Shadow chancellor uses the Autumn Statement Opposition Day Debate to force vote on reversal of ESA and UC cuts

“That this House notes with concern the £3.4 billion reductions to the work allowance element of universal credit and the £1.4 billion reductions to employment and support allowance; calls on the Government to reverse those reductions; and further calls on the Government to reintroduce detailed distributional analysis for the Autumn Statement and all further Financial Statements, as was done between 2010 and 2015.”

I want to explain the genesis of the motion I and my honourable friends have tabled for today’s debate.

Traditionally we would seek to hold an Opposition Day debate and use it to have a wide ranging debate second guessing and commenting on what we predict is to be contained in the Autumn Statement. This year we want to try something different.

 A radical break with that tradition because next week could be the last chance to head off what is shaping up to be a harmful disaster for many low earners and vulnerable people in our society.

So we have taken two significant issues that are contained in the budget plans announced earlier this year by the Chancellor’s predecessor and which the new Chancellor has the ability and opportunity to intervene upon and reverse.

The first is the plan to cut universal credit and Employment Support Allowance.

And for the later debate, the issue of funding social care.

In withdrawing the ESA and Universal Credit proposed cuts, the new Chancellor would dramatically beneficially impact upon the lives of many, many of our fellow citizens who are low earners but also through their disability often the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. We want to see today if we can assemble across the House a moral coalition of pressure that can decisively influence the Chancellor to think again. I believe and certainly hope that we can.

So the appeal to Honourable Members today and in the coming week is to do all we can to prevail upon the Chancellor to halt the policy of cuts to Universal Credit and ESA contained in the budget introduced by the former Chancellor and planned to come into effect in April next year.

Before I come to the grounds for this appeal to the Chancellor, it’s important to understand the origins of these proposals to cut these lifeline benefits.The origins lie in the mistake by the last Chancellor to impose a fiscal framework on his colleagues that was simply impractical given the economic circumstances we were facing and were about to face.

If the fiscal framework is wrongly set and importantly is so inflexible that it cannot reflect the realities and challenges of the economy, then decisions on both tax and spending equally fail to reflect and meet the economic realities.

In this instance the fiscal framework imposed by the former Chancellor was so inflexible and unworkable that it totally failed to meet the economic targets he set it. But also as vitally important, the former Chancellor’s fiscal framework imposed unrealistic constraints on his colleagues’ departments that are undermining their ability to achieve their policy goals.

On the government’s own economic metrics, the fiscal frame work has failed.

Its targets were to eliminate the deficit by 2015. The deficit remains at over £45bn in the first six months of this financial year alone.

Its target was to reduce debt. Debt now stands at £ 1.7 trillion and has increased over the last 6 years by £740bn.

Its biggest failure has been to ignore the needs of the real economy by using the fiscal framework to constrain investment.

The result is a failure to invest on the scale needed to modernise our economy and consequently stagnating productivity.

In the face of all the evidence that the fiscal framework was not working, not achieving its targets. the decision to then set a target for the framework to not just to eliminate the deficit but to produce a multi billion pound surplus by 2019/2020 demonstrated how for the former Chancellor politics was overriding sounds economics.

The result of the then Chancellor setting targets even more removed from reality meant that he imposed upon his colleagues the task of scrambling round to find a scale of cuts that in many instances undermined what chance they had to implement the policies upon which they were elected or which had been longstanding ambitions.

This was nowhere more evidenced than in the Department for Work and Pensions.

For the Treasury to demand cuts to Universal Credit that would take on average £2,100 out of the incomes of people who are doing all that is asked of them, working all they could to come of benefits, bringing up their families, contributing to society, this just flew in the face of all that the Universal Credit system was meant to be about.

The same is said of the cuts of nearly £30 a week to Employment Support Allowance. This is a significant cut to the incomes of disabled people who are also doing all that has been asked of them, seeking to find work to lift them off benefits.

I understood at the time when the then Secretary of State, the Right Honourable Member for Chingford and Woodford Green resigned. He rightfully objected to a further burden being placed upon the social security budget especially at a time when new long planned systems were at the early stage of introduction.

I understood then his sense of frustration and understand now why he and many of his Honourable Friends are calling upon the new Chancellor to look again at this burden being placed upon the welfare budget and the threat it imposes to the successful roll out of universal credit and the policy of supporting disabled people into work.

