My speech today in the House of Commons on ‘Welfare Reforms’ and Poverty

I beg to move:

That this House believes that a commission of inquiry should be established to investigate the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms on the incidence of poverty.

I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving the House the opportunity to debate this issue, which has been seriously neglected over the past three years. I am pleased to move the motion, which appears in my name and the names of Members from other parties.

It is clear that something terrible is happening across the face of Britain. We are seeing the return of absolute poverty, which has not existed in this country since the Victorian age, more than a century ago. Absolute poverty is when people do not have the money to pay for even their most basic needs. The evidence of that is all around us. There are at least 345 food banks and, according to the Trussell Trust, emergency food aid was given to 350,000 households for at least three days in the last year. The Red Cross is setting up centres to help the destitute, just as it does in developing countries. A study that was published two months ago shows that even in prosperous areas of the country, such as London, more than a quarter of the population is living in poverty. This point is really scary: according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for the first time, the number of people in working families who are living in poverty, at 6.7 million, is greater than the number of people in workless and retired families who are living in poverty, at 6.3 million.

The Department for Work and Pensions published new data two months ago—it was pretty reluctant to do this, and one can see why—showing that the use of sanctions, which means depriving people of all their benefits for several weeks at a time, had increased by 126% since 2010 and, most strikingly of all, that 120 disabled people who had been receiving jobseeker’s allowance had been given a three-year fixed duration sanction in the previous year. Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government—these are the last that I will quote, although there are many more that I could quote—show that there are now more than 2,000 families who have been placed in emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation after losing their homes. The 5% rise in the overall homelessness figures last year included nearly 9,000 families with children, which is the equivalent of one family losing their home every 15 minutes.

What are the causes of the emergence of absolute poverty? The biggest cause is the huge rise in sanctioning: depriving someone of all their benefit entitlement for a month in the first instance, for three months in the second instance and, on a third infringement, for three years!

[In answer to the question from David Davis MP: “Does he not agree that it is vital that those who are not looking for work are made to realise that there will be consequences to those actions, particularly at a time when 1 million people have been able to come into this country from eastern Europe and find work here?“]

Those who come to this country are more likely to be employed and take out less in benefits than many of the indigenous population. The real point is that these people want work—of course the hon. Gentleman is right that people should get work if they can, but there are 2.5 million people who have been unemployed for the best part of two years, and there are 562,000 vacancies—I checked that figure today—so four out of five of those who are unemployed simply cannot get a job whatever they do.

What impact have the so-called welfare reforms, which would more accurately be described as social security knock-backs, had on the families who have been affected? The best evidence comes from the Northern Housing Consortium, which carried out a survey three months ago of a representative sample of people living in social housing. It found that a third of families spent less than £20 a week on food and that the average spend on food per person per day was precisely £2.10. That is a third less than those families were able to afford three months before that. The proportion of households that had to make debt repayments of more than £40 a week had doubled and the average level of debt was £2,250. That might not sound a lot to us, but to people with that standard of living, it is an enormous and daunting sum. A third of families had council tax debt, and households were having to spend 16% more on gas and electricity. Those are deplorable figures of profound impoverishment in an economy that is still the sixth largest in the world.

The sanctions are very harsh. I accept that there must be some sanctions, but the scale is out of all proportion and remarkably harsh. They are often applied for trivial reasons, such as turning up five minutes late for a job interview or a Work programme. Of course, people should not turn up five minutes late, but to deny them benefits for a whole month for that reason is totally disproportionate. There are other examples from my own experience in my surgery or from Citizens Advice interviews. I will quote, very quickly, just a few of them:

“The jobcentre didn’t record that I had informed them that I was in hospital when I was due to attend an appointment and I was sanctioned.”

“I went to a job interview instead of signing on at the jobcentre because the appointments clashed.”

Presumably, that was the right thing to do, but he was still sanctioned.

“I had to look after my mum who was severely disabled and very ill, but I was still sanctioned.”

“I didn’t know about the interview because they sent the letter to my previous address. I’d told them my new address but I was still sanctioned.”

