Ipswich MP: Labour politicised 'emotive' Universal Credit debate

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt is pleased to see an end to the national lockdown - but warned: 'This isn't the end of the struggle.'...

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt says there is a strong case for extending the Universal Credit uplift - but argues that Labour politicised the issue in a parliamentary vote - Credit: Archant

Last year, at the start of the pandemic, the government took the decision to uplift Universal Credit payments by approximately £1,000 per claimant for a year between March 2020 and March 2021.

Given the significant disruption to people’s livelihoods and incomes caused by the pandemic, I think this was absolutely the right decision.

However, bearing in mind that the effects of the pandemic are hardly going to end this spring I do believe, and have made my view known to the government, that there is a strong case for either extending the Universal Credit uplift beyond this March or providing some other kind of financial support for those who need it.

What is clear though is that the time to make this decision is either at the next Budget in March or shortly before.

Though the government has made clear that all options are on the table and that it is certainly considering making this uplift permanent, I can understand why ministers aren’t able to provide complete clarity on this at this time.

Over the past year, I have helped a number of constituents gain access to Universal Credit. For many, the past year has been the first time in their lives they have ever been out of work and it's through no fault of their own.

Bearing in mind the huge pressure that has been placed on the benefits system this past year (5million now in receipt), I’m pretty glad about how well the system has coped. All in all, at the national level, 90% of all new eligible claimants have been paid on time and in full.

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Of course, there will be individual cases where things have not always worked as well as we would have liked - and I have seen a few myself - but, by and large, the welfare system has been there for those who have needed it the most.

This week on Monday, we had two separate “opposition day debates” where the opposition come up with a motion for MPs to debate.

There is often a vote at the end of the debate, but it is unbinding and doesn’t carry any legal weight.

One of the motions the Labour Party chose was about whether the Universal Credit uplift should be extended beyond March. They were arguing that it should be, as were a number of Conservative MPs.

In the past, it's been quite clear that opposition day debates have been used shamelessly by the Labour Party to play politics on emotive issues.

This was most clearly seen in the case of the free school meals debate, where a number of colleagues, particularly female colleagues sadly, were the victims of a significant amount of threats and online abuse.

I’ve spoken previously on the topic of free school meals, but the long and short of it is that the facts speak for themselves - no government has ever done more on this issue.

Through the £170million Covid Winter Grant Scheme and the £220million Holiday Food and Activities Programmes, the government is ensuring that all children will get a healthy and nutritious lunch during the holidays.

Some of the images of the food parcels that have been sent out by companies selected by local councils and schools are clearly unacceptable.

However, it is important to remember that it has mostly worked well in Suffolk and also that the companies providing these parcels are not contracted by the government but rather the local authorities and schools.

The option of food vouchers as opposed to parcels is there for all schools. This isn’t to say that the companies in question that have been highlighted via social media shouldn’t be held to account - they quite clearly should be and are.

Bearing all of this in mind, I do find it a little odd to be accused of having voted to starve children.

Sadly for some, they don’t seem to want to understand the facts and continue to throw around what I believe to amount to outright lies that conveniently fit with their own world view that we’re all evil nasty Tories.

The motion this Monday on Universal Credit was designed by the Labour Party to have exactly the same effect as the free school meals motion.

However, their plans were disrupted somewhat last weekend when the prime minister rightly took the decision that this time Conservative MPs should not play ball and, as a consequence, not a single Conservative MP voted against the motion.

What was most peculiar is that there wasn’t a single Conservative MP in the Chamber to even force the motion to a vote but there still ended up being a vote, because some of the Labour whips appear to have shouted that they disagreed with the motion even though they then abstained.

Within minutes the local Labour Party had predictably launched the following attack: “Ipswich’s Conservative MP failed to oppose cutting Universal Credit.” 

Some Labour Party platforms went even further, with the national one stating: “Yesterday, 357 Conservative MPs chose to cut support for families in the middle of the pandemic.” I would be really grateful if someone from the Labour Party could explain to me how this isn’t a straight up lie.

How we provide support for those who need it the most during this pandemic is an incredibly complex issue and it's very unfortunate that the Labour Party continue to attempt to politicise these issues in the way they have been.

As I’ve already said, the time to make this decision is with the budget in March.

The truth is, neither I nor any of my colleagues “chose to cut support for families in need in the middle of the pandemic”.

When it comes to these sorts of emotive issues, its best to look at the facts in relation to all the government support that has already been delivered and continues to be delivered, as opposed to the Labour Party generated theatre we continue to see at opposition days.

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