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On April 25th, in Ipswich, Universal Credit will become the main benefit for people who, for one reason or another, are not earning enough to look after their family, writes Ipswich MP, Sandy Martin.

Universal Credit has already been trialled in Waveney and was a disaster there. 

You don’t need to take my word for that – Peter Aldous MP has spoken up in the House of Commons in criticism of his own Party for having failed to make it the fair system that the Prime Minister claimed it would be.  So, it doesn’t work in Lowestoft but the Government is introducing it across the country anyway, without the essential changes needed to make it workable.

But they have chosen to make some changes, and four of those relate to Free School Meals, free childcare, childcare vouchers, and the safeguards against sanctions being imposed unfairly on disabled people.  Labour MPs spoke forcefully against these changes, but on Tuesday our motions to annul them were voted out by the Conservatives.

The most obviously wrongheaded change was to take the right to Free School Meals away from 1,000,000 children whose parents on Universal Credit would be earning over £7,400 per year. This is a ridiculous false economy – children who get a proper lunch are healthier and more easily able to learn.  Low-paid households will have to think very hard before working additional hours, because they could end up significantly worse off for working harder. Many families will avoid the humiliation of being turned down by not applying for free school meals at all. In Suffolk, an estimated 11,000 children who would have qualified will lose their entitlement to a free school meal.  Why didn’t the government leave the situation as it was, with every family entitled to Universal Credit also getting Free School Meals?  Why, indeed, didn’t they adopt Labour’s plan of providing free school meals to all primary school children, doing away with the complicated bureaucracy and the stigma that prevents so many from getting the nutritious meal they need.

The changes to childcare were also divisive, doing away with the vouchers scheme which has helped so many, and means-testing Universal Credit parents for free childcare for their two-year-olds so that 200,000 of them will now not benefit.

And the changes for disabled people are, if anything, even more unfair. The Work Allowance has been cut, so that there is no longer such a strong incentive to disabled people to take part-time jobs. Severe disability premiums are scrapped, the period for claiming extra support has been reduced, and safeguards which, for instance, protect people with mental health problems from being unfairly sanctioned are being removed.

Nobody can pretend the benefits system has ever worked well, with too many complicated rules and benefits which were often not claimed by the people who needed them the most.  Above all, there was the danger that people would end up in a poverty trap, where they could receive more money on benefits than they would get if they were working.  That’s why the original justification for Universal Credit was a good one – by continuing to pay UC when people are earning low wages, they should be that much better off so that work does pay.

But by re-introducing means-testing for free school meals and childcare, the government is blowing a hole in that justification.  And they haven’t funded UC properly, so when you do get a job you are actually not that much better off. And there will be no support for any more than 2 children. And they haven’t made sufficient allowance for profoundly disabled people. And to add insult to injury, Universal Credit is paid in arrears, so that those people who are in desperate need of financial support will have to cope for weeks without any money, or take out a loan to tide them over.

Most benefits are paid to people who are working. What people really want is properly-paid jobs and an affordable housing market so that they don’t have to rely on benefits at all. We need to make sure work pays, and the first step to that is to raise the minimum wage to a genuine Living Wage, and make sure employers are actually paying it.  And then where benefits really are needed, especially for disabled people and families with children, we need to design them in such a way that they do not penalise people for working, and do provide them with enough to live on.

Anything less is not just unfair – it leads to misery and dependency.

Even Tories agree with Sandy that Universal Credit is bad news

On April 25th, in Ipswich, Universal Credit will become the main benefit for people who, for one reason or another, are not earning enough to look after their family, writes...

At the beginning of this month the Government announced that it had met a key financial target, writes David Ellesmere, Labour Leader of Ipswich Borough Council.  Its day-to-day budget was now in surplus.

Cue much rejoicing from the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

George Osborne, earning over £1million a year from his seven jobs tweeted: “We got there in the end – a remarkable national effort.”

David Cameron, tweeting from his £25,000 luxury hut agreed: “It was the right thing to do”.

So job done then?

For these two well-heeled individuals, thoroughly insulated from the effects of their decisions in Government, it might look like it.

But the rest of us are still living with the consequences of the Conservatives’ never-ending austerity.

The improvement in the nation’s finances has been bought at a terrible price in the effect on the poorest and most vulnerable people and on our public services.

But, worse than this, the improvement is clearly unsustainable.

NHS waiting times continue to increase. More than 81,000 people waited over 4 hours to be admitted to hospital from A&E in January. Over 1,000 waited more than 12 hours. 12% of people waited longer than the 18 week treatment target. 1,750 waited longer than a year.

