Cas (aella_irene) wrote in ontd_political,

The dispossessed: Babies buried four to a grave - not Dickens but London today

They buried the first baby at 9.30am. The mother clutching the small white box handed it to the pastor, who gave it to the grave-digger, who lowered it into the grave. Heads bowed, the mother and father clasped hands while the pastor said a brief prayer. Two minutes later it was over.

The grave-digger stood off to one side, but as the couple departed, he did not close the grave. Not yet. “I'll be back in 10 minutes with the next one,” the pastor told him.

They buried the second baby in the same unmarked pit at 10am. This time there were no mourners present. Just the pastor, who again said a few words, and the grave-digger, who climbed into the pit and laid the second coffin alongside the first. Again he did not close it, temporarily covering the top with some green felt and loose planks.

For these are not normal graves. They call them communal or unpurchased graves — what in Victorian times were known as “paupers' graves”. They take four children per pit.

“We have common graves for adults as well,” the grave-digger explained. “Could be a tramp, somebody who hasn't got no family or money, the state buries them. We go down about 10 foot and then stack them four to six deep.

“A coffin goes in, then a layer of bark, then the next coffin. But when it's children, like today, I find it hard to focus. I lost a granddaughter once — that's all I'm saying.”

This is not happening in some third-world state, but right here in London. The exact location: Islington and St Pancras Cemetery, where the penniless people of Islington and Camden end up.

Who knew we still have communal graves in London in 2010? Certainly not the £210,000-a-year chief executive officer of Islington council, John Foster. When I interviewed him at his town hall office, he turned to his press officer and asked: “Have we got communal graves? I don't believe we do.”

I cited statistics provided by his own officers — 135 adults and 91 children buried communally in this cemetery in the last three years (more than one a week) — and confirmed that such practices occur across London, including our richest boroughs Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. He looked shame-faced.

“I'm shocked,” he said. “I see no reason why the poor can't be buried individually like everybody else.” The reason, as so often, comes down to economics. If a person dies penniless, a communal grave costs the council just £60 for a baby or £270 for an adult, as opposed to £1,400 and £1,725 respectively for the cheapest private options.

Islington found £1 million to refurbish its art deco Assembly Hall last year, but the small beer it would cost to afford these citizens a decent burial did not make it on to the agenda.

If Mr Foster did not know what was happening under his nose, what hope is there for the rest of London? For there is no doubting that his heart is in the right place. Uniquely among council chief executives, Mr Foster, now 61, grew up in care from the age of six and knows what it is like to live in poverty.

Yet it is apt that we begin this series of articles — highlighting the plight of London's dispossessed — here in Islington because this is where the social-reforming New Labour project began.

This is where Tony Blair lived and it is here, at Granita restaurant in fashionable Upper Street, that he and Gordon Brown famously met in 1994 to plot their rise to power and allegedly thrash out the “Blair-Brown pact”. By 1997 Mr Blair was Prime Minister and two years later he made his momentous pledge to “end child poverty within a generation” and to “halve it by 2010” as an interim measure.

“And I will set out our historic aim that ours is the first generation to end child poverty for ever, and it will take a generation,” said Mr Blair, addressing a packed Toynbee Hall in the East End with almost biblical zeal. “Poverty should not be a birthright. Being poor should not be a life sentence. We need to break the cycle of disadvantage so that children born into poverty are not condemned to social exclusion and deprivation. It is a 20-year mission but I believe it can be done.”

Such a commitment was unprecedented, but Mr Blair believed we'd all be winners because child poverty correlated with our most intractable problems: high teenage pregnancy rates, poor GCSE results, unemployment and above all, violent crime.

In 2001 Mr Brown called child poverty a “scar on Britain's soul” and in 2006 Conservative policy director Oliver Letwin said his party, too, shared Labour's ambition. Today that pledge lies in tatters. In London 41 per cent of children, 650,000 in all, live below the poverty line (defined as less than 60 per cent of median income), the same as 10 years ago. In inner London the figure rises to 44 per cent.

Moreover, the type of poverty children experience in London is more acute than the rest of the UK, with one in five living in severe poverty and going without basic essentials.

For such a rich city these are mindboggling facts. Yet with a general election looming, neither Gordon Brown nor David Cameron talks much about reducing child poverty any more.

Fifteen years ago this newspaper, then under the editorship of Stewart Steven, set out to document the wretched conditions of the underprivileged in the East End. The groundbreaking series of reports reminded us of the forgotten Londoners who lived in the shadow of our metropolis where deprivation rates were three times the national average. It generated a huge response — from readers and decision-makers alike.

