Since I last wrote, I’m delighted to have been appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The DWP is the largest government spending department. It’s a big brief to get to grips with, and yet the challenges are clear. I’ve seen them in my MP’s mail bag for years –from fears about pension insecurity, to unfair welfare sanctions, to difficulties claiming child maintenance.
The coronavirus crisis has brutally confirmed that our existing welfare state is not fit for purpose. Too often it leaves people without support and fails to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. Many people who have contributed are finding for the first time that the assistance they need and expect is just not there. Demand has multiplied: over 1.4 million more Universal Credit claims since the 15th March. These have been processed pretty well considering the scale of the challenge (well done to front line staff). But problems remain.
Firstly, the system has only worked because the Government has suspended some of the key features of Universal Credit – sanctions and conditionality. In addition, Universal Credit has been made much more generous. If we can do this now, why is leaving families desperately struggling to make ends meet usually ok?
Secondly, many will not be eligible at all. People who have been saving for a mortgage deposit might get nothing because being in possession of savings means you are ineligible. We should reconsider whether this cap is fair.
Thirdly, even applicants who will get support will have to wait five weeks for it, or apply for an advance that will then be deducted from their ongoing support. The DWP needs to act on all these things.
Lastly, we need to talk about Statutory Sick Pay. Again, this is an area where the Government have made some concessions in response to the crisis. But SSP should be available to everyone, including the low paid and self-employed, and it should be higher than £95.85 a week. Being sick doesn’t mean you no longer have rent, a mortgage or bills to pay.
So there are two challenges to get to grips with. Number one, ensuring people have adequate food and shelter through the Covid-19 crisis and the immediate aftermath. Number two, rebuilding a welfare state that supports people to work, but functions as the safety net it was designed to be when we need it, and treats people as humans. I’ll be pushing for both.