Heidi Allen is MP for South Cambridgeshire.
I am a Conservative, in heart and in mind – yet this time last year, as I used my maiden speech to campaign against tax credit cuts, people were telling me I was in the wrong party. Since then, whenever I have spoken out on behalf of the disabled community or against cuts to the Eductional Support Allowance and Work-Related Activity Group, some have made the same point. Why should there be such surprise when Conservative MPs and supporters speak up to help low-paid families?
Who wrote the chapter in the political rule book where it says you can’t care for folk and be a Tory? I want people to vote for us because they like us not, because they begrudgingly think it’s best for them. I want people to vote Conservative because we’ve won their hearts and their minds.
That’s why I believe the new Work & Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, has started on just the right foot. Like many others inside and outside the party, I cheered his announcement to stop the pointless, bureaucratic retesting of chronically ill people for disability benefits as a win for good government and decency. It was a stressful and divisive bug in the system: a mistake we’ve now fixed.
This administration has also transformed the landscape for pensioners. As Green said at our recent Party conference, ““One of the great social advances of our era gains almost no attention. In the 1980s, 40 per cent of our pensioners lived in poverty. Today that figure is down to 14 per cent. An improvement which is never widely noted but which is one of the best things to have happened in Britain, giving millions of people more dignity in their old age.”
Just think about that – pensioner poverty down from 40 per cent to 14 per cent. As our new Prime Minister would say: “that’s what good government can do.” Since 2010, we have built on past progress and protected pensions so that fewer and fewer pensioners have to live on the misery of a low income. This is a historic achievement, and has rightly been at front of mind in our pitch to voters.
But if we are to be a country that works for everyone, then we must strive to be a country that works for the young as well as the old And with the poverty rate for children at 29 per cent, double that of pensioners at 14 per cent, we have a job to do. And that’s just the start of the challenge: an independent projection by the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that child poverty will rise significantly during the years ahead
Conservatives face up to problems, and deal with them with clear practical heads. So I’m encouraged to hear that Theresa May wants to pick up the life chances agenda David Cameron was beginning to build. So what should a Conservative Government, with those clear practical heads firmly coupled to their beating compassionate hearts, do to strengthen children’s life chances?
First, we must ensure this mission is a cross-government priority: it won’t work if it is the responsibility of a single department. In his foreword to ‘Improving Children’s Life Chances’, a new book by the Child Poverty Action Group, David Willetts notes that the essays in the book “rightly focus on key challenges such as health, education and housing. Family circumstances matter too – and, of course, we are reminded that income matters.” That means the Prime Minister, the Treasury, DCLG, DWP and all departments pooling their energies, resources and heads to make this happen.
Second, we need to help boost low family incomes – which is more important than ever as we enter a potentially economically turbulent post-Brexit world. And there is only one way to do that. We must give the Universal Credit poverty-fighting machine its mojo back. We can do this by either restoring the allowance (the ‘Work Allowance’) for how much people can earn before Universal Credit starts to be withdrawn, or we can look at the embedded taper rates that power the whole machine. The Work Allowance was one of the defining aspects of Universal Credit because it allows low paid workers to keep more of what they earn. However it was slashed in last year’s summer budget, with lone parents hardest hit. I am certain it was the Treasury’s treatment of Universal Credit that contributed to the falling out between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith.
Next month’s Autumn Statement presents a massive opportunity to fix this, and put the wind back into the sails of our flagship social policy. Without its mojo, Universal Credit will be little more than a shiny new IT system, and we need to do better than that if we are serious about tackling working poverty (two thirds of poor children have a working parent) and boosting life chances.
The last part of the jigsaw is housing. We need more affordable homes to rent because not everyone can afford to buy. We have to be the party of the renters, in both the private rented and social housing sectors, as well as the party of homeowners. This is what modern Britain looks like. So when developers build more homes, there must be an obligation to build genuinely affordable homes. Local authorities need adequate funding to replace homes sold under Right to Buy and if we don’t re-link rents with housing benefits, then all we are doing is making the problem bigger and harder to solve in the future.
Progress on these three areas will go a long way to improving not only the life chances of our children – but also in persuading people that today’s Conservative Party is deadly serious about making the country work for everyone.