Last Saturday, I was invited to give the key-note speech at the North West Women’s conference. It was fantastic to see so many women in attendance and taking part in a day filled with speeches, workshops, training and discussion.
My speech from the conference, titled “Inequalities and the Social Security System” is below:
“It is a pleasure to be back here in Liverpool, where I worked for over 20 years as a Public Health Consultant, working on the health inequalities we have across this great City Region but internationally as well. It’s even more of a pleasure to be here alongside so many fantastic Labour women, women who give our movement its strength and who will continue to shape its future.
As I mentioned, I worked on health inequalities for over 20 years before I became an MP seven years ago. Under Labour the gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor was reducing; I’m sure it will come as no surprise that a couple of days ago the ONS published data showing that under Tory austerity this gap is widening. For women, the gap is the largest since the 1920s.
Inequalities are NOT inevitable. They are socially reproduced. They can be changed. And that should give us all hope.
But it needs political will to tackle them, not the soundbites of this Govt.
And as you know reducing the gap between rich and poor benefits everyone – in addition to increasing life expectancy, there’s increased educational attainment, social mobility, trust and so on.
To tackle these inequalities in income and wealth, in addition to reforms to the labour market, a coherent and comprehensive industrial strategy, and a national education service that is not just about preparing you for work, it is enabling you to get the most out of life, we need a social security system that is there for us all in our time of need, just like the NHS is there to care for us if we become ill.
And that’s what I’m going to focus on today.
Since 2010 the Tories have inflicted a programme of spending cuts to the tune of £83 billion pounds. Under the Coalition, our social security system has particularly borne the brunt with swingeing cuts of nearly £34bn, with another £12bn planned.
At the time austerity was first being implemented, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, warned in a letter that “there are real risks that women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately affected.” She went on to state that “Women, for instance, make up a higher number of public workers, and all four groups use public services more.”
On this, she was right. The risks were realised and disabled people, ethnic minorities, women have been hit hardest. As most people here today will be aware, women have borne the brunt of Government cuts. House of Commons Library analysis revealed that a staggering 86% of the burden of austerity – largely changes to taxes and benefits – since 2010 has fallen on women. Yet it is under Theresa May as Prime Minister that we are seeing the very worst effects, with a huge proportion of the announced cuts yet to come.
After nearly eight years, this government continues to pursue an economic agenda based on discrimination and inequality, slashing our public sector and cutting our social security system to the bone, while at the same time giving tax breaks to those on the highest incomes. Action to tackle industrial scale tax avoidance and evasion by the super-rich elite and big business can only be described as piecemeal.
Attacks on some of the most vulnerable in our society through cuts to the social security support available are shameful, and they are damaging not just for the people experiencing this hardship, but for society as a whole.
The inequalities that the people of our country are facing at the moment are reminiscent of a Victorian age.
The IMF has described income inequalities as ‘the most defining challenge of our time’. In the UK, forty years ago, 5% of income went to the highest 1% of earners. Today it is 15%. Their recent reports on this, in addition to the work of Nobel laureates such as Joseph Stiglitz, shows that trickle-down economics does not work and that inequalities actually stifle growth.
According to the latest Sunday Times Rich List, the richest 1000 people in our society saw their wealth increase by 16% in the last year alone. At the same time, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee has revealed that the poorest tenth of households will on average lose about 10% of their income by 2022 – equivalent to £1 in every £8 of net income.
The recent EHRC report (Nov 2017) found that the impact of policy decisions taken by the two Conservative administrations since 2015 will be to reduce incomes for the poorest, while increasing incomes for the richest 20%. Women lose more than men at every income level. Lone parents – the vast majority of whom are women – are particularly badly hit, losing about 15% of their net income on average, equivalent to almost £1 in every £6.
On top of this, we have seen a period of growing job insecurity and low pay, stalling productivity, rising precarity and self-employment, and falling living standards. Now we have the latest ONS labour market statistics showing a rise in unemployment.
Since 2010 working people on low incomes, particularly families with children, have lost proportionately more of their income than any other group as a result of tax and social security changes. Regressive economic policies where the total tax burden falls predominantly on the poorest combined with low levels of public spending, especially on social security, are key to establishing and perpetuating inequalities.
