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World News

Former Cabinet member references inspiring vicar in impassioned speech on maintaining universal credit level

by Cara Bentley

An MP has used the example of a vicar who was so distressed by the poverty in 1930s Leeds that he set up a foodbank, to argue that the Government should be ashamed of current poverty levels.

Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central, was speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday as part of an Opposition Day debate on universal credit, the payment which is set to return to its pre-pandemic level by taking off £20 a week.

The Government argues that it was always a temporary measure and that it is encouraging better wages and upskilling people into better jobs. However, senior Tories also oppose the cut, including the MPs Stephen Crabb and Iain Duncan Smith.

Labour's Mr Benn started his speech against the cut by wondering what a recently honoured Christian minister from Leeds would have thought: "Last Friday, a blue plaque was unveiled in memory of Reverend Don Robins, who was appointed vicar of St George’s church in the heart of Leeds at the time of the great depression. Looking around his new parish, he saw the homeless, the hungry and the destitute, and he decided that he must do something. He had an old crypt below the church, and he resolved that it should be used for the living and not the dead, so he turned it into a soup kitchen and night shelter.

"Since that day, the St George’s crypt has been serving those for whom life has been hard. I sit here and wonder, if he was still with us, what he would have to say about the choice facing the House today. Although the great city of Leeds has seen much prosperity and development in the intervening years, poverty and inequality and hunger have not gone away. They continue to bear down on our communities."

He went on to say: "It is shameful that three in ten children in my constituency live in absolute poverty. It is shameful that in the three or four miles from the most prosperous to the least well-off parts of our city, life expectancy declines. It is shameful that some children come to school too hungry to learn and that the number of people who have to go to a food bank...has risen in the last decade."

Mr Benn, the son of Labour's Tony Benn, argued that many adults do have enough money coming in to look after their family, despite the fact that almost half are in work.

The extra payment will be phased out from the end of September, with the Government arguing it would cost £6 billion to retain the higher level.

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