Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Universal credit crisis

The debate on Universal Credit today

Yesterday morning, David Guake, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced that the charges for the Universal Credit Hotline would be scrapped. It was in advance of the Labour Party Opposition day motion requested by Debbie Abrahams Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for a halt in the rollout.

I'm sure it had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the 25 back bench Tory Mp"s who David Guake met with and who had grave concerns about the flaws in the rollout in the new benefit, which comprises 6 existing benefits, into one.

I've spent a few hours watching the debate and I'm struck by Labour's passionate call for a pause and Tory determination in insisting that it's a fair reform.

For seven years we’ve seen that the Tories determined dismantling of social security, has at times been overt and at times covert. How many MP’s across all parties understood, that in voting for Welfare Reform they were also voting to have Blue parking Badges taken away from passengers who are Learning disabled adults, people with Alzheimer’s disease and even blind people? But in transferring from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments this is exactly what’s happened. All councils who formerly allocated passenger or driver badges under DLA, are now prevented from re-issuing them under PIP, unless the criteria, for 12, or more mobility points, is met. The criteria is whether the applicant can walk (aided or unaided) for a set distance. This is literally rewriting the definition of disability.

When it comes to Universal Credit we are already seeing the hardship imposed on claimants where the rollout has been enacted, with the new benefit having a mandatory wait for claimants transferring to it, of 6 weeks. A six-week wait for money leads to rent arrears, evictions and other hardships and deprivations for people for whom social security is a lifeline. The fact that advance payments are offered, is misleadingly reassuring, given that these advances are in fact loans, against future payments.

For people needing help with the labyrinthine complexity of the current benefits system there is also that hotline number to call. Which is good, except that someone, somewhere was making money because the charge for claimants, from their mobile phones is 55p per minute until David Guake's change of "heart". In the future all calls to the DWP will be free, rather like the opinions of the Tory MP's who claimed that the concerns voiced by their opposition colleagues were scaremongering. The closed mind is a wonder to behold.

I know when I was trying desperately to sort out my learning disabled, adult daughter’s benefits in 2016, no call I made to any department lasted less than an hour. Between wading through the recorded dial options, then holding for the right person and then finally having to explain at length to everyone I spoke to the situation at hand. 

Some people at the helpline were kind and helpful and others sadly, were short, snippy and accusatory if my voice betrayed even a hint of frustration. That’s when they didn’t inadvertently cut me off and so the whole disaster had to be restarted from the beginning.

On the Daily Politics last week, Liz Truss MP calmly pointed out that people could just go into a job centre and get advice. I’m not sure if Liz Truss has been into a job centre lately but that isn’t how they work, it’s not your mum’s kitchen.

Aside from the fact that many job centers are closing, not everyone lives close to one. As Andrew Neil also pointed out to Liz Truss not everyone has a landline anymore, so for many people their only option is to reenact the steps I detail above at the obscenely high, per minute charges.

I’m proud of my party for highlighting this social injustice, I’m comforted too that they are joined in their concern by 25 Tory backbench MP’s, who also have concerns. 

The motion was carried 299 votes to 0. It's notable that John Bercow, Speaker of the House asked that the government attend the house and explain what it intends to do. It's not within the Speaker's power to compel the government, only to ask.

This morning Andrea Leadsom MP, Leader of the house responded to questions from the Shadow leader of the house Valerie Vaz, Mp for Walsall South, as to the Conservatives three line whip abstentions. 

Leadsom detailed that the government was listening and that pauses are already built into the Universal credit system, a huge comfort I'm sure to those people already evicted from their homes and facing huge debt. Her own backbench MP Sir Edward Leigh summed up both her response and the abstentions with the words "The road to tyranny is paved by executives ignoring parliament"

The devil they say resides in the detail. The Tories feel a pause is appropriate for EU Withdrawal Bill but not in the rollout of Universal credit, a system which currently, is weighted against people in their time of greatest need.

If you would like to help disabled people whose lives have been made worse by the loss of Blue Badges, please sign my petition here

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