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Sooner or later the Conservative Party must talk about poverty

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FROM David Cameron’s focus on life-chances to Theresa May’s burning injustices and now Boris’s vision for levelling up, building a fairer society has been a central theme for my party over the past decade.

But, as last week’s row over free school meals illustrated, we are not always comfortable speaking in direct terms about poverty and hardship.
Some Conservatives prefer the aspirational language of opportunity and social mobility; others choose broader phrases such as social justice or the banner of One Nation. There is a lot of overlap of course.

But when it comes to discussing the problem of families not having enough money to get by, we sometimes struggle to find the vocabulary. Language matters and if we can’t find the words, we probably won’t find the solutions.

The UK has yet to feel the full force of the economic storm that Covid-19 has unleashed but there are already signs it will cause lasting damage to vulnerable communities, undoing much of the progress achieved in cutting unemployment over the past decade.

The speed and scale of the government’s intervention to protect workers during the lockdown has been unprecedented. But paying the wages of nine million people is not sustainable. As the furlough scheme begins to unwind, unemployment will rise with potentially millions of people losing jobs – pulled into poverty through no fault of their own.

Many have already been forced to turn to the benefits system. The most recent figures show a staggering 2.3 million new universal credit claimants. This will grow further.

The system itself has handled the increased caseload remarkably well. But many families will find the change from the emergency parachute of furlough to the longer-term safety net of universal credit a very hard landing indeed.

Worryingly, areas that were already struggling before the pandemic, such as ex-industrial and coastal towns, are likely to be the places hardest hit. These are the very communities at the heart of the levelling-up vision. But the full gains from increasing investment in poorer regions won’t be seen for years. It is not the answer to the question of how we support those families being pushed into poverty right now.

Even before the virus struck there were signs that too many families were struggling to make ends meet, including large numbers of working families also living in poverty.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that nearly two-thirds of families on universal credit have been forced to borrow money since the start of this crisis. As the economic fallout from coronavirus grows, many families will be plunged deeper into debt. In April the government increased the universal credit standard allowance by £20 a week, recognising the extra pressures millions are now facing.

But to prevent further hardship, as more people fall out of work and for longer periods, there is a case for strengthening our system of social security. The political choices of the past decade that saw working-age benefits squeezed while the state pension was boosted by the triple lock are not the ones for this new period we are entering.

So, what steps can we take? Firstly, we could implement the recommendation of the work and pensions committee this week and uprate the legacy benefits.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is also calling for a temporary increase of £20 per week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits to prevent families being pulled further into poverty. Compared with the eye-watering costs of the furlough scheme, this measure could represent a reasonable price to pay to hold families steady during this crisis.

As the government turns its attention to a growth strategy to fire up the economy, with a focus on jobs, apprenticeships and infrastructure, we should not forget our mission to support families facing hardship at this time.

This would reflect the best of all Conservative traditions.

This article was first published in The Times on Thursday, June 25 and is reproduced by kind permission of Stephen Crabb MP

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Politics

Carmarthenshire Council meeting postponed

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A MEETING of Carmarthenshire County Council scheduled for Wednesday (Oct 13) was abandoned after a number of councillors complained they were unable to access information relating to an item due for discussion.

The Council meeting was due to discuss the local authority’s much-delayed, controversial, and very expensive plans to construct a Wellness facility on a bog in Llanelli.

The Wellness Village scheme came within an ace of derailing the whole of the Swansea Bay City Deal, after it became engulfed in bribery allegations and a scandal involving the City Deal’s governance under the leadership of former Carmarthenshire CEO Mark James.

Mr James’ home was raided by Police from the regional fraud squad who were investigating the Council’s former development partner and bribery allegations relating to that company’s involvement in the scheme through Swansea University.

The project, rebranded Pentre Awel in an attempt to dispel the stench of corruption and sharp dealing surrounding it, has remained shrouded in secrecy as the County Council continues to try and drum up interest in the project with commercial and academic partners.

To date, no commercial partner has come forward. Attempts to get an academic partner on board are now focussed on universities outside Wales. In the current higher education market’s climate, with many universities claiming poverty, any financial input from an academic partner is likely to come on much-reduced terms.

As is usual with discussions surrounding the development, the Executive Board and officers sought to carry out any discussions behind closed doors and without public scrutiny. The extent of their secrecy appears to have extended to sharing information with councillors before the meeting was due to take place.

Around a fifth of councillors were unable to access the information the Council wanted to restrict from public examination. The meeting adjourned to see if a technical work-around could be found. When that failed, comedy descended into farce as the whole of the business scheduled for discussion on Wednesday was abandoned to make sure councillors could actually see documents upon which they were supposed to make an informed decision.

The rescheduled meeting will take place on October 22. At which point the Council will have managed to be as open and transparent as it claims to be.

At least as far as providing information to members goes.

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Welsh legislation will restrict those travelling from hotspot areas

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MARK Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, has today announced legislation which will restrict those coming from coronavirus hotspot’s from travelling to Wales.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has refused to impose rules which prohibit those from areas where the infection rate is high from entering low virus rate areas’s.

Mr Drakeford has made two requests to the Prime Minister requesting to impose rules which will mean those from high virus areas in England be prohibited from travelling to Wales, a request which has been denied by Mr Johnson.

The powers set by Mr Drakeford will come into force by the end of the week, unless Boris Johnson takes action sooner.

