Like any northern community which has been hit by the double whammy of long term deindustrialisation and lack of investment, my constituency of North West Durham has its fair share of problems with unemployment, low pay and mental health issues. A lot of people here are struggling to pay rent, fuel bills and buy the basics of food and clothing, not through any fault of their own, but because for far too long, our part of the country has been neglected by a distant, and at times, callous, government.
It’s a familiar story. Sensationalist TV programmes like Benefits Street love to individualise these problems, to make them the fault of the person in receipt of benefits. But talking to people during my MPs surgeries, on the doorstep and in meetings, it’s noticeable most have a common thread: that people have been left behind by a government that is becoming increasingly uncaring and often shuts off support to those who’ve fallen on hard times, been trapped in poorly paid work or had bad luck in their lives. The safety net which was once provided by the State is now falling to voluntary organisations, trade union branches, religious groups and dedicated volunteers who won’t stand by and watch people in hardship. When the state fails, the people organise.
When I was a small child, my parents used to push me along in a buggy at anti-Thatcher marches, so I know none of this is new, but the 2017 version of the Tories have almost seemed to revel in that uncaring attitude. Instead of taking an evidence-based view of why people are in poverty, distress, unable to work or struggling to fulfil their potential, the Conservatives come out with mantras such as “employment is the best route out of poverty”. In fact this is a direct quote from a reply I received from the Minister for Employment when I first asked to pause the roll-out of Universal Credit.
Anyone who has spent any time in constituencies like North West Durham know that it is more complicated than this – but this has been a pattern since 2010: a sound-bite politics with little or no regard for long-term solutions. If your wages are so low, or your terms and conditions so insecure that your employment entrenches your conditions of poverty, you can see why such a patronising mantra seems so out of touch. Talk to any care worker who is not paid for their time in-between visits, not paid mileage for the extensive journeys between patients, and on a minimum wage and ask them how easy it is live a comfortable life. Irrespective of the important detail of the complexities of modern life, like debt repayments, exploitative pre-payment energy meters, the rising prices of food, petrol and rents. Work in 2017 does not always help alleviate financial worries.
Over the last few months, I’ve picked up on another looming disaster for people in my constituency: the rollout of Universal Credit right in the middle of Christmas, traditionally the most difficult time for working class families financially. Despite the joy Christmas can bring, there is hypermaterialism, the normalisation of overconsumption and the social expectation to purchase the latest goods, especially for the Instagram generation, which makes this is an extremely pressured time. Many people feel guilt and shame at their inability to provide any ‘extras’ when they are already struggling to tread water. I couldn’t think of a worse time to be introducing a shake-up to benefits that, when introduced in other parts of the country, has left many claimants without payments for up to seven weeks.
I’ve discussed the issue with constituents, and read evidence in a report by Citizens Advice, who – as the experts in the field – dealt with the fall-out from the initial rollout of Universal Credit. They reported a series of issues, including delays to payments, the removal of the severe disability premium, and problems with the Universal Helpline. which you have to pay to call. People also struggled to pay back crisis loans of £150 in lump sums of £50 at a time. The way that Universal Credit has been introduced is a clear sign of how out of touch the Government are with the lives of many people who are struggling. Who would introduce this at Christmas? Only people that know nothing about the nature of poverty.
My background is in campaigning: when I see a problem, my first instinct is to ask how we solve it, and the answer is normally, collectively. So my office staff and I got to work, emailing colleagues right across the political spectrum, following up with phone calls and eventually, collecting signatures from 30 other MPs, all of whom had constituencies that were going to be hit by the aggressive rollout of Universal Credit in November and December this year. My office also received many messages of support from MPs whose constituencies were in line for Universal Credit later, but were equally concerned about its impact.
What we are asking is not unreasonable. The government already recognises that there are many difficulties with the system. So why don’t they do the decent thing and pause the rollout until they have sorted out these issues? This is what the Citizens Advice, many campaigning groups and a large group of the MPs whose constituents are affected are saying. My constituents should not have to pay the price of this inadequate system at this special, but expensive time of the year. To push them into further debt and more misery would be entirely consistent of this government, such is their record, but disgraceful nevertheless.