We all like things for free. The Opposition Day debate of last week, always designed to be purely Party political, has caused an outpouring of opinions, and abuse, not helped by the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, calling a new mild-mannered Conservative colleague ‘Tory Scum’ across the Chamber.
We’ve all subsequently faced a new wave of hate mail since with some colleagues having their offices attacked and death threats made. This is not acceptable. Let us be clear about what Opposition Day Motions are: they are a regular opportunity for the official opposition to have the floor of the House of Commons to debate whatever they please and call a vote. When we were in opposition we had the same opportunities. For reasons of party politics, they are usually opposed, that is the nature of the game for good or ill. Stepping back from the party political games it is the role of government to propose legislation and make spending plans, not the role of the opposition to take control of the public purse on the basis of a few lines of well-meaning text.
That said, I welcome any debate on the role of the state and the extent and complexities of the benefits system. Should the state pay for an increasing variety of free stuff or allow people to make their own decisions? This is the core question.
Universal credit, the new heart of the benefits system, has stood up well in the face of hundreds of thousands of new claimants during the Covid crisis. The old legacy benefits which could have up to six underlying claims, each requiring application and assessment could never have delivered the volume of new claims with such speed and efficiency. Reflecting the Covid crisis Universal Credit rates were increased by £20 per week.
The truth often lost in the fizz of social media is that the government has increased benefits, given more to Kent County Council and our second-tier authorities of Thanet and Dover to provide additional welfare support to their communities. KCC for instance received a particular grant under the Local Authority welfare Assistance Fund of £1.67 million. Thanet District Council has so far been awarded £3.1m extra and Dover DC £2.39m in additional funding to cope with the crisis. Community groups have also received direct funding.
We can additionally have a debate about the issue of Free School Meals (FSM). Some think the vote was to stop them last week. This could not be further from the truth. Of course they are continuing in the same form, indeed extended in many cases beyond what Labour thought was an adequate and decent provision during their years in government across 1997-2010.
The debate is now about provision outside of school time. Is it the role of the state, already providing detailed and considerable support to extend that further into daily provision of meals beyond term time? Why not weekends as well? Nationalising parenting will never end well.
My personal view is that vouchers exchangeable at shops are not the best way of providing support; there is little to no control over what is being purchased and encouraging healthy eating is not part of the formula at all. The only positive point about them is that they have the benefit of universality.
I would far prefer an extension of funding to groups like Sharon Goodyer’s ‘Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet’ providing good food to communities they know. I can foresee an extension of funding to councils and community groups coming down the track – these are best placed to recognise and target help to struggling families. Always easy to say all this is ‘free’, far from it as Government spending is now far in excess of tax being collected.
My work on the Public Accounts Committee has afforded detailed insights into new areas. A recent workstream has been looking into the provision and use of cash – the physical real stuff. Hugely relevant as banks continue branch closures and free ATM provision diminishes. Covid has changed spending habits rapidly further reducing physical cash use. I’d be interested to receive thoughts from you on this topic as there are huge differentials and views across the age spectrum.
I was pleased to join a live animal export protest in Ramsgate last week. With Brexit talks approaching some kind of conclusion, whether with a new free-trade deal or not, this issue will climb up the political ladder. I am making enquiries of Ministers as to how this foul trade can finally be stopped and what legislation is downstream to effect this at the soonest opportunity.
Keep safe and well.