'Burning with shame' over queues at South Tyneside food banks in a world of Artificial Intelligence and Mars missions

Government proposals to scrap a ‘lifeline’ top-up payment for Universal Credit claimants have left South Tyneside leaders ‘burning with shame’ – with a motion voted through calling for the move to be scrapped.

Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 3:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 4:57 pm
A stock image from a food bank (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The £20-per-week increase was introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic to help families deal with the additional financial burden- however the uplift is due to expire next month.

At a meeting on September 6, South Tyneside Council was united in opposing the proposed cut, which is set to affect thousands of households in the borough.

A motion presented by several Labour councillors asked the leader of the council, its chief executive and the borough’s two MPs to raise the issue with Ministers.

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Councillor Doreen Purvis, launching the motion, said the need for the uplift was greater now than when it was first introduced and touched on the hardship faced by residents.

“You have got the Government saying that [Universal Credit] is to help people into work when most of the people claiming are actually in work,” she said.

“When I decided to put forward this motion I looked at the figures and statistics until my head was spinning and I was then reminded of the famous quote by a philosopher who said that, ‘theory is grey but experience is green.’

“So I decided to concentrate on the effect of these decisions on people that I know like my constituents, like the one who cried in front of me saying that she wanted to die because of the endless struggle that was her life.

“Only her children kept her putting one foot in front of the other, she couldn’t afford to shower because her electric was on a meter and a card and it was needed for essentials.

“She used food banks which kept her family going when there was absolutely nothing left in her purse.”

Cllr Purvis added: “I have got a food bank in my ward, the ‘Key 2 Life,’ which I visit and they do a really great job.

“But I burn with shame that in this year of 2021 when we’re sending missions to Mars and beyond and developing artificial intelligence from the pages of HG Wells, we have working people queuing at food banks for a Fray Bentos pie and a tin of carrots.”

She added: “My father’s generation returned from a war to a ruined country on its knees, but they had food on the table and a fire in the hearth because the Labour government of Clement Attlee had made it their business to tackle want – proof of what can be done when there is political will to tackle an issue.

“Decent paid work for those who can, not zero hours contracts and support for those who can’t.”

Labour councillor Margaret Meling outlined the scale of those in receipt of Universal Credit, quoting household figures from May 2021.

This listed more than 13,000 households in South Tyneside, almost half of which have children, with a total of around 10,000 children.

Councillor David Francis, Green group leader, said the uplift was a “lifeline” and that losing it risked “pushing millions of people into insecurity, debt and desperation.”

Cllr Francis went on to say: “As a party the Greens are clear that a Universal Basic Income is the best way to ensure everyone has enough to live on, but until that happens the uplift must be kept.”

Councillor Ian Forster, the local authority’s sole Conservative member, also backed the motion and said he would not “necessarily just follow the Conservative Party line.”

Cllr Forster added: “I don’t want to drift into party politics or the Government but I think overall the government has done a decent job, it’s not perfect but I think it has done a decent job in trying to support families throughout this unprecedented pandemic.

“So in short I will support this motion but like everything, one day it’s all going to have to be paid for.

“But that’s a debate for another day.”

The agreed motion in full reads:

At the start of the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020, the UK Government increased Universal Credit payments by £20 per week to support those most in need with the economic effects of the pandemic.

The £20 increase took the standard rate for a single claimant over 25 from £317.82 to £409.89 per month. This had been due to end on 6 April 2021 but will now last until 30 September 2021.

We recognise that this £20 increase per week has been a lifeline to many families across the borough [sic] and the country and hold deep concerns of the impact that cutting this will have on families within our communities.

In early July, six former Conservative Work and Pensions Secretaries urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer not to end this uplift. With a range of national charities such as Barnardo’s, Oxfam and Shelter also calling for it to be continued.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that the end of the £20-a-week increase would push 700,000 people into poverty, directly impacting upon families and communities just like South Tyneside. In doing so, adding significant additional pressures on local services such as housing, health, and social care.

Collectively, we must challenge this and say to the government ‘this is not good enough’.

As we move out of the pandemic and look toward rebuilding, the support of the state should be there for those who are trying to get ‘back on their feet’ and rebuild their lives.

Therefore, we resolve to:

1) Instruct the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor of the Exchequer condemning this cut to Universal Credit and requesting a re-think of Government Policy.

2) Ask the Leader of the Council to write to the boroughs two MP’s asking that they raise this issue with the Secretary of State at the earliest possible opportunity in the House of Commons.

3) Work with partners to monitor the impact of this cut to Universal Credit on the communities within our borough, including Citizens Advice, South Tyneside Homes, and local NHS.

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