Department for Work and Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 6:41 pm, 26th February 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Neil Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth George on securing such an important debate, and of course thanks go to the 14 Members from across the House who have contributed to it. They made very powerful speeches indeed. This is my first experience of closing an estimate’s day debate for the Opposition, but, sadly, it is certainly not my first experience of a debate in this Chamber that highlights the chaos, unfairness and even sheer inhumanity of our current social security system under this Government. Debates such as today’s have been a depressingly familiar occurrence during my short time in this Chamber. They have been depressingly familiar for those of us who are debating and highlighting these issues, but of course the position is far worse and far more serious for those experiencing them, as was illustrated by my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams. This system is dehumanising and frightening, and it is, on too many occasions, a tragedy.

As we have heard today, report after report from the Work and Pensions Committee, the National Audit Office and the Trussell Trust has offered major warnings about the Government’s direction of travel. Their findings have been echoed throughout this Chamber once again today. It is troubling enough to hear yet more accounts from right hon. and hon. Members of the human cost of this Government’s approach, in contributions such as that from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, who spoke about the rising child poverty evidenced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and that from my right hon. Friend Liam Byrne, who spoke about the human tragedy that is homelessness and youth unemployment, but what is worse is that despite some of the spin, the warm words and the change in mood music, there is still no systematic evidence that this Government are acting in a coherent manner to address the problems that Members have highlighted today.

Universal credit has caused severe hardship for hundreds of thousands of people, yet the DWP is still failing to address the key issue of the five-week wait for an initial payment, as stated by my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms. In the past year, 57% of new universal credit claimants have received an advance payment. It is a debt. That is a clear indication of the dire need people are experiencing. Make no mistake: just because 57% received a loan—an advance payment—that does not mean that the other 43% had no problems with the service at all. For many of them, the reality was not a good experience. Their experience was delay, debt, hunger and food banks.

Recently, the Secretary of State finally admitted what no one before her would admit but almost everybody in this Chamber already knew: the growth in food banks is linked to universal credit. It is belatedly welcome that the Government are finally, partially, waking up to the truth, but accepting it is not enough: action is needed. All too often, the only action from this Government is to press ahead.

Despite all we have heard, the Government are intent on seeking parliamentary approval for a pilot of managed migration to universal credit for some people, to start in July this year. The Secretary of State claims to have listened to charities and Opposition Members when we have evidenced the chaos and hardship that unmanaged migration will bring to 2.78 million people. Let me be clear: that chaos and hardship for 2.78 million people will now be chaos and hardship for 10,000 people. We are calling for a halt to the process altogether.

To add insult to injury, the Government claim that nobody will be worse off as a result of the changes, but, as evidenced by many of the contributions today, that really is not the case. Their belated, forced and haphazard approach to protecting severe disability premium claimants, some of whom were set to lose £178 per month, suggests a Government without a full understanding of how their own policy will affect people. There remain circumstances in which people will lose transitional protection—for example, when they become a couple or if they separate. How can a party that once claimed to be the champion of the family implement a policy that makes people think twice about formally entering a relationship because of the financial cost or, even worse, condemns people to staying in one that is not working and that is not safe, because they cannot afford to leave?

Were someone without prior knowledge or experience of what we are debating to have sat in the Chamber today, they would have heard these stories and asked a simple question—why? Although it is true that backgrounds to stories can be different and the reasons multiple, there is a simple answer to that simple question: austerity. The Library estimates that cuts to spending on social security and working-age tax credits will mean that some £37 billion will have been cut from social security by 2021-22, compared with 2010. Meanwhile, the richest corporations, including those in the financial sector that should shoulder some of the responsibility for austerity, have had tax cuts of more than £110 billion pounds. That is not fair, right or just.

Child poverty is up, with a massive 4.2 million children in need; in-work poverty is up, and now affects 8 million people who are in work; and wages have not recovered to 2008 levels. This Government have spent nine years using social security as a vehicle for cuts; meanwhile some of their friends in the financial sector and in the banks have received bonuses and unjustifiable tax cuts. Ministers may claim a jobs boom, but the reality for thousands and thousands of our constituents is zero-hours contracts or fearing for their jobs, as more and more of our manufacturing and retail base faces mounting insecurity and instability.

Despite all that, the Department for Work and Pensions supplementary estimates show that the Department did not bid for additional 2018-19 funding from the Treasury. Austerity is not over, and there appears to be little or no attempt from the Department for Work and Pensions to make it so. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that the fourth year of the benefit freeze alone saves the Exchequer £1.5 billion in 2019-20, making a total of £4.4 billion over the four years. That has meant that the poorest and most vulnerable people are falling further and further behind. The record shows us that when it comes to social security, this is a Government who do not change course.