Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on a matter that affects a large number of my constituents.
The latest employment figures show that unemployment in my constituency is twice the national average, but as we know, this forms only a small part of the problem. Both this Government and their predecessor have systematically targeted the most vulnerable in our society. Our welfare state has become a game of numbers and a debate about the bottom line, and once again Members of this House find themselves debating cuts to the incomes of those who can least afford it.
It is clear that for the vast majority of the 693 of my constituents claiming it, universal credit has been nothing short of a punitive disaster. As we sit here today, we all know of constituents across the country who struggle to choose between heating and eating, and where actually living takes second preference to just surviving. This Government’s answer to that is to take another £30 from those who most need it, many of whom suffer from often debilitating disabilities. If only Conservative Members had the same levels of compassion for those living on the breadline as they do for those whose wealth knows no bounds and for whom they strive to gain tax cuts.
Gateshead has rising unemployment and rising under-employment. A lot of my constituents who are lucky enough to be in work are often working many fewer hours than they would like to, with little or no job security. We all have constituents who are living in the most terrible circumstances. My office deals daily with individuals who are suffering at the hands of a Victorian regime of sanctions and bureaucracy, dreadful administration and, I am afraid, Kafkaesque hoops through which they are expected to jump in order to claim their entitlements.
I would like to focus on one individual who really highlights the extent to which the safety net of social security has become a trap. Simon Westlake is a young lad who, because of family issues, moved to Gateshead from London, not very far from this place. He had a job working at a local supermarket, paying his way, renting a flat in Gateshead and contributing to the local community. Unfortunately, he was made redundant in February 2016.
Universal credit has been operating in Gateshead for about 18 months, so Simon reported to the local jobcentre—which has since been closed by the DWP despite an increase in those needing to use its services—to apply for universal credit. In total, Simon made nearly 10 applications, week after week, on the computers in the jobcentre, each time hoping that he would receive enough money to enable him to feed himself.
Seven weeks passed and still nothing, so Simon returned to the jobcentre, where an adviser watched him go through the online application and saw that nothing happened: no error message, no refusal, but more importantly, no claim lodged with the DWP. This lady kindly wrote a supporting letter for Simon, stating what she had witnessed, and lodged his claim over the phone—something that is very rare for the ordinary constituent.
Simon began receiving universal credit in June 2016, nearly four months after his initial application. In the meantime he had been evicted from his flat, threatened with violence by the landlord due to unpaid rent, and pursued by various utility companies and the local authority for unpaid bills. Simon was living in temporary accommodation in Gateshead, and I am afraid to say that, for a period, he was sleeping wrapped in a curtain and only able to feed himself by warming tins of soup with a tealight.
We in this House are often accused of being out of touch and living in a political bubble, but Conservative Members often do not seem interested. There are constituents in the same predicament as Simon in all our constituencies, and they need help urgently.
Simon contacted my office because the DWP had refused to backdate his universal credit to the date in February when he first applied. Despite my personal intervention, the DWP required evidence from Simon that he was in the jobcentre making online claims when he claimed to have done so. The only problem was that that jobcentre had been closed. He did not know where the staff were. He could not prove to the DWP, and the DWP could not explain to him how he was meant to prove, that he had been there in a now closed jobcentre. This would be an absolute scandal in itself, but Simon is not alone.
My question is this: how can Conservative Members vote for further cuts to a system that is already leaving our constituents living in absolute poverty, utterly destitute? Welfare recipients and would-be recipients in this country are already shouldering a very great burden—much greater than many of them can handle. They are citizens but now dismissed as claimants representing a financial cost to a Government who regard them as numbers. The media continue, in a mythological way, to purport that they are all fraudulent claimants, while we leave people who have had a tough break in life, or are suffering from terrible illness, in crisis. This is not right. These further cuts are nothing more than a penalty for becoming ill or losing one’s job.
We live in 2016. We are paid well to serve our constituents. I do not know how Conservative Members can put their constituents through the torment of further cuts in the name of unnecessary levels of austerity. I am sure that all Opposition Members can relate to Simon. For the sake of his story alone, these cuts must be opposed.