Department for Work and Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 4:06 pm, 2nd July 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Neil Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alison McGovern on opening this vital debate and thank the many Members who have contributed.

Sadly, there are far too many things that Members could have chosen to focus on when considering the spending approach of the Department for Work and Pensions. Certainly, there is no shortage of examples of delivery failure, catastrophic underfunding and policy approaches that hit the most vulnerable the hardest, including 1950s-born women and citizens who are terminally ill. However, as Members highlighted, there is one area in which many of the Department’s failures come together and one group who all too often suffer the consequences of multiple cuts and changes in policy: children.

It shames us as a society that the Government have allowed children to bear the brunt in such a shocking manner. We therefore welcome this opportunity to scrutinise Department for Work and Pensions spending, and we welcome my hon. Friend’s choice of subject. When the future of some of our most vulnerable children is at stake, it is absolutely right that we should hold the Government to account for their poor decisions.

Shockingly, by 2022, the Department’s spending on social security will be £36 billion less per year than it was in 2010. Social security has become a vehicle for cuts—a political choice that saw 1.6 million emergency food parcels given out last year alone, 577,000 of them to children, and that has seen this Government dragged through the courts on several occasions. For example, 210,000 people who were underpaid employment and support allowance will now rightly receive the £920 million they are owed.

Consequently, as we have heard, the number of children living in poverty has increased by half a million to 4.1 million. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South said, that figure is likely to rise to more than 5 million. In-work poverty is rising faster than employment. Absolute child poverty has also increased over the past year, showing the negative impact of low pay, universal credit, the five-week wait, the four-year freeze and the two-child limit on family income. When poverty and food bank use are rapidly growing industries, tackling and preventing child poverty is clearly not a priority for this Government. When tools that should be used to support people, such as the flexible support fund, are regularly underspent, it prompts a question about whether the Government are even trying to support those most in need through the tools at their disposal.

Even if we were to ignore all the evidence and be generous to Ministers when they say that tackling poverty is a priority, it is clear that they are not doing so with the necessary vigour, success or compassion. When they have applied new policies, they have failed. There have been persistent problems with the personal independence payment, as highlighted by my hon. Friend Justin Madders, with more than 70% of appeals against decisions to remove PIP being successful, at considerable cost to the public purse and, more importantly, detrimental to the life chances and wellbeing of people. The many thousands of families who budget down to the nearest £1 every week to make sure that they can feed and clothe their children and provide a roof over their heads could certainly teach the two candidates rutting to be the next Prime Minister a thing or two about how to prioritise and manage budgets effectively.

Of course, there are many families for whom all the budgeting and prioritising in the world is still not enough to cover the costs of the Government’s draconian cuts to social security. They are victims of the Government’s insistence on continuing to plough on with universal credit and the freeze to working-age benefits, when all the evidence shows that those cuts are causing severe hardship and poverty.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South has highlighted, poverty is poverty, and food poverty is not separate to it, but a symptom of it—a symptom of low income. It cannot be divorced from the overall effect of Government policy, or wished away by Government-supporting MPs, who think a selfie at a food bank will solve the problems or absolve the Government of their responsibility as the architects of austerity Britain.

We have heard much of the evidence today. My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams mentioned a case in which a pregnant woman had universal credit denied to her—I think the phrase my hon. Friend used was “ripped away”—in her time of need. Alison Thewliss said that social security should be a safety net, but it is a net that is full of holes. She highlighted the immorality of the two-child limit. My hon. Friend Ruth George spoke about the insensitive assessments applied to the most vulnerable in our society.

Such stories are the real indicator of how we should view the Department and the Government’s record on poverty and their approach to social security. They are committed to the continuation of failing policies, and they would rather trumpet a jobs miracle that in reality, for many people in real communities, is nothing but a mirage; the reality is that most children in poverty live in working households. The Government’s approach has ensured that, for thousands of people, work is not a route out of poverty, given poverty wages and insecure work. That is a damning indictment of their record and of our current economic system. It needs to change.

In just three weeks’ time, we are likely to have one change at least. The leader of the Conservatives, and therefore the Prime Minister, will be someone different. Perhaps the Cabinet Minister responsible for the Department we are scrutinising today will be different too. However, given we have already had six of them in the past three years, that would be less remarkable. If the Government had shown the same willingness to change direction as they have shown to change Ministers, we might be in a different place. But it is not the changing of names around the Cabinet table that will make a difference, or even as some in the media reported yesterday, the scrapping of the Department. It is the changing of policy, the changing of attitude, and the changing of approach that will make a difference.

I ask the Minister to leave a legacy, and heed the clarion call from organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the many voices in the Chamber today. Will the Minister commit himself to ending the five-week wait for universal credit, removing the two-child limit and the benefit cap, scrapping the benefit freeze, paying up-front childcare costs, and putting a stop to punitive sanctions and work capability assessments? Or, better still, let us have a general election and let the people decide.