Department for Work and Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 2:40 pm, 2nd July 2019

I could not agree with the hon. Lady more.

I am going to carry on with my questions about what we deem acceptable in our country. Is it acceptable that sick and disabled people are being isolated and excluded across our society? I believe that, in addition to children, it is sick and disabled people who have borne the brunt of this Government’s cuts. That shames us all. Nine out of 10 disabilities and illnesses are acquired. Would we want this for ourselves or for our nearest and dearest? I am sure that the answer is no, so what does that mean for our policies for sick and disabled people? Many of us on both sides of the Chamber do not think that this is acceptable. We need a thriving economy, but the present levels of inequality are stifling the growth that we need—[Interruption.] That is evidence based. I can provide evidence for the fact that inequality is stifling growth in the economy.

We need a social security system that is there for all of us. I would like to see our social security system held in the same esteem that we have for our NHS. It should be there for each and every one of us, providing dignity and security in our retirement and the support we need if we become sick or disabled or if we fall out of work. Let us face it: with the current flexibility in employment, people are going in and out of work, and the system needs to be able to reflect that. It also needs to be able to protect us from poverty, because that is what a civilised society does. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South said, this should be about smoothing out our incomes so that we do not have to be plunged into poverty when we experience extreme events. A decent social security system is a vital weapon for tackling the poverty and inequality that are now rampant across the UK.

We know that, although work and pensions spending has increased since 2010, working-age support has actually been reduced by £30 billion because of the decisions that the Government have made. We also know that those savings are set to increase even further to £38 billion by the end of the forecast period in 2023-24. These figures should include the effect of the measures announced in the 2018 Budget, which included annual spending of £1.9 billion by 2023 on universal credit. Unfortunately, although some people have benefited from universal credit, 3 million people will still be worse off under it. As I mentioned in Treasury questions this morning, 87% of all disabled people will not benefit from those Budget measures and will remain worse off under universal credit, alongside 640,000 self-employed households and 475,000 working lone-parent households.

As my hon. Friend so eloquently put it, we have seen the rise and rise of food banks and an increase in in- work poverty. We know that 4 million sick and disabled people are living in poverty, as are 330,000 more older people. I mentioned the stifling effect that this is having on the economy. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s own model has shown that the independent effect of austerity has been to stifle economic growth by at least £100 billion in 2018-19, which is the equivalent of £3,600 per household. That is my evidence to the House.

I have mentioned the human toll of these policies. In Work and Pensions questions yesterday, I mentioned Amanda, a lone parent who was pregnant and had significant mental health issues. She had her universal credit claim closed in the final weeks before she was about to deliver her child. She did not know why this had happened, but it was revealed that it was because she had not undertaken an independent review. I am pleased that the Minister said that he would take the matter up, but let us just imagine if this happened to us. How would we feel if we suddenly had our income ripped away from us and we did not know what was happening, just as we were about to have a child? This is simply unacceptable.

We know that, between 2013 and 2018, 60 disabled people a month died after their personal independence payment claims were rejected. Many others have died after being found fit for work. A Government’s first duty is to keep their people safe, and that includes their vulnerable citizens. They are failing to do this. Poverty and inequality are political choices. Many of us have made suggestions on how we can tweak the current social security system, but I believe that we need a radical transformation. As my hon. Friend said, we need a new social contract with the British people, built on the Beveridge principles, to define a 21st century social security system that treats its citizens with dignity and respect and protects them from poverty, destitution and even death.