Last week, as Shadow Work and Pension Secretary, I was proud to lead an Opposition Day debate on the urgent need to stop the Government’s proposed cut to Universal Credit and force a parliamentary vote. Currently, the £20 a week uplift to help struggling families through the increased pressures of the pandemic is due to end in April, and sadly, no-one thinks the economic impact of the pandemic will be over by then, with unemployment suspected to peak around June. I was overwhelmed by the support for our #CancelTheCut campaign. Over thirty thousand people signed Labour’s petition calling on Conservative MPs to back us on this issue, with tens of thousands more showing their support through petitions by trade unions and charities.
The good news is, we won the vote, with six Tory MPs crossing the lobbies to vote with us to protect their constituents’ incomes. The bad news is, we won because the Government walked away from the table and whipped their MPs to abstain, a very unusual move in response to an Opposition Day debate, showing a concerning disregard for parliamentary democracy. The Government also failed to send the Chancellor or Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to respond to the debate, again showing a lack of respect for parliament and affected Brits. They further suggested Labour should steer clear of emotive subjects with our Opposition Debates – yet that is exactly what Parliament is for, to raise the issues people care about.
Throughout my contributions and media appearances, I was keen to stress that our motivation is not simply to caricature the Government as heartless or cruel. The £20 a week – £1000 a year – is a lifeline for many households, covering their total gas, electric and broadband bills for the year – but it is also an economic stimulus, enabling more spend in local shops and services, which is essential to our financial recovery from Covid-19.
You can read my whole speech here or the whole debate here. You can watch highlights of my speech here. I urged everyone to reflect on what this cut will mean to the people that send us to Parliament. The uncertainty it will add, in an already uncertain time. The loss it will bring, when we have already lost so much. The fear it will cause, when what people need it hope. I reflected on the democratic imperative here, highlighting that the Government cannot expect to preach parliamentary sovereignty one week, and hide away from parliamentary scrutiny the next. I also raised the issue of people on so called legacy benefits – Employment Support Allowance and Job Seekers Allowance – who never received the £20 a week uplift in the first place. I asked the Government if they could explain or justify this discrimination. They could not.
The debate attracted considerable media coverage, and I’m particularly grateful to all the Universal Credit claimants who showed courage in sharing their stories, and what the £20 a week lifeline means to them. You can watch me talk about the campaign on Sophie Ridge, the Today Programme, and on BBC News here and here.
It is not too late to add your voice to our petition and help us keep the pressure up. Last week the answer from the Prime Minister on reversing their plans was: “No.” Now it is: “We are still looking at it.” That means the Opposition Day motion really made a difference.
In the longer term, it is time to acknowledge that Universal Credit is fundamentally flawed. As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, yes, I would take a whole scale look at the role of the welfare state and start again.
Finally, just a word of thanks to my brilliant team of staff for working round the clock on this campaign and debate, as well as supporting constituents through huge volumes of issues generated by this crisis – I couldn’t hold the Government to account or represent people effectively without their unyielding support.