Yesterday was the first full day’s debate on the Queen’s Speech – a remarkably thin set of legislative measures for the 2 years of this Parliament which bears little resemblance to the Tories’ manifesto pledges. The debate was on Housing and Social Security and many contributions throughout the debate rightly focussed on the Grenfell Tower fire.
As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary I summed up the debate for the Opposition and you can read the full text of my response below. You can read the full debate at https://goo.gl/2juwTp
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place.
This has been an extensive debate. There were 24 speakers, and I want to thank them all. I congratulate all the new Members who made their maiden speeches, including the hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), but I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who spoke so movingly about the devastating effect of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I know that she will go from strength to strength, and will continue to represent her constituents in the fantastic way she has during the past week.
I, too, extend my condolences to everyone affected by the fire, and to all those affected by the terror attacks in Manchester and at London bridge and Finsbury Park. It seems to be a sign of our times that, in the space of just a few weeks, we should have faced these horrific events.
On behalf of the more than 50% of people who voted against austerity in the general election just two weeks ago, I want to express my profound disappointment at the content of the Gracious Speech. After delivering Brexit and building a stronger economy, it refers to making our country fairer, echoing the Prime Minister’s warm words on the steps of Downing Street about building a country for everyone. Frankly, this just does not stack up. As a result of seven years of austerity under this Government, we have escalating levels of poverty, including 7.4 million people who are in working households, 4 million children and 4.2 million disabled people, while one in seven of our pensioners are living in poverty, which is an increase of 300,000 since 2010. At the same time, there have been excesses in boardroom pay, with Britain’s top bosses being paid, on average, 312 times more than a care worker, 165 times more than a nurse, 140 times more than a teacher and 132 times more than a police officer. It is all right to praise the work of the emergency services, but let us give them a decent pay rise.
The richest 1,000 people own more wealth than the poorest 40%, and this Government’s tax and spending policies have reinforced, rather than addressed, such inequalities. The Conservative manifesto promised more of the same—carrying on regardless of the pain and suffering that so many people have endured and are still enduring. The Conservatives have broken promise after promise: there was no mention in the manifesto of raising living standards, in spite of real wages being at 2007 levels in real terms, and there was no reference to raising the national living wage, in spite of one in five workers being in low-paid jobs. Instead, it boasted that corporation tax will continue to be cut in spite of the fact that it is already the lowest in the G7. Shockingly, it pledged to erode further the social security safety net for older people by removing the winter fuel allowance for 10 million pensioners and the state pension triple lock, while promising a dementia tax that people, if they could not afford it and were unfortunate enough to need home care, would have to pay by selling their home. The Queen’s Speech mentioned none of those Tory manifesto promises, so I would be grateful to the Secretary of State if he confirmed that, given the position of their coalition partners on these issues, they will not now be delivered.
Given that the Government are currently in breach of their own Pensions Act 2014, will the Secretary of State confirm when they will respond to the Cridland report and guarantee that there will be no further increase in the state pension age? Further to that, there was no mention in the Queen’s Speech of the plight of the 2.6 million WASPI women, including the 4,000 in my constituency who have been affected by the accelerated increase in their state pension age, many of whom had no notice of the increase and many of whom have been left destitute. I have heard cases of women in their 60s who have had to sell up everything and who are sofa-surfing. What will the Government do to address their plight? We are the fifth richest country in the world. Those women have contributed to society and it is scandalous that they are being treated in this way. The Government must act urgently to address the WASPI issue, reflect on the desperate circumstances that many WASPI women are in and put in place mitigation.
The Government seem oblivious to the escalation in child poverty over the past seven years, with 1 million more children expected to fall into poverty by 2020. They seem unconcerned by the direct and immediate effect that that is having on those children’s health and wellbeing, let alone their long-term life chances. The Tory manifesto pledged to cut free school meals. While I am pleased that that has been dropped, will the Secretary of State confirm what specific measures are in place to address the rise in child poverty and to ameliorate its effects? Will the Government agree to exempt lone parents with children under two from the benefit cap, given today’s High Court judgment? Where is the legislation or other measures to deal immediately with low-paid work and to ensure that work always pays, given that low pay is a key driver of worker and child poverty?
Universal credit, as we have heard in this debate, is failing, from its shambolic roll-out to the escalating costs and ludicrous design flaws, including the so-called “digital by default” and the six-week “long hello” before people get their first payment. During the election, I spoke to a constituent who was told she would have to wait six weeks and then had another four weeks added on top. That is not good enough. Of course, there is also the mess around having four-weekly as opposed to monthly payments. Some people have two payments in one month and then have to reapply because they reach the amount they are allowed.
Nick Thomas-Symonds: Universal credit is being rolled out to all new claimants in my constituency from next month. Does the shadow Secretary of State share my worry about the interminable delays that are causing such problems in the claiming of universal credit?
Debbie Abrahams: As I say, it is an absolute mess and we have pledged to address it when we are in a position to do so.
The cuts to universal credit work allowances mean that 2.5 million families will be more than £2,000 a year worse off. Delays in UC and other social security support were a major cause of more than 1 million people relying on food banks last year. That problem is worse in UC areas. People are falling into debt, with eight out of 10 tenants being in rent arrears and homelessness rising. Again, why was this issue not in the manifesto or the Queen’s Speech and what will the Government do about it?
The treatment of disabled people by this Government over the past seven years has been nothing short of scandalous. The scale and range of cuts in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 alone is huge, with £28 billion of support cut for 3.7 million disabled people. Of course, it did not stop there. Disabled people are now feeling the impact of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, with cuts of £1,500 a year for half a million sick and disabled people in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. The new work capability assessment, the introduction of the personal independence payment and its associated flawed assessment, and the new sanctions regime have all had profound detrimental impacts on disabled people. Even a United Nations inquiry found the Tories guilty of “grave” and “systematic violations” of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, yet there was still nothing in the manifesto and there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech. Why do disabled people not count in this Government’s so-called quest for a fairer society?
Why, when the Government affirmed their commitment to parity of esteem for people with mental health conditions, did the Prime Minister not extend that to PIP support? Her Government overturned the independent tribunal rulings and introduced PIP regulations in March without a vote or even a debate, which deprived people with mental health conditions of the higher rate of PIP. Why does parity of esteem not extend to ESA? According to the Government’s own figures this week, 200,000 people with mental health conditions will lose £345 million in ESA WRAG support.
The Government’s warm words about making our country fairer ring hollow. The Labour party made different choices in our manifesto, and we would most certainly have made different choices in an alternative Queen’s Speech. We would introduce a new social security Bill that would repeal the personal independence payment regulations, reverse the cuts for those in ESA WRAG and transform universal credit to make sure that work always pays. Fundamentally, we would transform our social security system. Like the NHS, it is there for every single one of us in our time of need, providing security, dignity and the basics in life should we become sick or disabled or fall on hard times.
We would not stop there, but I will move on, because I know the Secretary of State wants to respond. Specifically on pensions, in addition to committing to the triple lock and maintaining the winter fuel allowance, we would extend pension credit to WASPI women and affected men and define new additional transitional protections. We would also commission a review to report on options for a flexible retirement age policy and much more. The Government are in chaos—saying one thing and doing another. We have the policies, we have the commitment and we are ready to deliver for the many, not the few.