“I was refused a job because I was in a women’s refuge, fleeing domestic violence and in the process of relocating, but I was still sanctioned.”

This is a classic:

“I didn’t do enough to find work in between finding work and starting the job.”

The latest DWP figures are from two months ago—it would be handy if we had more up-to-date figures—and show no less than 580,000 persons sanctioned in the eight months to June last year. If the same rate has continued since then—it has probably increased—that means that more than 1 million have been sanctioned in the past 15 months and deprived of all benefit and all income. Given that the penalties are out of all proportion to the triviality of many of the infringements, and given that, as I have said, four out of five people cannot get a job whatever they do, the use of sanctioning on this scale, with the result of utter destitution, is—one struggles for words—brutalising and profoundly unjust.

There are other reasons for this deeply worrying rise in absolute poverty. One is the delays in benefit payments, which have increased substantially—the delays, not the benefit payments, unfortunately. Another reason is the impossibility for many poor and vulnerable people to comply with the new rules, even though they want to, that are being imposed. I will quote just one case from my surgery a few weeks ago. He is a disabled man who had his benefits reduced due to the one-year employment and support allowance rule, so his income is now £71 a week. He has been left in a three-bedroom house because his mother and other people looking after him have died and so has to pay £23 in bedroom tax, plus £6 a week—this is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) was making—in council tax due to the new council tax rules, leaving him with £42 a week. He asked to downsize to a smaller property, which is what the Government would expect him to do, but the local housing association, ironically called First Choice Homes, demanded that he pay two weeks’ full rent upfront, £197, before getting any housing benefit. He cannot do that, of course, and he is stuck in an impossible situation.

Another reason for the rise in absolute poverty is the impact of the bedroom tax, which applies to two thirds of a million households. I think everyone, probably even Government Members, will admit that it is Dickensian in its sheer social divisiveness. The housing benefit cap has now been imposed on a further 33,000 households. Both of those measures have forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes—we need to take into consideration what that means—even though two thirds of those affected by the bedroom tax are disabled. It is reckoned that more than 90% do not have smaller social housing to move into.

Another not insignificant cause of destitution—I will be very brief on this—is mistakes made by the authorities themselves. Last week, one of my constituents who had been sanctioned for a month was suddenly told that his sanction had been extended to a year. It was only intervention with the local DWP office that uncovered that it was actually their mistake. What happens for others who do not have the advantage of such an intervention? It now seems that up to 40,000 working-age tenants in social housing have been improperly subjected to the bedroom tax because of DWP error.

I will cite just one more reason for the unnecessary and cruel imposition of poverty, and I say that advisedly: the way in which tens of thousands of severely disabled persons have been judged by Atos, the French IT company, as fit for work—and therefore forced on to JSA at just £71 a week—when they are patently unfit for work. Very often, their GP has not been consulted to inquire whether there are other factors that need to be taken into account. The Chancellor’s policy of keeping 2.5 million people unemployed makes it impossible for them to find work, even if there were employers who would be willing to take them, and the 40% success rate of appeals shows how unfair the whole process is.

I conclude by asking just one simple question: is all this brutality towards the poor really necessary? Is there any justification in intensifying the misery, as the Chancellor clearly intends, by winding up the social fund and, particularly, by imposing another £25 billion of cuts in the next Parliament, half of that from working-age benefits? The whole objective of the massive cuts programme—to reduce the deficit—is one that I think we would all support. There is no disagreement about that across the House, yet after £80 billion of public spending cuts, with about £23 billion of cuts in this Parliament so far, the deficit has been reduced only at a glacial pace, from £118 billion in 2011 to £115 billion in 2012 and £111 billion in 2013. Frankly, the Chancellor is like one of those first world war generals who urged his men forward, over the top, in order to recover 300 yards of bombed-out ground, but lost 20,000 men in the process. How can it be justified to carry on imposing abject and unnecessary destitution on such a huge scale when the benefits in terms of deficit reduction are so small as to be almost derisory?