But these planned cuts are more than a threat to the implementation of policies long advocated and indeed cherished by many members opposite. More importantly they are a threat to the livelihoods, living standards and quality of life of millions of many low earners and of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities.

The government has sought to judge itself on its own set of economic metrics – eliminating the deficit, reducing debt, adhering to a cap on welfare spending. And on all of its own metrics it has failed. But there are an alternative very basic set of metrics upon which you judge a government.

It’s whether a government can ensure its population is adequately fed, decently housed, kept warm in winter and has sufficient income through employment or a support safety net to have a quality of life.

From our privileged position in this House before we consider any cuts to the basic support low earners and disabled people receive, I firmly believe that we have a moral duty to fully appreciate the plight of many of our fellow citizens and the impact any changes forced upon them could have. There are some basic facts that we need to face up to that depict the harsh reality of the lives of so many members of our community.

Nearly 4 million of our children live in poverty. The scandal is that 2/3s of them live in families where someone is working.Thanks to low wages and zero hours contracts, and often forced or often bogus self employment, the promise of work lifting you out of poverty is a broken promise for many.

If a basic responsibility of government is to ensure that its population are adequately fed and housed, well it’s failing. One million emergency food parcels were given out by food banks last year to families that haven’t sufficient income to feed themselves and the latest reports confirm the numbers are rising. 200,000 children will be dependent on a food bank to get a decent meal this Christmas. One survey reported that more than 20% of parents had regularly not eaten themselves so that their children could eat. Others report a frequent choice forced upon them between eating and heating.

On the duty to ensure people are adequately housed, failing. Rough sleeping has doubled. The equivalent of 100 households a day are evicted from rented homes, a near record 40,000 in the year to date. 1.2 million are stuck on council housing waiting lists and in my own constituency tonight families will be sleeping in beds in sheds rented out to them.

As for responsibility for disabled people, as the UN report concisely summed up the government “has systematically or gravely violated the rights of disabled people.” Independent research suggested that government efforts to push people off claiming disability benefits have driven 590 people to suicide in three years.

Three years ago I lead a debate following the presentation of the WOW petition highlighting the call for an overall impact of the government’s policies on disabled people. I cited then the immense human suffering caused by the brutal implementation of the Work Capability Assessment and the latest round of cuts to benefits and care services. I cited examples of people who tragically had taken their own lives in despair following the WCA and penalisation by sanctions imposed on them. We now know that the suicides were not isolated examples but have been in their hundreds. And we now know that between 2011 and 2014 over 2000 people assessed as capable of work died before they could take up that work.

Surely we have to learn the lessons from all this evidence. Surely one lesson is that is you impose further cuts on people already struggling, not only will you increase the deprivation and suffering people endure but many will see no light at the end of that tunnel and will despair. The WOW debate was simply to ensure that the impact of any decisions on benefits were properly assessed.

Is a supposed post truth environment evidence based policy making still worth aiming for.

That is why it is critical that the government also restores the distributional analysis of its proposals. But not just to publish the distributional analysis, but to publish one that is intelligible and usable. The Chancellor’s predecessor, before scrapping the analysis entirely, took to publishing figures that disguised the real impact of his policies. That accusation is not mine, but that of one of his old colleagues, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury [the former member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey]. So if the Treasury is now to try and restore public trust, it must not just let the House know when it will publish the distributional analysis. It must make sure the figures are published clearly and without any attempts to massage or spin the numbers. Only in this way can we be able to test the fairness and equity of policy proposals.    

When these cuts were first introduced they reflected a grotesque unfairness at introduction of these cuts when cutting taxes to some of wealthiest and to corporations. Reversing just some of those tax cuts as Resolution Foundation has pointed out could render these cuts to benefits unnecessary. The last Chancellor also had a penchant for absorbing budget gaps at times.

So there is a real opportunity for the Chancellor to live up to the Prime Minister’s spoken commitment to tackle social injustice.

It has been claimed the Chancellor will be resetting the fiscal framework in next week’s autumn statement. This will allow him the flexibility he needs to reverse these cuts.

I appeal to Honourable Members across the House to help us lift this threat of further cuts from these families and disabled people.

We have a week in which to achieve this. We can start today by supporting this motion.


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