I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the need for the Executive not only to oppose the UK Government's plan to remove the £20 uplift to universal credit but to plan and prepare and to protect people here should the Tories persist with that punitive policy, as well as, importantly, to consider what that cruel cut means for my constituents in Foyle.
The SDLP has always been critical of universal credit. We voted against the Welfare Reform Bill when others here rubber-stamped it. Our stance has been vindicated ever since. I am sure that I would not be alone in saying that assisting people to navigate that complex system is a daily occurrence in all our offices. All too often, we have to direct desperate people and families towards food banks during the cruel five-week wait. Foyle Foodbank has witnessed a spike in demand in recent years. During COVID, it saw a 75% increase in usage. I dread to think how many more people in Derry will rely on that support and service should that cut to universal credit proceed.
The £20 universal credit uplift was a most welcome and uncharacteristic move by the Tories at the outset of the pandemic. It was an extra safety net to prevent people falling further into poverty. Now, despite opposition from Ministers here and in Scotland and Wales, criticism from just about every charity and expert organisation and from several former Tory welfare Ministers, not to mention the dissent in the ranks that has been witnessed in recent weeks, with four Tory MPs voting against the removal, the Tories appear determined to revert to type.
Foyle has the highest number of universal credit claimants in the North and, indeed, the UK, with over 8,000 claimants. The cut runs the risk of stripping almost £8·5 million from vulnerable households in Foyle alone. The removal will be most profoundly felt in areas of high deprivation such as Derry, and I have listened to many heartfelt pleas, mostly from single parents who have reached out to me in recent weeks, highlighting the fact that the uplift has been a lifeline. It is a lifeline that they cannot afford to have removed. The extra £20 a week has allowed them merely to keep their head above water, to buy nappies and to put food on the table for their children that week. For them, the fear of the cut is becoming a stark reality, with claimants already being informed of their cut-off date.
The consequences of going down this path will be catastrophic. It will undoubtedly hit harder in the North and, indeed, Foyle than anywhere else. Families here will be plunged into poverty. If they needed this help 18 months ago, they sure as hell need it now. Now, people have to battle the spiralling cost of living — a 35% gas hike that, in real terms, means a rise of about £200 in the average annual household bill and, with the implications of Brexit, grocery bills rising rapidly. We all see that. Rising property values mean rising rents, and I have witnessed the outworkings of that, as, I am sure, many others have, with more and more people contacting my constituency office for housing support because they have been forced from private rented properties due to affordability issues. It is clear that people are at breaking point. They cannot afford to lose over £1,000 a year, and we cannot afford to let them lose it.
The cut is not only cruel but completely short-sighted. Removing millions of pounds from the local economy will devastate local businesses. I recently met the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) to discuss the implications of the cut for it and its members. The consequences for local businesses will be dire and will cost jobs, forcing people to become even more reliant on welfare support.
Where is the assessment of the impact of removing this lifeline? Have the Executive looked at the financial cost in terms of the increased health, homelessness and education costs? What will be the cost to people? This is much more than an issue that affects only the poor or the "scroungers", as the Tories would happily characterise those dependent on support. Nearly a third of claimants are working: we need to do more to protect them. Minister Hargey has joined her counterparts in other devolved regions in writing to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to oppose the cut. We welcome that, but, sadly, it does not go nearly far enough.
The Minister often speaks of her commitment to protect vulnerable people, and we welcome her words, yet real scrutiny of the track record of the Minister and that of her party tells a different story. We still wait for legislation to close the loopholes in welfare mitigations, and the Minister's silence on concerns about access to the high street voucher scheme is deafening. Earlier this month, I wrote to the Minister to ask her to take action in conjunction with the Economy Minister to ensure that elderly and vulnerable people who do not have internet access or are not internet-savvy did not miss out on the scheme. I proposed that, given that DFC already held those people's details, the voucher should be automatically issued to that cohort. I still await a response.
