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Opinion

Q & A: Jonathan Reynolds: Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions speaks about Marcus Rashford and Universal Credit

by Cara Bentley
Opinion

Labour's shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Jonathan Reynolds (MP for Stalybridge and Hyde) tells Premier's Cara Bentley what Labour would have done differently during the pandemic and where he thinks political parties could join forces. 

What do you make of footballer Marcus Rashford's intervention this week on poverty among children?

Well, I'm incredibly proud of Marcus Rushford. Obviously, being a Greater Manchester MP and resident (my constituency is probably slightly more Man City but he's even popular with that side too), I think what he was able to do was not just uses his popularity as a footballer but he was able to tell a story that we need to hear more of in the UK. That's a story of people who, for a relatively short period of their lives, have needed extra support from the social security system and they've been able, because of that, to go on to fulfil their potential. We talk too much in the UK about people as if they're just permanently on social security or permanently not and that isn't how it works. That misconception has been one of the biggest drivers of bad policy, inequality and poverty in this country for a long time. It required not just a footballer but someone who had a personal experience of that. I'm sure people said to him, 'Marcus, do not get involved in politics', but he did it and it was tremendously powerful. The government usually gets its own way unless we can mobilise a much bigger amount of opinion in the country and he was crucial to that.

 

We've seen some statistics today about the number of people needing Universal Credit. What would Labour have done in the same situation? 

Well, firstly we have purposefully shut down our economy so the numbers were always going to go up - that isn't really the issue. The issue is that we didn't have, going into this crisis, an adequate system of social security. We had to invent whole new policies. The furlough scheme has been a success but even the Government began the crisis by saying Universal Credit would not get us through this. They increased the core amount by a significant amount of money, they abandoned the sanctions; it's a very punitive based approach so they changed it themselves. 

We just don't think they went far enough. I think the data backs that up. For instance, we still have the two-child limit now, no one will have had an additional third or fourth child in the last three years based on the chances of a global pandemic shutting down their job. We've still got the benefit cap, you're supposed to move house to cheaper accommodation or work more hours. Now, you can't do either of those things so that means we've got at least 100,000 families now not getting the support that the system actually says they need but they can't have it because of the benefit cap. Most of all, we have to end the five week wait and we need a massive coalition of faith organisations, politicians, civic society, everybody, because there is no doubt the biggest driver of food bank usage, homelessness and rent arrears is that five week wait. 

There are other things also that do need to happen. Everyone should be able to get statutory sick pay, we want people to test and trace and isolate but if they're not going to get any income that isn't going to work. We also need to make sure housing benefit actually covers people's rent. So, we welcome the Government themselves saying the system needs to change, we just need them to make it go far enough to make sure it really does support people.

 

Marcus Rashford by PA WIre/ Martin Rickett

 

Do you think there's anything that the Government has done well?

I think the invention of the furlough scheme was crucial. We found out last week there are a million people not on the furlough scheme or the self-employed scheme so anyone who has been left out, please be aware that we are aware of that. But yes, the creation of a furlough scheme to work alongside the existing social security system was clearly the right thing to do. All we would say on that is it can't be a one size fits all approach - that there are some sectors of the economy that are particularly hard hit. Hospitality is a good example because of the nature of this crisis, whereas usually in an economic downturn they'd be back up on their feet quite quickly and able to get people back to work quickly. So it shouldn't end unilaterally for each sector at the same time.

A bit of flexibility from the Government would really go a long way because there is no doubt that unemployment is now the biggest part of this crisis on the economic side. We've got 2.8 million out of work benefit claimants, we've got 9 million people on furlough. We know it's going to be very hard for some sectors. So everything the Government can do to stop people becoming unemployed is the priority and then they've got to consider how they support and get those people who are unemployed back to work.

Speaking of the future, what should we pray for as Christians for our economy and for the individuals that make up our economy?

Well, I would really hope that people would pray for politicians of all sides to come out of this crisis with a newfound commitment, hopefully, to working together. I know that's not always possible, I've been in Parliament ten years so I'm realistic about that but to work together, maybe not on the means, but actually on what the priorities should be.

For instance, that figure of five million British children heading towards living in poverty is unconscionable. Now, we might disagree with the Government on what the solution should be - but shouldn't we have two competing sets of solutions that the public can choose from? We shouldn't have a situation that we heard today where the Prime Minister just really wasn't aware of how many people are living in poverty. 

I don't want it to be one side saying, this is a problem, we've got to address it and the other side saying it isn't. I want people saying, look, there are different ways to do this but let's have that argument because at least that will hopefully get us to a place where we can say that's a priority and we react accordingly. It's a chance to consider items like social security, welfare spending in light of the fact and how they actually function rather than perhaps some of the manipulations or the way they're presented, or the way they've been talked about in the past when we all have something to gain from living in a country where we have a proper collective provision of policies that make sure we don't have absolute need and that we are as a society, one that's cohesive, not got extremes of wealth and poverty, and that would be a great country to live in.
 

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