Speaking at the Plenary today, Mr Drakeford made the announcement, stating if Mr Johnson does not reply to his request by Friday then The Welsh Government will bring in legislation to restrict travel from those in English lockdown areas travelling to Wales.

Mr Drakeford said this was not a case of all those from England being restricted travel to Wales, just hotspot areas.

He said: “Evidence from public health professionals suggests coronavirus is moving from east to west across the UK and across Wales. As a general rule, it is concentrating in urban areas and then spreading to more sparsely populated areas as a result of people travelling.

“Much of Wales in now subject to local restriction measures because levels of the virus have risen and people living in those areas are not able to travel beyond their county boundary without a reasonable excuse. This is designed to prevent the spread of infection within Wales and to other areas of the UK.

“We are preparing to take this action to prevent people who live in areas where there are higher Covid infection rates across the UK from travelling to Wales and bringing the virus with them.

“I am determined to keep Wales safe.”

The legislation, which is understood to come into force Friday, October 16 at 6pm, will mean those travelling to Wales from areas of England which are classed as virus hotspot’s will be restricted.

The new legislation also restricts those travelling into Wales from high virus prevalence areas from Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament – Paul Davies MS – has rounded on the First Minister over a ban on people entering Wales from England, and the Labour Party’s inability or unwillingness to publish comprehensive data proving that transmission rates are accelerating due to travel.

Mr Davies took the First Minister to task during Plenary today (October 14), and referred to a statement made by the leader of the Labour Party on September 23 when he said that the Welsh Government was not seeing any spikes at all in infection due to travel and tourism.

Mr Davies said that the people of Wales deserve to have sight of the data that underpins the Welsh Labour-led Government’s position on this matter, so that they can be confident that the Government’s actions are proportionate to the threat of the virus in their area.

Mr Davies also referred to a paper that accompanied the First Minister’s letter to the Prime Minister yesterday, a paper – that was not peer-reviewed – that confirms the data “…does not constitute definitive proof” in favour of a travel ban.

Mr Davies said: “The First Minister and his Government have acted rashly and without examining a range of other factors before a conclusion on whether to impose a travel ban or not is reached, while at the same time seemingly ignoring the fact that transmission rates in relation to travel had already peaked in August and September.

“It is incumbent on the First Minister to explain just why he has chosen to act in this way, and what supporting evidence he and his Ministers have seen to justify a ban and then publish it so it can be properly scrutinised.

“If he cannot or will not, then he must review and rescind this ban immediately.”

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Local governments plug hole with £260m from Welsh Government

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WELSH Ministers have this week announced a funding boost of more than £260 million for local councils in Wales to provide them with the certainty they need to plan for the remainder of the year.

It will help cover increased costs, manage loss of income pressures, and will fund additional cleaning requirements for schools in response to the coronavirus crisis.

With the real possibility of further peaks during the autumn and winter months this investment will provide local authorities with the confidence to prepare their budgets for a potential second wave. The funds will be allocated on a claims basis.

UNPRECEDENTED

Minister for Housing and Local Government Julie James said: “Our local authorities have done a fantastic job of rising to the challenges of Covid-19, but we recognise the financial impact this has had on them.

We have been working closely with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and local authority leaders to understand the pressures and challenges they are facing, and the support needed to continue delivering good quality, integrated public services to communities across Wales.”

Finance Minister Rebecca Evans added: “Local councils have been at the heart of our response to Covid-19. This new package of financial support recognises the scale of the unprecedented challenges being faced by authorities across Wales and provides them with the certainty they need to continue to respond to the crisis and prepare for the rest of the financial year.”

Cllr Anthony Hunt, WLGA Finance and Resources told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “Councils, and the vital local services we provide, are at the forefront of tackling this pandemic and have been under extreme financial pressure. This funding guarantee will give them the confidence to plan with greater certainty for the remainder of the financial year.

I want to thank Welsh Government for working closely with local government on this funding package, and for taking the time to understand the pressures facing local services.

CONSERVATIVES CONCERNED

Reacting to the announcement this week (Aug 17) Shadow Minister for Local Government and Housing – Mark Isherwood MS – said: “According to the Welsh Government, this brings the total in the pot to stave off the worst effects of the pandemic to almost half a billion pounds.

“However, Welsh Conservatives’ analysis earlier in the year indicated that local authorities were likely to lose tens of millions of pounds revenue each month because of the outbreak, with deficits in Q1 and Q2 already totalling almost a third of a billion pounds* by the end of September.

“These losses of revenue could take generations to recover from, and we need to see just what the long-term plan is to prevent local authorities finding themselves in an even worse position.

“The Welsh Local Government Association’s (WLGA) own modelling suggests that that there is the potential for budget shortfalls depending on several complex and inter-linked factors, and so flexibility is more key now than ever.

“The Minister and her Party must be willing to consider all options to ensure that Councils can continue running their services.

“We Welsh Conservatives have already proposed capitalisation, which would allow for specified revenue expenditure to be viewed as capital expenditure, and so can be funded from capital resources such as borrowing, to provide financial flexibility to meet unexpected one-off costs.

“The WLGA has also pressed the Welsh Government to allow local authorities to borrow and invest in several significant capital programmes.

“By doing so, these actions would contribute to a wider economic stimulus package whilst simultaneously helping to improve performance and outcomes in relation to a range of other important shared policy objectives. The proposal totals £762m and would also help to ‘lock in’ and build upon positive, transformational changes already introduced to services in response to Covid-19.

“We cannot afford to let the effect of this virus damage local authorities’ ability to run as effectively and efficiently as they can.”

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