The Government’s cuts to social security are pushing more and more people into poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimate that cuts to Universal Credit alone will force 1 million children into poverty by 2020, while the ongoing freeze to the vast majority of social security payments means that 10.5 million households will see an average cut of £450 a year by 2020.
Again, as with other Government cuts, low paid workers will lose the most from cuts and changes to Universal Credit, with
women and ethnic minorities hardest hit according analysis by the Women’s Budget Group. The cut to the work allowance, the two-child limit, the freeze in payment levels, removal of the family element and the change in the taper rate mean that by April 2021 employed individuals who live in households claiming universal credit will be £1200 a year worse off than they would have been under the original UC system, with women losing more than men.
As hopefully you already know, I have called on the Government to pause the chaotic roll out of their failing Universal Credit programme.
But I want a radical overhaul of not just UC but the whole system, changing the culture from one that is demonising and dehumanising to a system that is supportive and enabling. And I don’t believe we should be letting people live in squalor without heating or eating either.
We must address the adequacy of the system. I’m thinking of our children, working age people and our pensioners. You will know, as I do travelling across the country as part of my pensions tour of women born in the 50s who are sofa surfing because they can’t do the work they’ve done in the past in their 60s. We must do better for them.
We have been clear, there are several immediate actions the Government could and should take, but time and again they have refused. We would immediately offer women affected by Government changes
to the state pension age the cost-neutral option to draw their state pension at age 64, allowing women who choose it to retire up to two years earlier.
It is also right to extend pension credit to those who were due to retire before the increase in the pension age, which would benefit hundreds of thousands of women. This would provide approximately half a million women on the lowest incomes up to £159 per week. We have repeatedly called on the Government to implement this costed measure, but sadly they have so far refused to act.
These measures are a start. They are actions the Government should take now! They are to compliment additional action on transitional protections. It also doesn’t preclude compensation. We want to continue working with women to right the wrong that they have been dealt.
But in spite of the stalling of life expectancy, and decline for some groups, the Government has said that they are going to accelerate the increase in the SPA to 68! It beggars belief.
Nearly eight years of Tory austerity has also had a terrible impact on disabled people in the UK. According to analysis by Demos/Scope, the 2012 Welfare Reform Act alone saw 3.7m sick and disabled people lose approx. £28bn of social security support. And this doesn’t include the cuts in support through social care. And the EHRC report on CIA of cuts, estimates a disabled adult has lost £2,500 pa since 2010.
Half of those who live in poverty are disabled or live with someone who is disabled, because of the extra costs they face as a result of their disability or illness. This is completely unacceptable. Disabled people face barriers in all aspects of life – including in education, transport, access to justice, access to voting, housing, health and employment. Shockingly, the ‘disability employment gap’ remains high, at 31.3%, yet the Government has scrapped their 2015 manifesto commitment to halve this DEG.
As our manifesto with and for disabled people, Nothing about you, Without you states, we support a social model of disability which recognises that people may have a condition or an impairment but they are disabled by barriers in society.
As a starting point, we will end the current punitive sanctions regime and scrap the current cruel and dehumanising PIP/ESA assessment process. Instead of supporting people, the process is often inaccurate and worsens existing health conditions. With 68% of decisions overturned at tribunal it is clear the system simply not fit for purpose and the distress and anguish these assessments cause cannot be underestimated.
A social security system that fails to alleviate poverty is failing at the most basic level.
Like the NHS, our social security system should be there for all of us in our time of need, providing security and dignity in retirement, and the support needed should we become sick or disabled, or fall on hard times. It is a vital weapon in our fight against inequality.
Fundamentally, we will transform our social security system as part of wider radical reforms to drastically reduce inequality and poverty.
Our manifesto set out the basis for this transformation, changing the culture of the social security system, from one that demonises people not in work to one that is supportive and enabling.
We are building on this starting point, working with people and organisations with real experience of the system to develop an alternative that works for the many and not the few. One that gives hope to all.”