People say that to carry on doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result, is the first sign of insanity. The Chancellor is not insane, of course, but he is deeply punitive and sectarian. Frankly, I want to help him. There is another way.

The thrust of what those on our Front Bench have said, as the shadow Chancellor has made clear on many occasions, is that we need public investment. We need to get jobs and growth. That is the alternative way: public investment in jobs, industry, infrastructure and exports to grow the real economy, not the financial froth, because that would cut the deficit far faster—that is the key point—than the Chancellor’s beloved austerity.

If the Chancellor is obsessed with fiscal consolidation, as I think he is, how about the ultra-rich—Britain’s 1,000 richest citizens—contributing just a bit? Their current remuneration—I am talking about a fraction of the top 1%—is £86,000 a week, which is 185 times the average wage. They received a windfall of more than £2,000 a week from the 5% cut in the higher rate of income tax, and their wealth was recently estimated by The Sunday Times—not The Guardian, but The Sunday Times—at nearly half a trillion pounds. Let us remember that we are talking about 1,000 people. Their asset gains since the 2009 crash have been calculated by the same source at about £190 billion.

My question, therefore, is: does the Chancellor believe that these persons, loaded with the riches of Midas, might perhaps be prevailed upon to contribute a minute fraction of their wealth in an acute national emergency, when one sixth of the work force earns less than the living wage and when 1 million people who cannot get a job are being deprived of all income by sanctioning and thereby being left utterly destitute? This is just a thought: charging the ultra-rich’s asset gains since 2009 to capital gains tax would raise more than the £25 billion that the Chancellor purports to need. I submit that it would introduce some semblance of democracy and social justice in this country if the Chancellor paid attention to this debate and thought deeply about what he is doing to our country and its people.

22 thoughts on “My speech today in the House of Commons on ‘Welfare Reforms’ and Poverty

  1. Congratulations on the victory – I’ll be putting out an article about it in the morning (Tuesday).

    Just one question. You said in the House that the motion was in your name and in those of members from other parties. Who were they? Any Tories?

  2. “I accept that there must be some sanctions, but the scale is out of all proportion and remarkably harsh.”

    My jury’s out on this one Michael. Precisely because, as your second statement in this sentence alludes to, ‘out of all proportion and remarkably harsh.’

    Leads me to ask the question under what circumstances is a sanction justifiable? After all, being sanctioned is tantamount to being left with absolutely no subsistence whatsoever, no money for food, heating, shelter even in some cases. Even criminals aren’t made to endure that.

    Now, what criminal offence is so dastardly as to deserve that? I think the point is is that the principle of sanctions per se, as applied to the unemployed is suspect to say the least – it’s criminalising umenployment.

  3. Thank you so much for your campaigning!

    Just a thought on sanctions and absolute poverty:

    The Poundland/workfare case brought out a frightening detail about this, highlighted last year by Liam Byrne, when he sympathised with the DWP’s dilemma as to where they would find the money if forced to reimburse the claimants wrongly sanctioned.

    The fact is that the claimants’ money should have been still sitting in the DWP coffers waiting to be paid out. The panic over the DWP being unable to ‘afford’ to obey the court implies that the orignal budget must have factored in a massive shortfall, with the intention of balancing the books through a predetermined sanctions target.

    This at a time when the DWP was still vigorously protesting that there were no sanctioning targets.

    All very chilling.

  4. Thank you so much for this speech, for the demand for the enquiry and for winning the vote.

    You say with reference to George Osborne, “People say that to carry on doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result, is the first sign of insanity.” Funnily enough it’s also the sign of an addict… I call this government’s approach to finance ‘addict economics’. They cut the essential expenditure which is actually minor and that doesn’t count towards any real reduction in overall costs, but does massive disproportionate damage. Meanwhile they continue to spend at the luxury end of things (all Quantative Easing after the original crisis payment which was the only one which was arguably unavoidable). Then further panic and they sell off every asset they can get their hands on (OUR publicly owned assets) like an addict taking the TV to Cash Converters on the belief that next week they’ll be earning a bit of money and can get it back (which they never will).

