This afternoon the Opposition has two motions before the House, one on Universal Credit & Working Tax Credit and one on Access to remote education & the quality of free school meals. Below I will set out my current view on both of these issues.
What are ‘Opposition Day’ debates?
Firstly, what exactly are ‘Opposition day’ debates? Opposition days are days allocated in the House of Commons for the discussion of subjects chosen by the opposition (non-government) parties. There are 20 days allocated for this purpose per session, 17 for the Official Opposition (Labour) and the remaining 3 for the second largest opposition party (SNP).
Understandably, most opposition motions criticise Government policies and decisions and the Government often tables an amendment to the motion to take out most of the text and replace it with text commending the Government policy or decision instead.
Fundamentally, opposition day motions have absolute no real legislative purpose as they are not binding on the Government. This is why Governments of all colours over a number of years, have usually simply ignored opposition days and abstained (not voted) on the motion. During the 2017-19 Parliament, of the 47 separate opposition motions, 32 motions had no division (vote). Of those which did, only on 10 motions did the Government actually vote.
In summary, Opposition Day motions are a good way for the Opposition parties to make it look like the Government are ‘voting against’ a particularly topical issue but the reality is that the Government won’t have voted at all and the vote doesn’t actually achieve anything meaningful.
The current situation
The phrase ‘unprecedented times’ is used far too often in politics, but over the last year we have all found ourselves in genuinely unprecedented times with the pandemic having a impacting on not just our health but also the economy and how we all live our lives.
To be clear, despite the very welcome news that the vaccine rollout appears to be going successfully overall and there is glimpse of light the end of the tunnel, we are still in the middle of a pandemic and a national lockdown. Therefore, this is absolutely not the time to be reducing support for both businesses and individuals, especially those who need support the most. The vaccine doesn’t mean that people no longer need support, it simply shows that there is way towards a point later in the year where people will be able to begin to get back to ‘normal’.
This is why, if the motions do end up going to a vote this afternoon, I will be voting for them. This isn’t about being ‘anti-Government’ because frankly both sides have history of playing politics with these issues. This isn’t really about what’s going on in the House of Commons either. It’s about what’s going in in houses across Teignbridge and supporting those who need help the most.
Universal Credit has always been a divisive topic, with a range of views held on it. In principle, I absolutely support the purpose behind Universal Credit and what it is trying to achieve. Having said that, since its introduction, it has clearly had teething issues that have led to very real and very negative impacts on those who need support the most.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Government have boosted the Universal Credit standard allowance and Working Tax Credit by £1,000 per year for 12 months, part of an over £6 billion increase to the welfare safety net. This builds on the 1.7 per cent rise in the value of working age benefits that came into effect in April, benefitting around 2.5 million households. Councils have also been provided with an extra £170 million via the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support the hardest hit families with the cost of food and bills, building on the £63 million councils received last year.
However, as the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, there are three factors that have increased the cost of living for those on low incomes, particularly parents, during the pandemic. 1. the extra expenses from having children at home, including the costs associated with home schooling.; 2. food has become more expensive as shops have reduced their ranges and ended promotions; and 3. the need to cut back on social mixing and the closure of free services means there is less support available. As of the end of November, 12% of constituents are in receipt of Universal Credit
Therefore, it clear that there is more than enough evidence to support continuing the Universal Credit uplift past April. I appreciate that these announcements are normally made at the Budget (scheduled for 3rd March) but it would be a real help to many if the Government could commit to extending the uplift for a further period of time. This isn’t necessarily the right move permanently, there is clearly a need for further debate on welfare reform further down the road. But that conversation must take place post-pandemic, not in the middle of it.
Free School Meals & Education
Fundamentally, I believe that the best way out of poverty is for individuals to be in secure employment and being able to support themselves and their families. Similarly, like most people, I believe it is the role of the individual to feed their family, not the state. In reality, we are in the middle of a pandemic, with many people either being furloughed or losing their jobs and it is absolutely right that the state is there to support those most in need, especially given that a considerable number of those classed as ‘living in poverty’ are actually working anyway.
Last November, the Government announced that councils will receive additional ring-fenced funding through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, with at least 80 percent of this earmarked to provide wrapround support the hardest-hit families with the cost of food and bills. Running until the end of March, this scheme allows councils to directly help those hardest hit over the winter period. This builds on the £63 million provided to councils earlier this year to assist those struggling to afford food and essentials; as councils due to receive in total more than £10 billion over 2020 and this year to protect vital public services during the pandemic, in addition to billions more in easements to help their finances.
From today, schools can once again use the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme, which supplies families with vouchers worth £15 which can be redeemed weekly, or across a number of weeks, in some of the UK’s leading supermarkets, giving parents greater choice and flexibility. However, there remains a question of what the best way is to deliver free school meal support, be it vouchers or a direct payment. If any constituents would like to get in touch to discuss this further and to highlight their experience with the system then please do get in touch.
Throughout the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented level of support provided to the population by the Government and this is of course welcome. I genuinely believe that all Parliamentarians want what is best for their constituents and part of being a backbench MP is holding the Government to account and ensuring the right support is going to the right people and businesses. Therefore, I will continue to call out situations where I believe further support is needed for constituents (be it more support for the self-employed or certainty on welfare support during Covid) and, like many of you have already done, I encourage constituents to get in touch with areas they believe are currently not being looked at or supported.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic and therefore shouldn’t be changing support for those most in need. At this difficult time, people need certainty, not uncertainty.