The austerity obsession of this Tory Government is driving more people, particularly children, into poverty. While the Tories like to imply that work is the answer to all ills, the main issue facing people is growing inequality.
Zero hours contracts, under-employment and low pay mean that it is actually workers that make up a high proportion of food bank users and 60 per cent of children living in poverty, do so despite having a working parent.
Policies such as the benefit freeze and limiting Tax Credits to the first two children mean that, after seeing a steady decline, the number of children living in poverty now is on the rise with four million children living in poverty, a number expected to reach five million by the end of this decade.
That alone should terrify us all to our core; that we’re a living in a time where poverty among children is rising.
And now added to all of this, is Universal Credit – the new social security benefit that merges six previous payments into one salary-like monthly payment. The principle of simplifying benefits and giving recipients greater independence is a valid one but the roll-out of Universal Credit has proven to be disastrous, with dire consequences for many individuals.
Universal Credit’s minimum six-week wait for the first payment has led to many falling immediately into debt or rent arrears. For others, the six weeks have stretched to eight to ten weeks with no income and, in desperation, has forced people to borrow from family or payday loans.
The reality is that Universal Credit is pushing thousands of people into poverty, debt and destitution with hundreds of families having to rely on food banks and emergency aid just to get by. Research from the Trussell Trust has even shown that food bank use has soared by 30 per cent in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.
Yet, despite all of this overwhelming evidence, the UK government refuses to halt the nationwide roll-out of Universal Credit and the fix problems that are causing so much misery.
While the UK government seems willing to stand by and watch Universal Credit wreak havoc, I am not. Therefore, I have secured the opportunity to present a Ten-Minute Rule Bill this month to try and alleviate some of the damage Universal Credit is causing.
Sadly though, Ten-Minute Rule Bills are rather modest affairs and so while I would love to halt the roll out of this policy altogether, I cannot. Instead, I will focus my Bill’s efforts on improving the administrative and procedural features of Universal Credit, which are causing so many problems.
Firstly, my Bill will ensure recipients receive their first payment within a month rather than six weeks. As if the Government claim that Universal Credit should be like a salary then no one should have to wait six weeks or more before receiving their first pay packet!
It will also look ease the pressure on families by implementing pragmatic options, such as twice monthly payments to help recipients with budgeting and direct payment to landlords in order to avoid rent arrears. The Scottish Government has already used new flexibilities available to them to do this in Scotland – the UK government should follow their lead.
Consideration is also being given to allow split payments between couples to support women who may be in a controlling or abusive relationship.
I know my Bill is not a solution to the problems of Universal Credit but it has the potential to start the process of returning us to a real system of Social Security and not one that sees poverty among children on the rise.
Children affected by poverty and deprivation face blighted lives which in turn limit their life chances and take a toll on their physical and mental health. Universal Credit is adding further pressure to vulnerable families and must be fixed before it’s rolled out further.
Dr Philippa Whitford is MP for Central Ayrshire and SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Health.