Nearly two thirds of secondary schools have had to increase class sizes due to lack of funding.

Our prisons are in crisis with 40 – 50 violent incidents happening every month and an assault on staff every two days. In some jails one officer is left to  oversee 100 inmates.

Roads across the country are in their worst condition ever. Cuts in the roads maintenance budget  mean that pot holes are appearing faster than they can be fixed. The repairs backlog is huge and growing all the time.

After years of funding cuts, councils are now starting to fall over. Northamptonshire has effectively been declared bankrupt. Surrey looks likely to be next. Norfolk, Somerset and Lancashire are showing warning signs.

Public services are creaking everywhere. Many are in crisis. Some are close to collapse.

Until this is put right – and we are a very long way from that happening – Government finances have not been fixed and there is no cause for rejoicing.

Tories think things are OK while nation pays cost of Austerity

At the beginning of this month the Government announced that it had met a key financial target, writes David Ellesmere, Labour Leader of Ipswich Borough Council.  Its day-to-day budget was now...

Life in Westminster can be hectic.  Ipswich MP, Sandy Martin, gives a flavour of a working day. 

One of the most difficult aspects of being an MP is making sure I attend the things I need to attend, and focusing on things where I can make a difference. Some days I manage to write a significant number of letters, contact people about issues, and make progress on my priorities for Ipswich. Some days I rush from one place to another, keen not to keep people waiting or miss an opportunity – Wednesday was one of those.

I started the day reading the briefing for my morning meeting, then popped in to my Westminster office to run through the day’s events with my assistant and make sure I was prepared. Then off to the Committee examining petitions on stage 2 of the High Speed Rail line – from Stafford to Crewe – which I am not doing because I want to but because I have been allocated to it by the House of Commons.

At 11am I joined fellow MPs in a Fairtrade fortnight debate, making the case to the new Minister for encouraging people to buy goods which are not produced by slave labour or by trashing the planet. A particular point is that some gold is mined by reputable companies which pay decent wages whereas some mines treat their workforce and the environment with utter contempt – nobody wants to give their loved-one a ring that has been created out of misery and destruction, and people need to be able to tell whether they are helping to make the world a better place or not. I pointed out the role that Councils can play in promoting Fairtrade – I was proud to have proposed the motion which made Ipswich a Fairtrade town back in 2013.

Then I had 2 votes to cast – one to require the government to be more open and the other to prevent yet another hike in the cost of passports – unfortunately we lost both, a sad reminder that we can’t make decisions which benefit the citizens of this country until we are in government. And then Prime Minister’s Question Time, which I’m not sure about, but I suppose it does show that we are holding the government to account.

Then I met Rob whose company Big Drop is brewing excellent low-alcohol beers locally. After tasting some of his wares, I made a pitch for him to move his business into Ipswich if and when he expands – the role of advocate for the town is a very important one, and I try not to let any opportunity slip. Then off to film an interview about being a new MP, and a short piece for Anglia television about how the work now started on the Winerack shows that Ipswich is on the up, and the important part the Borough Council has played in making that happen.

I just had time to pop into a British Council event to register my support for their programme to encourage future leaders, before the most important meeting of the day, to decide the final report on Air Quality. The Royal College of Physicians reckons that 40,000 people a year die in the UK because of polluted air. I have campaigned for cleaner air and less traffic congestion in Ipswich for years, and I had an amendment to strengthen the report which I am pleased to say was approved by the committee.

And then to the Education Centre for a Q&A session with Halifax School pupils on a tour of Parliament. I really hope that they keep their enthusiasm as they grow up – who knows, one of them could be a future MP for Ipswich.

Finally, a rather sad but very necessary reception with the Samaritans alongside Greater Anglia, trying to reduce the number of people who take their own lives on the railway. One of my friends killed himself that way a few years ago, and I know how devastating such a loss can be to friends and family. Very often the right words from someone at the scene can make the difference between a tragic death and another chance at life. The people I spoke to are helping to make that happen, but we all need to look out for each other.

Amongst all that I managed a few phone calls and emails, but if I didn’t get back to you about something you have contacted me about, please be patient – I will try very hard to reply to everyone, but on some days there really isn’t much time!

Sandy Martin: A busy day...

Life in Westminster can be hectic.  Ipswich MP, Sandy Martin, gives a flavour of a working day.  One of the most difficult aspects of being an MP is making sure...

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