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It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. As a former council leader, I am very familiar with some of the issues she raised here today, but I shall confine my remarks to the worsening conditions of the least well off in our country. They deserve consideration, although sadly they are not a priority of the Government in the gracious Speech. There is ample evidence that conditions are getting worse for the poorest, whether in the form of research and reports, or in the daily experiences of children, families and individuals. Reports from the UN rapporteur, the Joseph Rowntree Trust, the Children’s Commissioner, the Child Poverty Action Group and a host of others provide shaming testimony in a country that once led the world in the social welfare of its citizens.
The gracious Speech makes reference to unlocking the full potential of children, yet we hear that teachers are buying food, clothing and equipment out of their own pockets for children who are too ashamed to come to school because their families cannot afford clothes and basic needs. The number of children attending food banks in the last year has doubled. Some 4.1 million children are in poverty, and 70% of them are from families where at least one parent works. Single parents, of whom 90% are women, are twice as likely to be in poverty as married couples. Half the children in one-parent families are in poverty. Furthermore, as far as housing is concerned, there has been a surge in homelessness, which was up by 320,000 in November 2017. Rough sleeping has shot up by 15% in a year; this is because of the paring back of housing benefit and the freezing of local housing allowance.
Nearly 50% of those in poverty—6.9 million—are from families where someone has a disability. On this I support the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and some of the examples she gave us. The crisis in PIP assessments whereby 75% of appeals are upheld requires attention. Even if the Government were concerned only with finance it would be sensible to look at a better way of doing this; in terms of the suffering it inflicts on people who already have to face financial penalties in various forms, it is just unforgivable. Families with disabilities are projected to lose £11,000 a year by 2021-22, more than a third of their income.
Indications also show that the worst off and most vulnerable will suffer more under Brexit. I understand from talking to those involved that very little assessment of this has been done, yet already the depreciation of the pound, rising prices and inflation are making things very difficult for those on fixed income. Unless the full uprating of benefits and low incomes takes place, there will be a crisis and the poorest and most vulnerable will not be protected. Indebtedness has already reached pre-2008 levels, yet little appears to have been done in terms of emergency support.
The gracious Speech states:
“My government will bring forward measures to protect individuals, families and their homes”.
The Government really need to look at the evidence of how they are protecting families and their homes. The two-child limit and the four-year benefits freeze both directly affect children. If what people are saying about the effect of Brexit is right, emergency payments would be indispensable, but they are going to be lost. In the past they have prevented families falling into destitution; they need to be reinstated. The sanctions imposed by the Government are a source of destitution and debt and are particularly damaging to people with disabilities or health conditions such as heart disease.
Payments to young people of £250 per month are not enough to live on for those who do not have supportive homes. Split payments need to be made so that abused women are not kept under the control of their abuser. As the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has already mentioned, the disincentives to work, the effect of sanctions and flexible working need to be thoroughly investigated and action needs to be taken.
There is ample evidence of the worsening lives of the poor and vulnerable. Our priorities must be to build an effective social safety net nationally and locally, to address the issues that lead to low pay and insecure employment and to ensure that measures are in place for the least well-off, the least protected and the most vulnerable so that they do not slip through the holes of an insufficient safety net and drift into destitution and poverty.