Sunday, October 17

Johnson Faces Rebellion Over “Intolerable” Hunger and Poverty in Home Counties | Poverty

Boris Johnson faces another secondary rebellion over Treasury spending this fall, when a high-profile Conservative MP struck “intolerable” levels of hunger and poverty in his affluent constituency of home counties, and urged ministers to abandon the plans to cut universal credit.

Steve Baker, a prominent Brexiter and MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, called on ministers not to ignore the cost-of-living crisis faced by people “in real trouble” in constituencies like yours that had been “financially overturned” by the pandemic.

The Minister for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, has confirmed that the pandemic universal credit increase of £ 20 a week will be withdrawn as planned at the end of September.

Coffey was known to be uneasy about the end of the uprising and pushed for it to be extended until September, but is now believed to be resigned that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are opposed to any extension.

The Guardian understands that a number of compromise solutions have been put forward, including those that would focus more directly on children in poverty, but the Treasury has made it clear to various departments that spending plans must be met with tax increases. .

Baker said withholding the £ 20 increase “was not enough” and that universal credit should be revised to remove the requirement that new applicants wait a minimum of five weeks for a first payment, a move he is blamed for pushing people to go into debt.

Senior Conservative MPs have signaled opposition to the cut, including six former labor and pension secretaries: Sir Iain Duncan Smith; Damian Green; Esther McVey; Stephen Crabb; David Gauke; and Amber Rudd.

Six Conservatives, including education select committee chair Rob Halfon, rebelled on the issue after Labor forced a vote in January before the extension was announced.

Labor is looking to re-test Conservative support for the cuts when parliament returns, including the possibility of forcing a vote, according to party sources.

A cabinet source said they expected the opposition to grow in the fall, but said the Treasury “did not feel like” continuing the rise. “The message is largely that the focus is work and job support,” the source said.

Baker’s comments came after Wycombe was identified as one of the countries with the highest levels of food insecurity in the UK by a Sheffield University Study. About 14% of residents reported going hungry in January and February, while a third had trouble paying for food.

Conservative MP Steve Baker
Steve Baker, Conservative MP from Wycombe, said: “This alarming report is a wake-up call for the minister.” Photograph: Jessica Taylor / UNITED KINGDOM PARLIAMENT / AFP / Getty Images

“This alarming report is a wake-up call for ministers,” he told The Guardian. He said he was not surprised by his findings. “I have told my colleagues over and over again during my time in Parliament that poverty extends to my constituency in South Buckinghamshire.”

Many of his constituents had endured the pressure of low wages, high housing costs and debt before being pushed into deeper trouble by the coronavirus. “It is obvious that it is intolerable for someone to go hungry anywhere in the UK,” he added.

Such evidence of the cost of living crisis in southern England’s “blue wall”, the conservative central area will create further nervousness among a party already spooked by the shock of the June election loss in neighboring Amersham and Chesham.

The pay hike, in effect since April 2020, was intended to be a temporary measure, but activists and lawmakers have urged it to be maintained.

“As soon as this report came out, I raised it with ministers,” Baker said. “I am determined to get to the heart of this problem and lean on it to be able to say to the ministers: ‘We have to look at the individual and at the level of the neighborhood where the poverty is,’ and that we do not continue to ignore people in real problems in places like Wycombe “.

“I have always believed, with [former Tory welfare secretary] Iain Duncan Smith, that more money should go to universal credit, “he said. “What I am absolutely clear about is that when people are in poverty, we spend a huge amount through the welfare state and it clearly should help them, and it clearly is not.”

He rebuffed criticism from local opposition politicians and activists disgruntled for having supported cuts to social security in the past and had voted with the government last year to oppose proposals to extend support to families of receiving children. free school meals.

He said: “I’m not going to sit here today and go through a whole list of things, tough decisions made over 11 years in parliament and start reversing them. But I’m going to say that when people access universal credit, they should be paid immediately, and there should be no chance of getting it back.

Eden Shopping Center, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Eden Mall, High Wycombe. Wycombe, a generally well-off mix of urban towns and semi-rural villages, ranks 281 out of 317 on the deprivation index in England. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

“More money should go into universal credit to make sure that not only can people make a living from it, but can also reap the benefits of increasing work. That is why I want to support myself in this story. It should emphasize to everyone that even a place like Wycombe knows that we have to do more to break these cycles of poverty. “

But he added that his concerns about the government’s debt levels meant it was unlikely to rebel in parliamentary votes on financial matters.

The Sheffield findings suggest that the impact on living standards goes well beyond traditionally disadvantaged areas, with groups of so-called “recently starved” people usually comfortable, in relatively affluent areas, struggling to pay rent and housing. bills, and having to cut back on food or use food banks.

Wycombe, a generally well-off mix of urban towns and semi-rural villages, ranks 281 out of 317 on the deprivation index in England. Yet thousands of its residents are suspended or on universal credit as a result of the Covid crisis, leaving many struggling to manage high rents and costs of living.

The One Can Trust Food Bank in Wycombe saw a 350% increase in demand for food packages during the pandemic. He said the Sheffield study had exposed the magnitude of the difficulties in the area. “For some [people] it is a temporary problem and unfortunately for many, living in poverty is a permanent situation ”.

Khalil Ahmed, the former Wycombe Labor candidate, accused Baker of doing “too little, too late” to address the problems of poverty and food insecurity that existed for years. “Steve Baker was part of the problem, and now he presents himself as part of the solution,” he said.

A government spokesman said: “Universal credit has provided a vital safety net for 6 million people during the pandemic, and we announce the temporary increase as part of a £ 400 billion package of measures implemented that will last well beyond the end of the roadmap.

“Our focus now is on our Billion Pound Jobs Plan, which will support people in the long term by helping them learn new skills and increase their hours or find a new job.”

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