Tuesday, 21 July 2015

"Poverty is not a lifestyle choice; it is imposed on people"

Full text of LEAP chair John McDonnell MP's speech on the welfare bill

I make this clear: I would swim through vomit to vote against the Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to.

Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it is imposed on people. We hear lots about how high the welfare bill is, but let us understand why that is the case. The housing benefit bill is so high because for generations we have failed to build council houses, we have failed to control rents and we have done nothing about the 300,000 properties that stand empty in this country. Tax credits are so high because pay is so low. The reason why pay is so low is that employers have exploited workers and we have removed the trade union rights that enabled people to be protected at work. Fewer than a third of our workers are now covered by collective bargaining agreements. Unemployment is so high because we have failed to invest in our economy, and we have allowed the deindustrialisation of the north, Scotland and elsewhere. That is why the welfare bill is so high, and the Bill does as all other welfare reform Bills in recent years have done and blames the poor for their own poverty, not the system.

On Friday I brought together at a poverty seminar welfare advice agencies, local churches and religious groups to talk about why people in my constituency are poor. They are poor because rents are so high. People struggle to keep a roof over their heads. The welfare cap in the Bill will remove £63 a week from those families who are simply trying to keep a decent home over their children’s heads.

The second reason why people are poor is low pay. People in my constituency depend on tax credits to live. Parents choose whether they or their children eat, and the Bill will take £6 a week from every one of those families. The other reason for poverty in my constituency is that people have disabilities—they struggle to work but cannot do it. The Bill will take £30 a week from people with disabilities who are in the work support group and desperately trying to get work. Those are the reasons for poverty in my constituency, and I find it appalling that we sit here—in, to be frank, relative wealth—and are willing to vote for increased poverty for people back in our constituencies.

Some of the benefit cuts will be appalling. One measure not in the Bill but being sneaked through by the Government is a 30% cut in support allowances for asylum-seeker children. We are about to ensure that we push some of the poorest children in our society into further poverty.

We need an honest discussion about the reasons for that poverty and how we can invest to ensure that we lift people out of poverty. It is about some of the things that have been mentioned tonight, such as lifting wages. To come along and describe a derisory increase in the minimum wage as a living wage—we know that a living wage in this country is at least £10 an hour—is a disgrace to English rhetoric if nothing else. It is also rubbing it into the faces of the poor.

Tonight we have seen yet another way in which we blame the individual for the failings of our society. We need a proper debate about how we go forward investing in housing, lifting wages, restoring trade union rights and ensuring that we get people back to work and do not have high pockets of deprivation is areas such as mine and around the country.

Tonight the debate has not served the House of Commons well, but I say to Labour Members that people out there do not understand reasoned amendments; they want to know whether we voted for or against the Bill. Tonight I will vote against it.