to get the Highers needed for University. My parents could never have afforded to keep me and pay for fees and accommodation and travel.The grant was small but enough.
Yesterday I listened to a young woman of 18 talking on radio about not having an Education Maintenance Allowance of around £30 a week. Without that little amount weekly, would she be able still to stay in education - "yes" she said, "but I would go without lunch".
That is a disgrace.
I don't mean that word to mean only that it is regrettable or even outrageous - though disgrace absolutely means both. I mean it is a policy that lacks grace, generosity, vision, imagination, compassion, understanding, - apart from lacking in any political sense whatsoever.It is a decision stripped of grace, and a decision that strips the hopes and ambitions of young people of grace, and turns aspiration into desperation.
Consider the figures. £1200 per annum is sufficient top up to keep a young person in Education for a further year, consolidating their qualifications and preventing them from going on the dole. So apart from that saving - how many could be afforded if a couple of bankers were not to receive their, let's say modest £1 million bonus? Huh? Do the maths. It's about 850 x 2 = 1700. Or how much does the taxpayer pay for a meal on an MP's expense account - much change from £30?
There are political and economic decisions that are always going to be hard to call. Choices are inevitable. But the choices we make as a society aren't just about what we do with money and where we make the cuts. Each choice is either for or against someone's life chances. I wonder how many of today's MP's in the Coalition Government have ever had to think twice about what to do with limited income. Eighteen millionaires in an austerity cabinet does suggest a lack of experience of the real world, the hard choices others have to make everyday. Would that today's decision makers had the political stature of Judith Hart to fight for the right of the young to have education based on ability not social class or economic security.
Are we really saying, you and me, ordinary UK taxpayers, are we saying to that young student that it's ok for her to go without lunch as the price for her education, that as a society we own that choice? Surely if she becomes a social worker, or a lawyer, or an IT specialist, or a manager, - whatever her eventual employment, will she not be a tax-payer who then carries the cost of others coming after her? And even if she doesn't - is education as a humanising and developmental process not something we value enough to underwrite some of the cost to make it as accessible as possible for each person?
There is something depressingly banal about a Government that lacks moral imagination, that rationalises broken pledges, that picks easy targets, that makes choices that are so against the least powerful they are embarrassingly partisan, and ridiculously out of touch with ordinary folk's struggles.
Amongst the letters I received on the occasion of my ordination, having completed University and College training, was a brief note of congratulations from Judith Hart, who had followed my progress for five years, and seen the difference a small bursary made to the life chances of a young man from a low income and working class home. Not just moral imagination, but political conviction married to wise priorities based on humane goals. For a return to such politics, I pray and read Amos, Micah and Isaiah.