The Saints who will be lighting candles this Christmas, because they can’t afford electricity: a councillor’s tale

Many old people on St Helena will spend Christmas in poverty, too poor even to pay for electric lighting, the island’s Legislative Council has heard. The Honourable BRIAN ISAAC told of their troubles at the December 2014 sitting of the council. Here is an extract of his adjournment debate speech. 

Many people are proud to tell how they have lived through the Second World War, and recall the days of hardship on the island. They call those days the Good Old Days.

Picture by St Helena Government

The Hon Brian Isaac

There was strong family support and the island flourished with an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish.

Pay was low and work was hard. Transport was mainly by donkeys and there were few cars. Respect and discipline played a major role in everyone’s lifestyle.

Candles and wood were the main means of lighting and cooking, and for those who could afford a battery-operated radio, that was a luxury.

Social welfare never existed. Families supported each other. And for those who had no family support, the church gave a few shillings a week out of what was called the black box, and later called the parish and then the poor relief.

Social welfare came in later in the Sixties.

We have now moved very much into the 21st century and those days are long gone. But memories live on.

In this modern age of computers, the internet, telecommunications and television, and air access on the horizon, many of our senior citizens are still suffering hardship in silence.

I am aware of the recent improvements in the benefits system, the basic island pension, and the free medical care for those on benefits.

But the fact remains that many cannot cope with the high cost of living on the island, and  especially those living alone on £50 and £60 a week. Many of these people, when you meet them on the street, will give you a big smile and a warm Hello, but deep down they are suffering in silence.

Many have said that a few years ago they were given an additional payment at Christmas and Easter as a gesture of goodwill by the government, but now they feel they cannot buy anything extra at Christmas or even give their their grandchildren a little chocolate.

It saddens me to say that while many of us will enjoy the best of this Christmas season, many of our elderly will see a “meek and mild” Christmas

Many of our elderly have now reverted to using candles for lighting, which can become a health hazard; and using paraffin gel for cooking fuel, which again is a health hazard in close surroundings. They cannot afford the high cost of electricity.

I recall when social services provided subsidy for water and electricity for those suffering hardship, but this is now just a memory.

I feel it will get harder for these unfortunate people before we see it getting any better.

 

Councillor Isaac, a member of the island’s social and community development committee, said the government lacked the funding to implement some recommendations of York University’s Sainsbury Report, which led to the 2013 St Helena Social Policy Plan. 

At the time of the plan’s publication, the island had 196 people receiving income related benefit, 32 unemployed people on benefits, and 587 people living on the basic island pension. The report said: “We aim to empower Saints to take control of the present and the future to make the island self-sufficient on all fronts… as well as protecting and supporting vulnerable groups.”

It added that social bonds were strong in St Helena communities. “This sense of society and community flows through all aspects of Saint life, and that needs to be the basis of future social cohesion on the island,” it said. 

Read the social policy plan here

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