Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.
When in the Whips Office, I used to try and remind my ‘flock’ that we were supposed to be part of a parliamentary team. That our role was as ‘participants’ rather than ‘commentators’, of whom we had a few too many within Parliament during those turgid months spent trying to deliver Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
(Surely Paul Goodman alone fulfilled that necessarily sceptical eye without the rest of getting stuck publicly stuck in.)
However, one consequence of Covid is we’re all passing public comment, as the space for private comment within the parliamentary party has shrunk behind Zoom and Teams. I find myself, at times, competing with the Leader of the Opposition as Captain Hindsight.
Nowhere is that more true personally than seeking a viable route out of our current Universal Credit (UC) policy dilemma. I’ve written previously about the positive impact the uplift of £20 has had on my constituency. But the real challenge now is a political problem which, I would argue, is wider than just that about UC: how do we transition from financial decisions taken in the early stages of the pandemic to post-pandemic spending which is more reflective of our economic instincts – but which doesn’t have a detrimental impact on my constituents’ financial resilience in what will continue to be difficult times?
Whilst we should perhaps have planned an exit strategy when first announced, it is a perfectly fair narrative that this was introduced when it was expected to be a very temporary measure like furlough. One iron rule of politics is that when something financial is bestowed, to remove it is the political equivalent of extracting a splinter.
I am sure if we had we known lockdown would still be going on now, a more elegant way of buttressing financial support might have been found than the straightforward uplift – but maybe not, bearing in mind that any solution needed swift implementation and so had to be simple enough for DWP’s systems.
Many argue this uplift should now be permanent. There will always be a reason to justify its continuation, with Labour seeking to place us on the wrong side of the divide. There will always be a problem lobby groups will uncover and which extending the UC uplift will somehow single-handedly solve. And no-one is mentioning the changes to Local Housing Allowance yet – just as crucial in my view.
But has our national socio-economic system changed in a such a permanent, structural way as to justify permanent retention? If not (and my answer is no), what gradual changes are required to both UC and more widely so as to avoid a damaging cliff edge?
One idea is to link any fiscal movements (be it tax or benefits) to levels of unemployment. Scott Morrison’s approach in Australia is to attain a six per cent unemployment rate before making fiscal changes. We can argue over differing thresholds for differing interventions, but it is certainly a more calibrated route out than a blunt tool such as a £500 bonus. Whether the Treasury would appreciate having its hands so tied is another matter.
The interaction with furlough matters too. We know that any end of furlough will lead to higher unemployment – so it is hard to argue that reducing UC’s generosity at that point makes sense.
Some would argue, as the Economist has done, that a gradual diminution in the percentage of wages paid under the furlough scheme starts reallocating labour away from so-called ‘zombie companies’ towards those areas which have either continued to grow during lockdown, or are likely to bounce back more quickly.
But doing that requires also amending some elements of UC to make them equally responsive to an evolving labour market. As many have already noted, the CPS has come out with some intriguing proposals worthy of consideration, including upgrading UC (and crucially legacy benefits) by 0.5 per cent. Most critically, they argue for cutting the taper rate back to 55p so people back in work can keep 8p more of every pound they earn – underpinning UC’s original spirit and purpose.
More fundamentally, this discussion is occurring in a vacuum where we act as though UC is the only policy lever Government has to pull to address what, essentially, is a discussion about reinforcing the financial resilience of those on low incomes. It is an important ‘supply side’ tool – but it needs complementing by a ‘demand side’ tool that seeks to put those regarded as “in difficulty” or “surviving financially” by the Financial Conduct Authority on a sustainable route to that ‘financial resilience’.
(And that is a figure worth dwelling on – updated data published by the FCA on Thursday shows that the numbers in ‘financial difficulty’ rose from 10.7 million in March to 14.2 million by October, some 27 per cent of the adult population. You don’t need to do a module on Venn diagrams to twig that a significant proportion of those who voted for us in 2019 for the first time are in that 27 per cent, whether they live in a ‘red’, ‘blue’ or ‘chicken parmo’ belt or anywhere else, for that matter.)
The other week I put forward a 10 Minute Rule Bill on reviewing Local Welfare Assistance Schemes where I talked about the consequences of the ‘poverty premium’. Low-income families have an average of only £95 in savings. Forty per cent of those aged 20-29 have no savings. It is no wonder that they find themselves in financial crisis when the unexpected strikes – from a fridge no longer working to the death of a family member.
With so many in often unfurnished private rented properties, and on low incomes, over one million are lacking either a cooker, fridge freezer or washing machine. This has serious consequences. No cooker, for example, may mean a focus on costly takeaway meals for those who are ‘time poor’. No washing machine means paying £4 down the launderette (and a further £3 for a drier) rather than 25p for an average home wash
So wider initiatives are needed than just increasing benefit levels. We should be listening to the Centre for Social Justice about supporting families practically, though schemes such as the Holiday Activity & Food Programme. Working with charities like Turn2Us, who are keen to help tackle the extra costs low income families face to support those in persistent poverty.
The DWP has already started cross-government work here – I wait with baited breath the output given the agonies of trying to develop eye-catching initiatives for the ‘Just About Managings’ at every fiscal event, only to see them never see the light of day.
The Treasury should be considering how best to respond to last week’s Woolard Review on the debt landscape – a much broader piece of work than just Klarna and Buy Now Pay Later, as the media have focused on. It sets out many ideas to put people on a journey from high-cost credit products to lower-cost credit, with the objective of greater financial resilience.
Maybe BEIS too should fully consider the recommendations of Matthew Taylor’s report on insecure working before time and events make the layer of dust on it too thick to brush off, and remove it from the departmental draw it seems to be languishing in?
An ever better first step might be to pay close attention to Baroness Stroud and the Social Metrics Commission, who will help us examine the differing needs of groups within that broader 10 million, from the ‘indigent’, to those in persistent poverty to those ‘just about managing’. A broader canvas, perhaps, than a focused discussion on a £20 uplift – but an agenda that helps give ‘levelling up’ the ‘red belt’ a bit more of a tangible shape and feel.