The new Work and Pensions Secretary has decided to change the mood music at the DWP. But as food bank use and child poverty rise further, and as the two child limit – which still hasn’t been scrapped – continues to hurt innocent families, Amber Rudd’s changes to Universal Credit will look increasingly like window dressing.
The damage already wrought by Universal Credit is immense. During the full service roll-out, food bank use went up by 52% after 12 months in areas where it was introduced, compared to 13% in other areas - and that’s not me saying that, it’s the Trussell Trust. There could be an additional 300,000 children living in poverty as a result of the benefit freeze, and two thirds of children in poverty come from working households. This debunks the stock Tory response that Universal Credit was crafted to take people in to work ‘because work is the best route out of poverty’.
So believe me, if I thought this government was finally listening to the many constituency MPs like me – and even some from the government’s own benches – as well as charities, foodbanks, housing associations and even the United Nations; if they were putting a stop to this cruel shambles, nobody would be happier than I would.
But sadly, when you scratch beneath the surface, there is very little substance here, and I fear this is all just the shallow politicking of a politician hoping to convince people of a mythical Tory centre ground, and that the nasty party has once again been put back in its box.
Let’s look at the facts.
Amber Rudd has indeed postponed the parliamentary vote that would give her permission to move an additional 2.87million people onto the new system, and she says there will be a 10,000-person pilot programme. But this pilot programme had already been announced last year in Philip Hammond’s budget, while US was under Esther McVey’s highly dubious stewardship. Just as importantly, chaos, confusion and hardship for 10,000 people is chaos, confusion and hardship for 10,000 too many.
Rudd has also now announced plans to scrap extending the two-child limit to include children born before 2017, but she has not scrapped it altogether, so this comes as no help to those many families still caught up in it. What makes those children worth any less than those who just happen to have been born before that date?
Labour has long called for these plans to be scrapped in their entirety. And the government is the subject of a legal challenge on the two-child limit by the Child Poverty Action Group.
But just as we’ve had Sajid Javid on patrol with the UK Border force in the Channel, trying to project his immigration strongman image, so I fear, is Amber Rudd is exploiting her frontbench brief for personal advantage. She is building her image as a ‘compassionate Conservative’ using a system within which which many millions of families’ financial security hangs by a thread.
For those MPs like myself – on all sides of the house – for whom this is not a political game but about real people’s lives, we will continue to campaign for this punitive, botched and all-around disastrous policy to be halted.
Mike Amesbury is the Labour MP for Weaver Vale and shadow employment minister