Lockdown three continues. I hope everyone is fairing as well as possible. It’s tough – for families juggling work and home schooling, for key workers keeping us going at their own risk, for anyone living alone and isolated, for students having a very different learning experience, any many more. As ever, this community’s resilience impresses me. As I write, we are starting to see the pay off, with infection rates falling, and Tameside doing a valiant job at vaccinating as many people as possible. We can do this.
This pandemic has been particularly tough for people on low and insecure incomes. This month, I was proud to lead an Opposition Day debate in parliament on the urgent need to stop the Government’s proposed cut to Universal Credit. Currently, the £20 a week uplift to help struggling families throughout the increased pressures of the pandemic is due to end in April. Sadly, no-one thinks the economic impact of the pandemic will be over with by then, with unemployment suspected to peak around June. This affects six million families nationally, and over ten thousand people in the Stalybridge and Hyde constituency alone.
I also raised the issue of people on so called legacy benefits – Employment Support Allowance and Job Seekers Allowance – who never received the extra £20 in the first place. I asked the Government if they could explain this seemingly discriminatory variance. They could not.
Throughout my debate speech and media appearances, I stressed that our motivation is not simply to caricature the Government as heartless or cruel. It would be easy to do so -we know how badly many our struggling, with foodbank use higher than ever, and British children insulted by pitiful food packages in lieu of free school meals. The £20 a week – £1000 a year- is a lifeline for many households, covering their total gas, electric and broadband bills- but more than that, is an economic stimulus, enabling more spend in local shops and services, which is essential to our financial recovery from Covid-19. For families, for the economy, and for the national interest, we should cancel the cut.
The good news is, we won the vote, with six Tory MPs crossing the lobbies to vote with Labour to protect their constituents’ incomes. The bad news is, we won because the Conservative Government walked away from the table and whipped their MPs to abstain, an unusual move in response to an Opposition Day debate, showing a concerning disregard for parliamentary democracy. They further suggested Labour should steer clear of emotive subjects -yet that is exactly what Parliament is for, to raise the issues people care about.
Before my Opposition Day motion, the answer from the Prime Minister on reversing their plans was: “No.” Now it is: “We are looking at it.” That means the debate really made a difference. I hope by the time you read this, a U-turn may have been announced, saving local families from further difficulty. I will keep the pressure up.