I digress; I will return to the matter at hand. The reason that Boris Johnson and the Tories can back this callous cut is that they cannot comprehend a reality in which £20 is the difference between feeding and not feeding your family that week. How can we trust a man who cannot tell you the price of a loaf of bread but can easily tell you the price of a bottle of champagne to know what is best for vulnerable people and their families? How can we trust his colleague Thérèse Coffey, who just last week condescendingly suggested that claimants should work more hours? That statement demonstrated not only a complete lack of compassion but a complete lack of understanding of how the benefit, for which she has responsibility, works.
I expect and hope that MLAs here are much more grounded in the reality of what the cut means for people in the areas in which we all live. I am concerned about my constituents. I am concerned about men, women and children in Derry who will be most adversely impacted by the cut. Reports show that child poverty is a reality for a quarter of the children in Northern Ireland. That problem is most acute in areas such as Foyle. If we do not fight for the needs of those children and their families, people whom we are supposed to be here to represent, who will? What will we do in the wake of the removal? Will we sit on our hands or ensure that people are signposted to debt and advice agencies, as the Minister has suggested?
We are a devolved Government. DFC finally has welfare powers back, after the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance handed them over to the Tories to inflict more pain on vulnerable people here. If Westminster insists on proceeding with this draconian cut, we need to see action from the Communities Minister, working with her Executive colleagues, particularly the Finance Minister, to find the funding to continue the uplift for the rest of this financial year. This accounts for just 0·5% of the Executive's Budget. What COVID money remains unspent? What money budgeted for welfare mitigations is at risk of going unspent? Are those questions being asked by the Communities Minister, who tells us how committed she is to protecting the vulnerable? Rather than writing letters, we implore the Minister to find the resource and to find a way to protect hard-pressed families across the North from this devastating cut to their income. We need to be more proactive, not reactive. There is just far too much at stake for people here.
The removal of the £20 universal credit uplift is yet another assault by Boris Johnson and his Cabinet on struggling individuals and families in Derry and across the North, those who have borne the brunt of Tory austerity for almost a decade. The move by the British Government compounds the impact that will be felt from the hike in energy prices and will leave the most vulnerable in our society again facing the choice between putting food on the table and heating their home. That is the real-life impact.
I was proud to speak in the Chamber last week to oppose the cuts and to be part of a rare consensus across the Chamber demanding that the Tories scrap their plans. The significance of that cannot be overstated. There was a real recognition that the cuts transcend party political boundaries. They will impact people in Derry, people across the Foyle constituency and people across the North. If we are genuine about standing up for families and for those who are most vulnerable in our society, we must start to work together to tackle the cuts and present a united front against the Tory Government. We need to stand with other devolved institutions in Scotland and in Wales to counter the removal of the uplift.
Until we take full control of our fiscal destiny, we will always be vulnerable to austerity, to cuts and to policies imposed on us at Westminster by a Government who have very little empathy for the people of the North and less of a mandate in this area. To be clear, the decisions, as was the case with Brexit, have not come from the Executive. The decisions and choices were made by the British Government. The British Government have cut the block grant in the North year on year for a decade. Tory cuts have devastated our public services not just with regard to welfare but in health, education, infrastructure and, particularly, our public transport systems. It is in the Tory DNA to slash public services and attack the most vulnerable. That is why they are cutting the universal credit uplift. That is what Tories do. They simply do not care about the people of Derry, and they do not care about the people in the North. However, there is hope that more and more people are becoming aware of that and that more people see the connection between Westminster and the damage in their everyday lives. That is what a conversation about a new and united Ireland is about. In a new Ireland, we could make our own decisions. It would be an Ireland where we were not subject to British Government cuts and the impact of a British Government Brexit.
The debate has been turbocharged by austerity, London's handling of the pandemic and its decision to leave the European Union. We can do better — better for our people. There is an alternative to Tories and to Brexit. Irish unification is a guaranteed path back into the European Union. It would give the people of the North a chance to steer our own destiny in a new Ireland, to enjoy the benefits of an all-Ireland economy and to rid ourselves of the austerity that we are discussing today. We can show political leadership by taking control of our destiny and protecting all of our citizens. That is what the people of Foyle want to see. That is what the future looks like. I urge all Members to join the conversation that helps us to build that.
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue as an MLA for Foyle. Like many across the Chamber and Northern Ireland, I welcomed the decision by the UK Government to uplift the universal credit payment by £20 per week. At that time, it appeared to be a recognition by the UK Government that the incomes of our lowest-income families were being squeezed too much. The decision to increase the universal credit payment by £20 was a recognition that the payments were far from adequate.
The central role of our social security system is to support and protect people who are unable to work because of disability, for caring reasons, because they are looking after children or due to the consequences of the COVID pandemic. We have seen an increase in the number of people having to claim universal credit through no fault of their own. Plunging families into further poverty is not right, and it is not something that this party will support. We need to support one another; we need to support the most vulnerable. Almost one in four of the working-age families in Northern Ireland will lose out through the cut to universal credit. Already, statistics show that one in four children in our society are in poverty. That is a stark and devastating statistic. It is a statistic, but it represents real people.
We see the devastation across the Foyle constituency, in particular, when we look at the increase in the number of people using food banks. I pay tribute to those who manage the food banks and acknowledge the sterling work that they do. We also see the increase in homelessness. Our constituency offices see the stress and distress that people are going through. Unfortunately, in the Foyle constituency, we top the league table when it comes to the claimant level for universal credit. That should trouble all of us in this political Chamber. As others have said, it goes beyond political boundaries; it affects everybody across all of our communities.
I welcome the action that the Minister took, along with Ministers from the other devolved Administrations, in writing to the UK Government to reiterate the position not only of people in the Chamber but of the Executive. The decision is not one that was taken by the Northern Ireland Executive. I appreciate that Members will call for action to be taken: the first priority was to raise the concern, and we need to now look at how we can ensure that people are not affected by the cut.
The UK Government talk about levelling up, and I champion further levelling up across the United Kingdom. Whether it is Northern Ireland, the north of England or the West Midlands, we need to see levelling up. The universal credit cut will disproportionately affect people in the areas that the Government say they want to see levelled up. That is something that they need to hear loud and clear.
All of this is happening, of course, against the backdrop of increases in our cost of living — increases in energy bills and other household bills — job uncertainty and the cost of uniforms with the kids having just gone back to school. There is all that stress, and to go to those families and say, "Well, we're taking £80 per month off you" is an absolute and utter disgrace. We are also coming to the point at which furlough will end and Christmas is coming in.
There is an onus on all of us in the Chamber to set aside the political point-scoring. I have heard some of it, and we see it in the Foyle constituency day and daily. We need to stop that and to move forward collectively. There is a five-party Executive, and, if we put our shoulders to the wheel, I am sure that we can make a much stronger case than if we come at it in such a divided way.
Speaking as an individual MLA, I say that the Executive will need to come back to this issue rapidly. It has been at the forefront of their minds, but we need to ensure that we provide as much certainty as possible to the people affected in our constituencies, particularly the Foyle constituency.
It is clear that, once again, Boris Johnson and the Tory Government have taken a couldn't-care-less attitude to our most vulnerable individuals and families, not only in Foyle but across the North. These are Tory cuts that will, once again, make life worse for our most vulnerable groups. These regressive cuts by Westminster will not just hit our low-income and working-poor individuals and families hardest; they will hit women, young people and the minority ethnic communities hardest too.
Over the years, our most vulnerable have faced relentless cuts and freezes to the rates of their social security payments by Westminster and, of course, the introduction of the abhorrent two-child rule. Now, we see this expected cut coming at the same time as the recently announced increase in national insurance contributions, the rise in energy costs, the rise in the cost of living and the end of furlough. I agree that it is so short-sighted, and it is typical of Westminster.
Let us be honest: while the additional £20 per week applied to universal credit and working tax credit as part of the response to the COVID crisis was welcome, there is no doubt that, at the time, there was an injustice because it was not, despite repeated calls, extended to people who receive similar legacy benefits. Furthermore, as we all know here, the financial assistance was required long before the pandemic began. The decision to increase universal credit and working tax credit was surely an acknowledgement by the British Government that the previous rates were not adequate to live on. What is it that they think has changed? I, like you, am baffled.
For many years, we have increasingly found that low-income families and the working poor require assistance at food banks and the provision of fuel vouchers and clothes and furniture from charity shops. I have worked in that field for 20 years, and this is not new; it is ongoing under the Tory Government. I have worked with food banks, family support hubs, social supermarkets, local charities, Fareshare and a range of organisations that have been working tirelessly in our communities in the North, particularly in Foyle.
Even Thérèse Coffey's comments about how people can work an extra two hours a week to make up the £20 that is about to be cut show a real lack of understanding of how wages and universal credit interact and of the cost and availability of childcare. It also assumes that everyone is able to work, that they have a job, that it is a well-paid job and that they are able to increase their hours.
The Tory Government have been oblivious to the high rates of disability not only in the North but in our city and to limiting long-term illnesses, especially those in mental health, and the current claimant count. For example, in the Foyle constituency, there are 4,380 people claiming universal credit, which is a rate of 6·6%. That is the second-highest rate in the North and is just behind North Belfast, where it is 6·8%, and it is higher than West Belfast, where it is 6·5%. The Tory Government need to wake up, acknowledge the increasing hardship facing our families on low income and recognise the difficult winter months we are all heading into. The social and human consequences of Tory policies are clear. Poverty and child poverty rates will increase and continue and continue to increase, particularly in Foyle, where poverty levels are already amongst the highest in the North. Twenty pounds per week may not be much to —.
To the people in Westminster who make those decisions, £20 per week may not be much, but it can be the difference between eating and heating for so many families. In January, without the support of our local Minister and the Department, I had to support 500 families within three weeks in one district electoral area (DEA) in the Foyle constituency. That shows you the extent of the need and support that is required in our city.
Over the past number of months, we have all heard from many people about just what the cut will mean. We can all foresee the negative impact not only for individuals and families but for the local economy, which we know is struggling to get back on its feet. I agree with the previous contributor; as local MLAs in Foyle, we must work together collectively, just as the Executive must do, in order to retain the universal credit uplift. I also agree with others that the Foyle constituency deserves much better. We all need to work harder together to break the cycle of poverty and inequality in order to give people a real chance for a better life.
The Foyle constituency rightly deserves investment in infrastructure, such as the upgrade to Buncrana Road; more apprenticeships, particularly for our young people who are at risk; and jobs, jobs and more jobs. It deserves more affordable social homes to address the stark and growing housing waiting list, more support to strengthen our small indigenous businesses and social enterprises and improved access to health services, particularly mental health services. It is only through collective responsibility at the Executive that we can deliver for Foyle and the North.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the Adjournment debate today. It is a very important debate. I have a map of various shades of blue, and it quite clearly tells us where the highest levels of universal credit claimants are. They are in the north-west. Unfortunately, my constituency of Foyle tops the poll for the highest number of universal credit claimants. On the map, much of the east is pretty light in terms of blue, which, incidentally, shows where the highest-paid jobs and the highest employment rates are located.
The removal of the universal credit uplift will have a profound impact right across Northern Ireland, but it will have a disproportionate effect on the most deprived areas of Derry. As it stands, the £20 uplift is being diminished daily, as families face the rising costs of food, gas, electricity, rent and childcare. Our constituents are struggling to make ends meet. We know that the Tory Government do not give two monkeys about the people I represent. That goes without saying, but surely the Executive care.
We need the Communities and Finance Ministers to bring forward a proposal to the Executive to keep the £20 universal credit uplift in the purses of all the people who currently have it, rather than handing it back to the Tory Government.
I become enraged when I hear the UK's Prime Minister justifying cutting universal credit by saying that he wants people to earn more money through their work rather than through their benefits payments. His parallel universe bears no resemblance whatever to the realities that my constituents — my hard-working families — in Derry face every day. Is it surprising? It is not surprising at all. It is Boris Johnson, and he is playing true to form. I do not expect him to behave with decency towards the people whom I represent. If I am honest, I am even more enraged with our Executive when I have to explain to my constituents why there are not more jobs in Derry and why there are not more well-paid jobs coming to Derry. For decades, Derry has remained the most deprived region of the UK. Why are so many of my constituents receiving universal credit payments?
Today, I heard yet again of new jobs going to Belfast. ASOS is bringing 180 jobs to Belfast: well done. Two weeks ago, the Economy Minister announced that Agio would create 100 jobs in Belfast: well done. Last month, he announced 120 jobs at Tribe Tech on the edge of Belfast: well done. In June, it was 771 jobs at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Belfast: well done. Also in June, it was 180 jobs with Version 1 in Belfast: well done. In February, it was 200 jobs with KPMG in Belfast: well done. In January, it was 70 jobs with EverQuote. Where is it headquartered? Oh, Belfast. Well done. Not all the jobs went to Belfast: 130 went to Bangor. Well done. Where are the jobs that are coming to Derry? By the way, congratulations to Belfast with its large university campuses, graduates, commuters and highly paid jobs. Where are the highly paid jobs in the west?
The Executive, dominated and led by the DUP and Sinn Féin — two parties that, I remind everyone, hold the positions of joint First Ministers — know what they have to do about the crisis of low incomes, and it is a crisis of low incomes. They must commit to regional equality and to putting right the inequality that sees so few jobs going to anywhere but the east. We need more jobs coming to the west. The Executive must raise the skills levels in the west, which will require us to have a larger university campus and targeted and expanded vocational training in Derry. Skills lead to higher pay and more jobs.
It is not just about that, though. One third of those on universal credit are single parents. Single parents in my constituency have had a terribly difficult time getting childcare. They have found it even more difficult to get affordable childcare. A recent survey found that the shortage of affordable childcare was worse in Derry. Increasing the supply of affordable childcare would have a significant impact on universal credit claimant rates. Addressing that must be a priority for the Education and Communities Ministers — in other words, once again, the DUP and Sinn Féin, the conjoined twins in charge of the Government.
It is no good for the British Government, supported by Sinn Féin, to say, "The worst of the pandemic is behind us, so let us go back to the old normal of poverty payments and universal credit". The Department for Communities has welfare powers now and must develop a proposal to ensure that not one person in my constituency or, indeed, the Minister's loses one penny of their £20 uplift as they face into this challenging winter. We need decisive action led by the Communities Minister. We cannot keep name-calling and finger-pointing at the Tories. They are doing what we know they will do. We have to use the powers that are at our disposal. We need welfare mitigations to protect our people.
Once again, the people of Foyle are in the firing line when it comes to the distribution of pain. We cannot wait for the Tory Government to be overturned or for a united Ireland before the people of Derry are treated with dignity and respect. The levelling up needs to start here in the House.
Some may look at me and ask, "What, in the name of goodness, is a Strangford MLA doing at an Adjournment debate about Foyle?". While I was not elected to represent the Foyle area, I am concerned about the removal of the universal credit uplift. It will have an effect not only on Foyle but on citizens the whole way across Northern Ireland.
I was interested that Ms Ferguson mentioned the figure of over 4,000, almost 5,000, people. I think that there are two offices, and the other office has 7,110 people on universal credit. Mr Durkan talked about the millions. I did a quick multiplication. Multiply those 7,110 people by £20 a week: that is £142,200 being removed from the area in one week, and it does not even include everybody who is on universal credit. As others have said, this is happening when furlough is coming to an end and we expect businesses that have depended on the furlough scheme to have to make some people unemployed. We expect people to join universal credit.
We all know that the cost of energy is rising. That means that electricity, home heating and even filling your car, which is not mentioned often when it comes to energy costs, are becoming extremely expensive. At this time, the impacts of COVID have not disappeared, and I agree with many who say that this is a cruel blow to people. All we have to think about is the many children who are being sent home, looking for PCR tests, who have to have mummy or daddy at home. The heat is on during the day, and food is being consumed at home. They are not getting school meals. National Insurance, as we know, will increase. Mr Durkan is absolutely right: a third of people on universal credit are in work. A third are looking for work, and a third cannot work because of disability or terminal illness.
I was thinking, in advance of the debate, that I did not want to come here and just complain about how sad it was; I wanted to know what actions were happening on the ground. We certainly know the absolute strength and power of the community in the Foyle area, which is shown through the food banks and so many other charities up there. I spoke to my Alliance colleagues, Councillors Rachael Ferguson and Philip McKinney, and I commend the work that they and all our colleagues on Derry City and Strabane District Council (DCSDC) are doing to address poverty in Foyle. The council has completed research on poverty. I will quickly give you the key findings. The majority of indicators suggest that, whilst poverty and disadvantage are not unique to the council area, there is clear evidence that it is significantly more acute in the council area in comparison with other parts of Northern Ireland. The analysis also indicates that that is a long-running position, which backs up exactly what the SDLP has said. The DCSDC area exhibits the highest levels of deprivation across Northern Ireland. The analysis evidences that poverty and ill health are intertwined and that a negative, mutually reinforcing cycle exists between the two.
The Red Cross COVID-19 vulnerability index indicates that the DCSDC area is amongst the most COVID-19-vulnerable local government districts, not just in Northern Ireland but across the whole of the UK. Considerable uncertainty remains about the longer-term impact of the pandemic, including on individuals and households who were already disadvantaged. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the greater challenges may lie ahead in tackling poverty and disadvantage in these constituencies. Some of the other key findings were that the groups most affected were single parents, families, first-time vulnerable people, the working poor and older people. The support that those people need and which that £20 could help with is for fuel, food, digital access, debt and financial advice and befriending.
I pay tribute to the council. It is working extremely hard on short-term and long-term interventions. It is considering a universal basic income feasibility trial. It also talks about training on poverty for elected representatives. To be honest, we could all do with that, because it hits home exactly what it is like for people who live in poverty.
The Minister is here today. We have welfare powers, and those powers are with us because of the vote that was taken to give us those powers. None of us wanted welfare reform to happen in the way in which it did, but voting for them, as some of us did — I know that the SDLP always uses that to beat us with — means that we can at least do something about the mitigations.
We know, Minister, that it would take £55·5 million to replace that £20 a week until the end of the financial year. Is a bid going into the October monitoring round? Is there anything else that we can do? For instance, the anti-poverty strategy panel has made a lot of recommendations. When will those be taken forward? There are options for us to help people in Foyle and to help citizens across Northern Ireland. It is bleak out there. It is not nice. We all know exactly what it is like when constituents come into our office. It breaks my heart to think that more and more people are choosing whether to heat their house or eat, and their children, of course, have to come first. We have far too many children living in poverty.
That is about all that I have to say. I am sorry that it is happening in Foyle, but I am very sorry that it is happening across the whole of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Member for securing the debate this evening. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss poverty and deprivation in Derry and in the Foyle constituency. Like in my constituency of West Belfast, far too many people there struggle with poverty, a lack of housing, low wages and the effects of decades of neglect. The failure to increase Magee to a student population of 10,000 by now is one of the many injustices that the Stormont Executive have failed to rectify, and there has been an abysmal failure to improve and vastly expand rail provision for Foyle and across the entire north-west.
As my former colleague on this Bench, Eamonn McCann, has said on many occasions, the Stormont regime of the past failed the people of Derry, and the new Stormont regime has failed the people of Derry and Foyle as well. Twenty-seven per cent of people in Derry and Strabane live below the poverty line. In Foyle, like in West Belfast, people have been ravaged by welfare reforms brought in by the Executive, and the Executive's determination to run public services into the ground in favour of privatisation, allowing a tiny few to profiteer, is also having a dramatic impact on people's well-being. This is all a shocking indictment of the Stormont Executive and their policies, which have propped up inequality instead of undoing it. It is true for Foyle, but it is also true across the entire North.
There is no doubt that people across the North, including those in Foyle, will be very hard hit by the proposed cut to universal credit. Given Derry and Foyle's existing levels of deprivation, as Members have said, the cut to universal credit, out-of-control energy prices, pay cuts for health workers and new taxes will hit the area very hard indeed.
The Stormont Executive are finally talking about putting in place an anti-poverty strategy, but it will mean very little if we cannot protect people right now. It is shocking to me that the Executive have done nothing to demand a wealth tax on billionaires, rich corporations and elites. Why the silence? Where is the strategy to tackle wealth inequality? Where is the strategy to make the rich, who filled their pockets during COVID, pay?
If the Tories follow through on plans to slash universal credit, People Before Profit will call on the Executive to step in with funding to make sure that no one loses out. We need action from the Executive, not promises and aspirations about possible strategies in the future. I want to ask this: will the Executive parties commit today to finding that money to guarantee funding to make sure that no one loses out if the Tories follow through on their cruel cut? The Executive threw the people of Foyle, and those across the North, to the wolves by signing up to Tory welfare reforms, and they should not do it again. Let us commit now to making sure that no one is punished by the cruel Tory cut to universal credit. We will, no doubt, hear talk about Budgets being tightened by the Tories, and, indeed, they have done that, but we also have to remember that the Executive failed to mount any serious resistance to Tory austerity, and actually did their bidding.
We have spent over £100 million on Capita carrying out detested, offensive personal independence payment assessments. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on agency staff in our hospitals, and I often hear a lot of feigned concern for those trapped in poverty and those who depend on food banks, even though, for decades, the five main parties signed up to tax cuts for corporations.
In conclusion, if the Executive are serious about having a benefits system that properly supports people, they need to abandon their decades-long economic strategy and instead protect public services and those on benefits. Make the wealthy pay so that those who have very little can live life with at least a little dignity.
Thanks to all contributors to this important debate.
I will start with issues not pertaining to the issue that we are debating, namely some of the comments that were made. I find it fascinating that some talk about the Executive as though they do not sit on the Executive, thereby abdicating the responsibility of being part of a power-sharing Executive.
The other issue was around mitigations and what appears to be an abdication of holding the British Government to account. Had we followed that tactic in 2016, we would not be sitting as the only area with additional protections. When you talk to advice workers in Scotland, England and Wales, they will tell you that they would love to be in the position of having protections. It is not a panacea, but, if we had taken that position, we would not have those additional protections.
There were distractions in some opening addresses, and there were mistruths about my role as Minister. I want to make that clear at the start. There was an accusation that I have not progressed the existing mitigations. I came into post in January last year. By the start of February, I had a paper in front of the Executive calling for the binning of the bedroom tax and the closure of the loopholes in existing mitigations.
Ask party colleagues who are in the Executive. They know how many times I raised that issue around the Executive table. I have tried repeatedly to bring it up. I am glad that it is on the agenda for next week's Executive meeting, and I will call on all parties around that Executive table to support me, but, more importantly, to support those on the ground — organisations such as the Cliff Edge Coalition, which represents 130 organisations in the community, voluntary, human rights and advice sectors — by binning the bedroom tax and closing the loopholes. I hope that we can progress that at the Executive next Thursday.
The other accusation was about the high street voucher scheme. I know that some think that I have responsibility for everything in the Executive, but I do not. Responsibility for the high street voucher scheme is with the Department for the Economy. That said, I have done the additional work to ensure that those within homelessness services and those who are homeless are not left out of the scheme. Excellent work on that is being done by providers and the Supporting People programme. I have also made sure that the verification process for the scheme in the Department for the Economy is cross-referenced with the Department for Communities database to ensure that that verification takes place.
It is important that I correct any falsehoods or accusations that are put out.
No. I have corrected the falsehoods and laid bare the truth of what I am doing.
The planned action by the British Government — the proposed cut — is outrageous. It will result in the biggest cut to the basic rate of social security to date. It will result in hardship and poverty for people across the North who are already struggling. That is totally unacceptable.
I wrote to the British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for an uplift and asking her to make sure that it was permanent. I highlighted the difficulties that a cut would create for ordinary people, workers and their families. I wrote a joint letter with Ministers from Scotland and Wales, and I called again for the uplift to be made permanent. That followed a previous joint letter and action taken in conjunction with my Scottish and Welsh counterparts last November.
I also brought the matter to the Executive and achieved the agreement of the whole Executive that we would speak out in a united voice against the cuts. Just recently, it was agreed that the Executive Office would call for a meeting with the British Government to reiterate and make our position known, to discuss and highlight the damage that the cut would cause and to call on the British Government to reverse the decision. The reply so far from the British Government is extremely worrying and disappointing. Indeed, the British Government remain determined to make the cut, placing further hardship on the people who are already struggling. That is not good enough. I continue to call on the British Government to reverse the decision, and I welcome the full support of the House in the opposition to these Tory cuts.
As a result of the pandemic, the number of households on universal credit increased from 57,920 people in February 2020 to 116,810 people in May this year. As we know, that vital increase of £20 represents £86·67 a month for those who are affected. That additional support is critical for families and individuals. Since I took up post, I have made it clear that my commitment is to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and to bring compassion and genuine support to our social security system.
I live in an inner-city, working-class community in Belfast and have been a community activist my whole life, so I know and can see at first hand in the community in which I live and through my work the impact of Tory austerity on our communities. I know at first hand how many people struggle with a complex and often cynical system. I believe that it is my duty to address that and ensure that those who need help get it.
Since March last year and the outset of the pandemic, I have ensured that the Department has responded swiftly to support people, workers and families. To that effect, I oversaw £300 million being put directly into communities and council areas. That included making easements to benefit application processes, redirecting resources for the delivery of essential services and introducing new ways of working to ensure that the Department was getting money to people when they needed it. It also included lifting income thresholds to allow more people to access support.
I put in place a range of measures to mitigate the social, economic and well-being effects of COVID-19 on our communities and to help to protect the most vulnerable. I have also included the introduction of upfront childcare costs through the adviser discretion fund, moving childcare costs up front within universal credit because I recognise the barriers that that presents for many people. That also included setting up a dedicated COVID-19 helpline, ensuring access to food and medicines, establishing new measures to support the homeless and protecting tenants, as well as establishing access, support and advice for those who are facing financial hardship.
I recognise the rising costs, particularly for fuel, that all households are facing as we approach the winter. If the uplift is not extended, I will include it as part of the planned review of mitigation measures going forward. When it comes to extending support, my Department provides a range of measures that are aimed at reducing the impact of fuel poverty, such as the affordable warmth scheme, the boiler replacement scheme, the social fund cold weather payment scheme and the winter fuel payment.
I have recently appointed an independent panel to complete a review of discretionary support, and I expect to receive its recommendations for improvements to the existing scheme in October. I will then carefully consider what changes can be made in order to improve the financial support that is available to people who find themselves in a crisis situation. I encourage people to contact my Department's Make the Call Freephone service to help them to identify all the support and services to which they are entitled. I know that, as a result of the Make the Call service, over £40 million in additional money has gone into people's pockets.
The welfare mitigation scheme payments provide support to many people who have had their benefits reduced as a result of Tory cuts. That scheme is a unique package of financial support, and I am determined that the current mitigation package should be not only extended but strengthened, where we can do that.
I am committed to an independent review of the mitigations, as set out in 'New Decade, New Approach'. I will make an announcement on the format of that review soon. I will continue to fight for and to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. That includes families living in poverty, low-income working families, single parents, those with disabilities, women, children and young people. I will continue to call on the British Government to do the right thing, to stop punishing ordinary workers, people and families and to retain the £20 uplift.
On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member, or indeed a Minister, to accuse another Member of propagating mistruths? A cursory check of the record will demonstrate that in neither of the examples used by the Minister was what I said untrue. Welfare mitigations have not been progressed, despite the efforts that the Minister assured us of. I clearly stated that the Economy Minister has responsibility for the high street voucher scheme. I look forward to correspondence from the Minister in response to my letter.