Department for Work and Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:28 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 6:28 pm, 26th February 2019

A few hours ago, our city bid goodbye to Kane Walker. He was a young man who died on our streets in the cold of January. A man gone; a man who should still be with us; a man who, together, we have failed to save. And yet Kane Walker was not the only homeless man to have died in Birmingham. More than 70 homeless people have died on the streets of our city over the past four years. That is why I say to the Minister that the core of the debate today is not numbers or statistics but the moral emergency of homelessness that is now out of control because the safety net has been shredded around people who are only a couple of twists of fate away from the pavement.

When the National Insurance Act 1946 was passing through Parliament, creating the Minister’s Department, Clem Attlee himself moved the Second Reading. He was absolutely determined to see a social security system in this country that would deliver freedom from fear of want. He wanted to slay the five giants of injustice that Beveridge identified back in 1944. However, look at the evil giant of unemployment today. In Birmingham, youth unemployment has shot up by 23% over the past year, with 15,000 more young people now out of work. When Beveridge launched his report, he talked about the giant of disease. Today, disability is knocking more people into poverty than ever before, and yet 33,000 people in our region have been stripped of their right to PIP over the past few years, plunging them into a poverty from which it is difficult to recover.

When Beveridge talked about his five giants, he talked about freedom from want, and yet nearly 60,000 people in our region last year had to rely on food banks—a third of them children—which is a rise of nearly a third over the past few years. The giants of injustice that Beveridge identified now hunt and haunt us on the streets because of the collapsing safety net, and it is the crisis of universal credit that is that the core of the problem. I was amazed to discover in an answer to a written question yesterday that the Mayor of the West Midlands has not written to the Government once in the past year to express concerns about universal credit.

In my last minute I will rattle through the many different problems that Birmingham MPs have identified. There is wholesale confusion about eligibility for housing benefit and universal credit. Huge variations exist in the deductions made for advance payments. The self-employed experience long waits for correct payments. Sanctions are issued against those who are too ill to attend interviews. Those who challenge the inappropriate use of sanctions face huge benefit delays of up to five months. Constituents are forced to travel across the city to access IT to fill out online forms. Constituents with mental health problems are denied the right to face-to-face support. There are process delays and confusion about getting link codes to connect to childcare components, and the same applies to entitlements. There is total confusion about those moving from non-UC areas into UC areas. More confusion exists around eligibility for free prescriptions. Finally, there is complete confusion for our EU neighbours who have to pass the habitual residence test once again. In one of the richest countries on earth and in a city like mine, how can it be that homelessness has spiralled by 1,000% in five years? The system is in crisis, and this Government need to put compassion back into the system where it belongs.