Today, once again, we seek to take stock of where our city is headed. How deep is the problem? Is it solvable? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation believes it would cost the Government £4 billion (0.3 per cent of GDP) to meet its missed 2010 target of taking half the country's 3.4 million children out of poverty.

This is the crude cash cost of a stimulus package. In reality a range of policies would be deployed to put people into work but it helps to put a number on things.

Is this more than we can afford? Perhaps not if you consider the £117 billion of taxpayers' cash spent by the Treasury to bail out Britain's failing banks. Or the billions in bonuses to individual bankers. We need a vigorous debate and a new vision. In a vibrant, multi-cultural city such as ours, where we pride ourselves on our inclusiveness, the ultimate goal must surely be “One London”.

But what our investigations reveal is just how far we have pulled apart to become a tale of two cities. A whole swathe of society is shut out from London in a way that makes your head spin. They are the capital's dispossessed.

Take the case of 18-year-old Vincent Maduabueke. He lives with his unemployed mother and young sister in a social housing block opposite the former Granita restaurant, now ironically, called Desperados. Vincent, who is studying dance at City and Islington College, has lived here for 10 years but he has never noticed Desperados nor, it turns out, much else in this fashionable street favoured by north London's chattering classes.

Upper Street is useless, he says. “There is nothing to do here.” He has never been tantalised by the towers of delicious pavlova meringues (£7.50 each) in the window of Ottolenghi, nor has he joined the affluent mothers brandishing their £1,000 Bugaboo prams in the brunch queue outside Carluccio's because, until I point out these places to him, he had never even noticed their existence.

“I've never eaten in a restaurant in my life, except for a couple of times at the eat-all-you-like-for-£5' Chinese buffet at Angel Tube,” he says.

What about the Almeida Theatre? As a dance student, surely he has been there? “Where is it?” he asks. I point to the blazing Almeida sign almost visible from his doorstep. He shakes his head.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Vincent, who gained five GCSEs at grades A-C, is stupid. It's rather that despite living in this street, on his budget of £50 a week (just £7 a day) he inhabits a different world.

In Islington, one of the capital's four most deprived boroughs (with Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham), an extraordinary 48 per cent of children live in poverty. Like Vincent and his 10-year-old sister, most come from households where no one works, although the irony is that back in 1997, when Labour came to power, his family were better off than they are today.

Then his Jamaican mother worked as a housing officer and the family lived in Thornhill Road, 300 yards around the corner from the four-storey Georgian house occupied by the Blair family in Richmond Crescent. “Life was good,” says Vincent, “our family had money, they were happy times.”

But several things happened to plunge the family into poverty. In 1998 his father, a chemical engineer who had split from his mother four years earlier, left the country and stopped supporting his son. And the following year, his mother had a second child. Unable to afford childcare, she gave up her job and went on benefits.

“My mother is a fighter and I thought she'd easily get back into work soon as my sister got older, but she's struggled with her health and finding jobs,” says Vincent. “Sometimes, if there's no food in the house and I'm hungry, I turn on her and say, Why aren't you working?' And she says, You're 18, you get a job!' “I've applied for 32 jobs but never even had an interview.” He looks down. “After a while it affects your confidence. You think, I'll never get a job.”

Typically a family of three like Vincent's receive benefits of £137 to £193 a week, enough for basic food, heating, the odd bit of cheap clothing and phone bills but well below the official poverty line of £239 for a family of their composition. It's the kind of money Islington's middle-class young career professionals would blow in a night.

Islington's chief Mr Foster, whose borough is split down the middle between Liberal Democrats and Labour, says: “The cliché about Islington being polarised between the chattering classes and the poor is all true, but what makes us unique is that the poverty here is diffused. Rich and poor really do live side by side, often on the same street, though with little connection. That's our challenge, to bridge the divide.”

But “One Islington” is far from being a reality. “It's still only an aspiration,” he says.

“Everyone recognises that the best way to get people out of poverty is to get them into permanent, fruitful employment, but we've learned from the failed New Labour experiment that this is more difficult than we thought because people are less work-ready than we imagined. Also, poor parents cannot afford childcare and they can lose some housing benefits when they go back to work and find they're worse off. We need to address this.

“Our local target is to reduce child poverty by 10 per cent in two years but it'll be tough, especially as we expect significant cuts to local government budgets.”