    Except, of course that they are not panicking, they are enjoying themselves. You can see it on their faces. With the support of the Lib Dems (who are not a brake on them) they are ripping the lives of the poor apart from what appears to be, from outside Westminster, to anyone who is paying attention, an ideological and intense hatred of the poor. Ian Duncan Smith is now reported as saying that he is so disgusted with poor people as a result of the Channel 4 programme ‘Benefits Street’ that he wants to cut more and harder.

    The propaganda to create a division between the ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ poor has taken root. The effect of the cuts on individuals and families is shattering. The change of attitude of the British people towards the poor is pernicious. You must remember the difference in the 80’s? We were overwhelmingly in support of, and in sympathy with the unemployed. Partly because we all realised our jobs were on the line too under a government who would happily throw us on the scrap heap to make an extra penny profit for big business. Now people call on Twitter for the poor to be gassed, executed, burned alive in their houses, sterilised. I don’t care if anyone says ‘it’s only a handful of people’ who do this. This government has created a climate in which it is possible for people to express such an opinion, which I believe they wouldn’t have dared express publicly even just a few short years ago. So fear for their physical safety has been added to the fear that destitution causes anyway. Violent assault against people with disabilities is on a steep rise. There is no description adequate for this vileness.

    Ed Balls says he would consider working with Nick Clegg. Why? The Lib Dems haven’t ‘softened’ this government. They are the government, along with the Tories. They put the Tories in power and have enabled their economic policies, WHICH THEY HAVE STATED THEY AGREE WITH.

    The Tories are driven by loathsome ideology. The Liberal Democrats are quite happy with this, Labour should be driven by righteous anger in response and hold true to a principled ideology of their own. After Osbourne’s depredations please don’t let your party talk about being ‘pragmatic’ about politics.

  5. I must say what a nasty piece of work is David Davis MP, the member who went off on one, saying people should “take any job that is available to them”. A classic example of Tory Scum.

  6. Michael, I am nearly 70 years old and have served with pride in the Parachute Regiment both in Aden and Several tours of NI on operation banner. I am still even now in full time employment and paying taxes but now feel the need to retire as I’m now getting tired and weary but there is still fight in me and I am dismayed at the state of my country and I fear the worst is still to come. No one listened to Enoch Powell and still no one listens, you as Politicians have destroyed what was once a proud nation – keep pushing the people into the ground but don’t be surprised when they start to push back.

    Michael, at last you have stood up and told this government what is going on in the country, we need people like you, and you will find support for what you have said, I thank you and wish there was more MEN in the house of commons. If I thought it would change anything I would vote Labour at the next election – I will be voting UKIP

  7. this so called goverment needs to go as soon as possible.its outrageous what they have been allowed to do.the hardship people working or not is absurd.they know thier time is running out and will cause so much damage till then.

  8. Well Done Mr Meacher it is somewhat comforting knowing that there are MP’s in Parliament who do care and have empathy for the hard-pressed citizens of this once great nation. Thank You

  9. oy.Thankyou Mr Meacher,
    I was in absoloute awe when I saw your speech. You did better by yourself than the rest put together.

    You have shown me what a good MP is. During this time of real struggling full of poverty due to this harsh sanctioning regime, you have really shown that you are truly aware of real life, and you certainly should be very proud.

    How can families live on absoloutly nothing. It would have been better if the Government had just said ….right we are struggling. Everyone will have a shortfall for a time to help the crisis. Now instead everyone just feels like they are losing their senses. This has come out of nowhere. There were no warnings. I am worried about all the teenagers. I do not believe youth unemployment has lowered. They have been used as easy targets. They have all been sanctioned. They are now all burdened down thinking it is all their faults that their brothers and sisters are going hungry. That the gas has run out and no money for any etc etc.

    A thought on DLA. There has never been any middle ground. Those who manage to get it are very secure and have lots of added protection such as….their non dependants do not have to deal with the housing benefit sliding scale. They do not have to pay road tax. They realy do have a much higher standard of living than others who are sick and been turned down. It seems like a lottery. The payment amounts should be reviewed and distributed much more wider and evenly.

