Shona Craven: Rees-Mogg and co should be ashamed of UK destitution by design

SCANDALOUS! Shameful! A political stunt of the highest order! What could Jacob Rees-Mogg have possibly been referring to yesterday? The choices are surely endless.

We have, after all, had wall-to-wall scandals, shameful episodes and stunts throughout 2020, each one providing a distraction from the last.

Is he talking about the cash-for-cronies scandal over which his government has presided? The shameful dithering that cost so many lives when Covid-19 reached our shores? The year-long political stunt that has been Boris Johnson pretending to negotiate in good faith with the EU?

No! Of course not. He’s referring to Unicef helping to feed hungry children in south London. That’s it. That’s the stunt.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund is giving £25,000 to a project providing breakfast to children in need during the Christmas holidays and half-term break in February. What shameless scoundrels they are.

You see, they aren’t doing this because there are children in south London in desperate need. Oh no. They are doing it to make the Tory Government look bad. Which isn’t to say there aren’t children in south London or elsewhere in the UK who are in desperate need – because there are, undoubtedly – but that Unicef should be minding its own bloody business.

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How can the glorious UK strut its stuff on the world stage – taking back control and signing top-notch trade deals left, right and centre – when there are killjoys whining in the wings about trivial domestic matters? If children are going hungry then surely the best solution is to get Brexit done, assert ourselves as an independent coastal state, and let them eat fish.

Unicef has a lot of its own business to mind, as Jacob Marley – sorry, Jacob Rees-Mogg – pointed out when asked in the Commons about the horrific kidnapping of hundreds of boys in Nigeria. The aid agency should be focusing on important matters like this, he said, not “faffing around in England.” He’s quite right, of course, as everyone knows that faffing around is the responsibility of Unifaff, not Unicef.

He says Unicef should be looking after “people in the poorest, the most deprived countries in the world, where people are starving, where there are famines, and where there are civil wars”. Spoken like a true compassionate Conservative. It must have been a different party of government which last month announced that it was slashing its foreign aid spend from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%.

The Conservatives are, of course, delivering on their manifesto pledge to reduce child poverty, expanding free school meals and childcare provision and making all sorts of boasts about declines in absolute and relative poverty levels – a handful of which are even backed up by DWP data rather than just being made up by the Prime Minister on the spot.

It might be encouraging to hear that 100,000 fewer children were living in poverty in 2018/19 compared to 2009/10, as the Leader of the House boasted yesterday, but make a comparison with 2010/11 and the difference is 100,000 more. Tricky things, statistics.

As we all know by now, the UK Government has been putting its arms around everyone in the UK who has struggled due to the Covid crisis. Nearly two million people applied for Universal Credit in the six weeks that followed the instruction to stay at home to stop the spread, and a mere five weeks later most of them will have started getting payments.

Even before the pandemic, those delays were causing destitution. The experience for many is less like being given a hug by the government, and more finding its tentacles wrapped around their wallets. Horrifying figures published last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found there was a 54% increase in destitution in the UK between 2017 and 2019, meaning about 2.4 million people (including 550,000 children) could not afford to eat, stay warm and dry and keep themselves clean. Key drivers of this extreme poverty were inadequate benefit levels and the deduction of debt payments.

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These debts include the Universal Credit advances that people living hand-to-mouth require if they are to survive the five-week wait that was deliberately built into the system.

The destitution figures for 2019 were generated from a survey carried out in the autumn by researchers from Edinburgh Heriot-Watt University. By spring, when the team embarked on the second phase of the project – interviewing destitute people – the pandemic had reached the UK.

The UK Government paused most benefit deductions – including sanctions – for three months when lockdown made Jobcentre appointments impossible. But there was no payment holiday for those forced to take an advance of their benefit. Many of those interviewed said paying this debt left them dependent on food banks. Due to lockdown, some couldn’t even access food banks.

The likes of Rees-Mogg want their supporters to believe the parents of children in poverty are feckless or stupid, unable to balance their budgets. The truth is that many of those who claim Universal Credit only do so when they have nothing, and so are immediately forced to take on hundreds of pounds of debt. There is the scandal. That is what’s shameful. The very system that’s supposed to help is a huge part of the problem.



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