I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The Opposition welcome any move that will stop children from going hungry over the tough months that lie ahead. I would hope that that is true of everyone elected to this Parliament, so I still cannot believe that the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the right place and to acknowledge that, in this country, in this day and age, no child should be going hungry. I am astonished that the Government can somehow pretend that we did not all hear hours and hours of justification from them, in this House just a fortnight ago, for why they thought the absolute opposite of what has been announced today.
In my 10 years in Parliament, I have never been so depressed as I was when I listened to the comments made on the Conservative Benches during the holiday hunger debate and on social media afterwards. That was not because of the disagreement on policy; debate and disagreement are what Parliament is all about. What I could not stand was the toxic commentary and the stigmatising of good people in hardship due to the economic mess this Government are themselves responsible for. I am talking about the unacceptable insinuations about money for children’s food being spent on brothels and drugs, with no evidence to back that up. I am talking about Tory MPs attacking businesses in their own constituencies that had stepped up when the Government would not do so, and using that compassion as evidence that financial support was no longer required for those businesses. I am talking about the same tired old clichés about state dependency at a time when it is the state itself that has had to close businesses and workplaces to deal with the virus. People who themselves have only ever known privilege were showing us that they did not even know how poverty was measured in this country, and in one case did not know the difference between the calculation of a median wage and an average wage. It was unedifying, it was ignorant and it was insulting to British families, so I ask the Secretary of State to start with an apology for that debate and that vote, because the tone of her statement today does not match the tenor of the debate.
Welcome as this statement is, the Government have, as at every stage of the pandemic, acted too late. Half term has been and gone, so let me thank the real hero of the hour: Marcus Rashford. I think the Secretary of State might have forgotten to mention him, but Marcus deserves immense credit for his campaign and for what he has achieved in such a short space of time. The depression that I and many others felt when we listened to the debate here in Parliament turned to joy when his activism unleashed the most incredible response from UK businesses over the half-term holiday. Even though they are facing extremely tough times themselves, they stepped up. That is because in a compassionate society it is a given that children should not go hungry, but why did it take that extraordinary outpouring of community support to make the Government see that?
Let us get to the heart of the issue. All of this is so important because the social security system in this country does not give people the support they need when they hit hard times. That is why this announcement matters so much. That is why furlough had to be invented. That is why the self-employed and contractors are in such a precarious position. In her announcement today, the Secretary of State once again referenced the £9.3 billion that the Government have put into social security since the beginning of the crisis. I ask the Government and all Conservative MPs to reflect on this question: if, after they have spent an additional £10 billion, there is still so much incredible hardship and unmet need out there, what does that say about the system that they have created over the 10 years preceding the crisis? I note, by the way, that there is still no sign of the Department for Work and Pensions’ review of food bank use, which was due out on
At the beginning of this crisis, the Opposition asked for five urgent measures to stop families falling into significant hardship: sharing the £20 increase in universal credit across legacy benefits; scrapping the savings threshold so that savers would not be punished; ending the punitive two-child limit; ending the benefit cap so that people could receive what the Government had already announced; and turning the universal credit advance into a grant, rather than a loan. Those five measures would have been a big step towards alleviating child poverty and giving people the support they need, and they are still required. Yet, unbelievably, instead of acting, the Government are still on course to cut universal credit by £20 in April next year, when we know the pandemic will still be affecting people’s livelihoods. That will be a cut for 6 million families. I ask the Secretary of State to spare Britain’s families that brinkmanship and spare us the inevitable U-turn after the event. On top of the announcement today, will the Government commit to not cutting universal credit in six months’ time? For once, will they make the right decision before it is too late?