Vincent, meanwhile, is hoping that a degree, ideally in dance perhaps leading to teaching, will be his route out of poverty. “I'd love to apply to Middlesex,” he says. He looks defeated. Are his grades not good enough? “It's not that,” he says. “It costs £19 to put in a UCAS application form. That's £19 I don't have. I must save up for months but it's frustrating not having £19 to pay for something so essential.” Yet compared with others, Vincent's is a relative success story.

From the window of her flat, young mother Jaydine looks out over shredded plastic bags dangling from the branches of bare trees and peers towards the light blinking intermittently from the apex of Canary Wharf. “One day,” she says, “I'd love to go to that building just to see what it looks like up close.”

Jaydine, 21, lives with her 11-month-old baby Terrees on the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, just four stops from Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line.

Why doesn't she just go? “Most of the day I'm exhausted because Terrees is teething and up at night, or I'm attending social services or jobcentre appointments,” she says. But the look in her eyes tells another story. Because for Jaydine, going to a place like Canary Wharf is like crossing the border into a foreign country.

She is dressed in a £4 tracksuit from Primark. She has no bank account, no savings and lives in a squalid flat with nothing except a stained Moses basket and a bed with a plastic mattress.

Some old clothes that no longer fit her baby are stuffed at the bottom of her wardrobe, but nothing is hung up. The living room has no furniture, not even a TV or a chair, and two sheets double as curtains. Her kitchen is utterly bare. “Sorry I can't offer you a drink but some people broke into my place and stole my fridge, my cooker and my washing machine,” she says.

When? “Three months ago. I've asked the council to improve my locks because this estate is a [crime] hotspot. And to get me a cot for baby now that she's too big for her Moses basket. I've asked four times.”

Jaydine's fragile position is not helped by the fact she is dyslexic and barely literate and struggles to fill in complex council forms. She lives off benefits of £142 a week, comprising income support, child tax credit and child benefit.

It amounts to £7,384 a year and puts her squarely in poverty — just above the category of “severe poverty” defined by Save the Children as less than 50 per cent of median income.

Her parents, both white and unemployed, split up when she was 13. Three years later, having dropped out of school, she left the family flat in Hackney after falling out with her mother and went to live in a hostel. At 17 she fell pregnant and had an abortion. At 19 she fell pregnant again — by a man 10 years older whom she met at a jobcentre and who is now doing time for burglary — but this time she kept the baby. It was a traumatic birth which almost ended in tragedy (and which would have meant her baby becoming the 28th child to be interred communally by Southwark last year).

She says: “Terrees was born premature with some of her organs outside her body and she had to have an operation to put them back in and save her life. I was told she might not make it, but she bravely pulled through.

“I was told it's common in teen pregnancies. Also she can't breastfeed, so she cries a lot, but she's worth it. She's the best thing in my life.”

Jaydine moved into this flat in April last year after living in a dozen chaotic hostels and being moved by various councils. She was never in the same place for more than a few months, but to improve her position she applied for three jobs a week.

“I only ever got one interview, at Toys R Us on the Old Kent Road, but they interviewed 12 of us at once and took someone else.” At one point she got so weary and depressed that she decided to go back home, but her mother told her she'd “washed her hands of her” and ordered her to get out.

She says: “At 17 I took my first paracetamol overdose. Later I slit my wrists and tried to strangle myself with my dressing gown belt. I tried to kill myself about six times. But that was before I had my baby.” She smiles. “My child has taught me not to give up on life.”

Have social services offered her therapy? She shakes her head and begins to cry. “My baby has had six different social workers in a year. There is no consistency.

“I made a big mistake leaving school so early and not getting on better with my mother. But I also feel let down by my family, the school that failed to help my dyslexia, the council who put me on this shithole estate full of crack-heads and this Government who don't give a toss about the likes of me.”

Does she feel that a David Cameron-led Conservative government will be better for her? She stares blankly. “Who?” Jaydine, it transpires, has no idea who David Cameron is, or that a general election is looming. “I don't really watch the news,” she says. “At friends' houses I watch soaps. When I was young, mum would put on the news and I knew quite well what was going on. I used to watch Tony Blair.”

She lights a cigarette and moves onto the balcony to smoke away from her baby. “Yeah, they should bring him back. At least he put up the minimum wage and talked of helping poor people.”

Was she old enough to recall, then, the optimism of 1997? She closes her eyes and breaks into a smile. “Aah, 1997. I'd have been seven or eight then. That was when our family went to Spain. One week of sun, sand and beach. How can I forget it? That was the last time I ever went on holiday.”

They say you see the shape of a city from the shadow it casts but for Jaydine and those like her, Canary Wharf seems further away than ever.


  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for members only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded