“Irrational and unlawful”. These were the words from a Court of Appeal judge about the Conservative government. This week in parliament I challenged the Government over their incredibly defiant attitude to a particular failing of the welfare system. Universal Credit has a glitch where if you get paid on a different day of the month to usual, for example because of a bank holiday, or the employer of your low paid job pays you the same amount but irregularly, the system thinks you’ve had two payments in one month and might dock your next month’s payment. It’s happened to thousands of people including my constituents. One let me know that they had to delay minor surgery to ensure the dates didn’t lead to a suspension of support. That is not a functioning system. These are clearly admin failures, but inexplicably, DWP ministers stood by it as acceptable practice, refused to fix it, and let it go all the way to the Court of Appeal. This was cruel, inexplicable and shambolic. The judge has now ordered them to fix it – I urged them to do so ASAP. What a crazy situation for a government to proudly let British children go hungry because there had been a bank holiday the month before. You can read more on my exchange in parliament here.
This week I led a great meeting with the End Child Poverty Coalition, also attended by Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, and Kate Green MP, my Shadow Minister for Child Poverty Strategy. The Coalition represents a wide number of charities and community groups, led by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) which does fantastic work – do follow them on social media to find out more. Alleviating child poverty is my one of my top priorities in my Shadow Cabinet role and I intend to devote considerable time to it. 1 in 4 British children are growing up in poverty, which is deplorable, and I will not accept it. With the economy taking a serious and potentially long term hit from Covid-19, the government will have to make urgent changes just to prevent that figure from increasing further. I want Labour to create an ambitious plan to ensure every child gets a decent start in life and no child goes hungry.
I also met with the Disabled People Against Cuts to discuss how the welfare system can go further to protect and support people with disabilities. DPAC were established in protest to those with disabilities bearing the brunt of austerity – something we need to ensure is never repeated.
I’ve also been speaking out about the rising numbers of people left in hardship because of funeral costs. 310 claims were made under the funeral expenses payment scheme in England and Wales in the week commencing March 23; by 4th May, this had risen to 1,480. Claimants can now access up to £1000 to help towards funeral and burial costs, but only if they meet certain restrictive criteria. It is bad enough that families have had to hold small and social distanced funerals for loved ones without the usual supportive hugs, but it is a particularly tragic consequence of the coronavirus pandemic that there will be more bereaved families trying to meet costs for funerals while being in financial difficulty because of the crisis itself. The increase in the number of people claiming for funeral expenses payments – 8,530 in the 10-week period from March 23 to May 31 – tells a clear story, but we must not forget those who fall outside our social security system and therefore do not qualify for any kind of help with funeral costs. I have asked the Government to consider widening eligibility for the payment and look at where it was falling short in meeting costs. People should not be pushed into hardship for putting their loved ones to rest in this difficult time. Read more here.
Since I last wrote I have also spoken to Sky News, ITN, LBC and Talk Radio about Labour’s calls for an emergency Budget. With troubling unemployment and social security claimant statistics pointing to a deep recession, we need an urgent national strategy, that must focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. We also need the government to increase public and consumer confidence by being more open and transparent in their public health messaging. Watch me talk to Sky about this here. I also spoke to Radio 4 about the need to extend the free school meals voucher scheme over the difficult summer holiday stretch. I’m pleased that the government have now conceded they were wrong on this, mostly thanks to the articulate and timely appeal from Manchester United player and former free school meals beneficiary Marcus Rashford.