I know that, after the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions is the part of government many Labour members have the most interest in. I want those members to know I do not underestimate or take lightly the responsibility of becoming our new Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
My immediate priority is to make sure that people get the support they need during this crisis. I welcome that the government itself recognised that the social security system it had created would not be sufficient to get us through it. The key changes it made – suspending sanctions and conditionality, increasing the basic element of Universal Credit, and abolished the minimum income floor – all have my support. But there is much more work to do.
That’s why I called for five further measures to be taken immediately to address the most pressing needs: ending the two-child limit and the benefits cap; disregarding the savings thresholds; uprating legacy benefits JSA and ESA in line with the rise in Universal Credit; and most of all ending the five-week wait. We have said that statutory sick pay should be available to all, including those on low pay and the self-employed, and increased so that it is worth more than just one-fifth of average weekly earnings. My colleagues in the Shadow Home Office team have also urged the government to scrap ‘no recourse to public funds’ during the crisis.
I believe that during the crisis we should focus on proposing pragmatic, constructive ways to get people the support they require – and this means working within the existing system. After all, some of the proposals above would simply allow people to receive the increases that the government has already announced. However, Labour members should be in no doubt that I am committed to drawing up a full replacement for Universal Credit.
I reject both the practical impact of Universal Credit, in terms of how it has increased housing arrears, personal debt and child poverty, and the mean, dehumanising ethos that lies behind it. Fundamentally, Universal Credit has failed because it is a system designed by those who never expect to have to use it themselves. It relies on a caricature of life on low income and the government has never been willing to listen to the voices of people on it – something I know from my constituency being one of the original pathfinder areas.
In contrast, everything we do will be based around supporting families and ending child poverty. There are four million children living in poverty in the UK, and without a change of direction that will rise to five million by 2023-24. Child poverty is an epidemic in the UK. We must make the case that not only is this a moral outrage, it is a systemic failure the UK can ill-afford. Child poverty severely impacts upon educational attainment at school, upon health inequalities, and so many other different aspects of government expenditure.
Whilst the last Labour government made tremendous progress on child poverty – we now know it halved between 1997 and 2010 – I believe it did so too quietly, meaning that the coalition needed to resist the disproportionate burden of government cuts when we lost power wasn’t there. Yet in the first few weeks in this job, I have already talked to unions, charities and faith communities of every sort, and there is no shortage of people ready to join such a coalition.
I also know just how badly disabled people have suffered from austerity. It cannot be right that research from the Social Metrics Commission shows nearly half of people in poverty in the UK are disabled themselves or live with someone who is disabled. In recent times, the government has pushed forward a series of reforms with the explicit goal of reducing spending on support for disabled people.
Ministers initially claimed that Personal Independence Payments (PIP) would be rolled out by 2015-16 and that it would cost 20% less than Disability Living Allowance (DLA) would have done. In fact, the OBR say that by 2017-18 it was already costing around 15-20% more, with rollout only two-thirds complete. On its own terms, government policy has failed and should be reconsidered. This should include developing alternatives to the current system of Work Capability and PIP assessments, making sure that people are treated with the respect they deserve.
Last but not least, a successful pension system is essential to ensuring dignity and fulfilment in retirement. Auto-enrolment has been a big Labour success, but there are still nearly 10m low paid workers outside the system. We must also be vigilant in case, after the crisis, unscrupulous employers seek to shed their pensions responsibilities. This also applies to the Conservative government and the pensions of key workers in the public sector.
Most of all, I know that we cannot achieve our aims for a better social security system unless it is part of a much wider renewal of the UK’s social contract. A system that exists simply to prop up low wages or a lack of affordable homes will never be enough. The crisis has starkly illustrated the inequality in working conditions in the UK, with some people able to work from home on full pay and others facing redundancy or potentially dangerous working environments. I know the whole shadow cabinet and Keir Starmer personally all share this agenda and ambition. I am looking forward to working with Labour members on all of it.
This piece is part of a series by members of the new shadow cabinet.