    This would surely help more people who need extra help and avoid this massive fight to get it if you really do need it. I have observed for many years now and am taking this opportunity to raise the point. A family who have a child with ADHD get at least £200 a month hence no worries. Someone with hepatitis c gets turned down. The whole family struggles for years with constant esa medicals and made to feel a scrounger. Why, and I believe this is a very important point, why couldn’t it be awarded much more evenly? £100 a month could help the family with the hyperactive child. The other £100 would help the terribly I’ll person with hepatitis.

    Thankyou for the good work you are doing now though Mr Meacher. You are very passionate and very very conscientious. There are going to be kids begging on the streets and shanty towns soon surely?

    I agree with the people above. You should become Prime Minister. The rest are fakes trying to act out their part. You are real. Never seen such determination from an MP to get those with seemingly deaf ears to listen. I understand why though obviously. I am very perceptive and used to try to stop the bullies in the playground whereas everyone else were like vultures wanting to see blood.

    I Thank the good lord for a good man like you.

  10. Thank you so much for doing this Michael Meacher, you make me think that the Labour party may not be a lost cause after all.

    I have a Tory MP, Chloe Smith, who doesn’t care and will never support this in a million years, but please, if anyone is reading this in a marginal constituency, or with a Labour MP or one who might be amenable to pressure, PLEASE email them or write to them and ask them to support it.

    And if you’re a member of the Labour party PLEASE let your local organisers know that you support this, and that this is what the opposition should be doing.

    Best wishes

  11. yet whot will come out of this I wonder will times get better for those unemployed will it get better for those sick and disabled bah it wont on it go wheather ids or his boss on this austerity rolls killing around 77peopleweekly yet will they change nah its more of the same clawing monies from the poor of society yet a few speak out whot will they do carry on with their sanctions carrying on with denying the sick their right to benefits yep it change owt but then austerity is for us the poor it seems jeff3 off

  12. There is so much I could say but above all thank you for your humanity and persistence against the rising tide of punitive and draconian government. Two things spring to mind (other than obvious issues like the ridiculous pretence of austerity as a kind of solution to a problem which doesn’t really exist) that are worth mentioning. The first being that I worry when you concur with an erroneous judgemental interpretation such as “Of course, people should not turn up five minutes late” because it leaks into their (the opposition’s) irrational and controlling paradigms. (It may be a subtle philosophical point but it is important in spite of the fact that it appears rational and diplomatic.) The second being the almost unconscious collusion with a crime by using the evolved doublespeak of the oppressor in the case of the word ‘sanction’. You say “I accept that there must be some sanctions” but do you or 99.99% of the population realise what is really being said? The use (or misuse) of this word has evolved in modern times from breaking trade agreements but it is a glossy veneer, like sugar coated faecal matter, to hide the underlying illegitimate reality. What is really being ‘sanctioned’ (sanctified/made good/given legality) is the otherwise illegal action of withholding someone’s legitimate income. It makes the abuser appear morally righteous. But above all I support you 100% in your attempts to reign in this government and their obscene neoliberal insanity.

  13. At last a Labour MP championing the cause of the poor. Great speech and more power to you! And I mean that literally.

  14. Thank you once again Michael for doing the job that your voters sent you there to do.
    And … For doing it so-effectively.

  15. Dear Michael Meacher MP. Cometh the hour! Cometh the Man! The ‘Force’ is indeed with you! But where are the troops? Where is the Labour Party and where are the Labour Leaders when the ‘working’ and ‘workless’ classes need them? There are very few ‘socialists’ left now to battle this vicious, scheming ‘right wing block’ of New Labour, New Lib Dems and Old Conservatives: just one big Fascist Party now. They will take some shifting and don’t anyone talk to me about voting changing anything.

  16. thank you for your courage and persistence. We will never give up until we will win and the evil criminals who are killing disabled people will be put behind bars

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