Apsana Begum: The Tories Are Driving Millions into Poverty

By pushing through a real-terms cut in social security payments, the Tories are driving millions of vulnerable people into poverty – more evidence that the cost of living crisis is a political choice, not a force of nature.

The 3.1% ‘rise’ voted through this week will in fact be a real-terms cut to benefits and pensions. (Office of Apsana Begum)

Last week, the Tories made tax cuts for bankers. This week, they knowingly helped drive families, children, pensioners, and the most vulnerable in our society into desperate poverty, with a real-terms cut in social security payments.

Despite being called an ‘uprating’, the 3.1% ‘rise’ will in fact be a real-terms cut to benefits and pensions, given that inflation is already 5.4% and that the Bank of England forecast is for 7.25% in April 2022. What’s more is that groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Trussell Trust, and the End Child Poverty Coalition have warned that ‘there has long been a profound mismatch between what those with a low income have, and what they need to get by.’

In my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, which suffers from one of the highest rates of child poverty in the entire country, this mismatch comes as too many are already struggling to heat their homes or put food on the table.

This latest attack on our livelihoods also comes just after the announcement of a mass increase in energy bills signals that a quarter of households will be pushed into fuel poverty. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis on people across the country is truly harrowing and a shameful indictment on this administration.

And of course, this is set against the brutal backdrop of a decade of Conservative austerity. Across the country, there is a real sense of despair fuelled by desperate situations.

This week, porters, security, catering, and reception staff are on strike outside St Barts, Royal London, and Whips Cross hospitals, fighting for the simple right to have a wage that they can actually live on. This strike is a part of a growing wave of pay struggles—from bus drivers to airport ground crew to drivers to railway cleaners to warehouse workers—and I will support them as I have already been doing.

These are the people who worked hard during the pandemic to keep things going and were placed at the greatest risk. They don’t need lectures on ‘exercising restraint’, because they understand what pay restraint means—they live it and breath it. They are forced to see their families go without despite working long hours, and often in situations that are incredibly difficult.

We must not stand and watch decent, hardworking people go under while the Tories scapegoat them by pursuing measures to arbitrarily limit welfare spending—like the welfare cap re-affirmed earlier this year.

Some comprehensive rescue package is needed. Winter fuel payments could be doubled, the £20 cut to Universal Credit should be reinstated immediately, VAT on household bills could be scrapped, and energy companies could be taken into public ownership to ensure that rather than profits being siphoned off, money is instead spent on reducing bills for consumers.

And we must be very clear that those with the broadest shoulders and the deepest pockets should pay their fair share. Why should working people have to pay for the failures of the energy market and the total shambles of Tory policy?

The challenges we now face today do not ‘come out of the blue’. There is a reason that a key component of Labour’s 2019 manifesto was its Green New Deal, driven by public ownership of the energy sector and making sure that taxpayers got real value for money.

We have long needed systemic change. Clearly, the energy market does not work—it is not able or willing to deliver clean green energy at low prices for households. Public ownership of energy is common sense, evidence-based policy making, and in the long run it is our only way out of being held hostage by the corporate stranglehold on our pockets and our planet.

It has long been time that people are put first—ahead of ideological commitments to the market and a dogmatic opposition to public ownership. This is why I voted against this cut, like I voted against the welfare cap last month, and I will continue oppose these Tory attacks on our way of life with all my breath and strength.

Ultimately, cutting benefits and pensions is a political choice. Fuel poverty is a political choice. Hunger is a political choice. And austerity is, and always has been, a political choice. They are all choices to prioritise profit over people—made by a government which inflicts callous brutality on our communities. These are their choices, and ones we must resist.