On the 18 March I wrote to the to the Chancellor about the greater actions needed to prevent debts, evictions, hunger and destitution from increasing in Newham and across the country as a result of the economic crisis.
Please find the full text below:
I write to you concerning the recently announced Government guidance on social distancing and self-isolation.
The Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is a national emergency, and my constituents and I agree that it requires strong measures. However, a great number of my constituents now feel, quite rightly, that they face extreme personal risks as a result of the measures announced so far.
I have received a large number of communications from constituents who are urgently concerned about the impact these measures will have on their immediate livelihoods, their eligibility for statutory sick pay (SSP), the adequacy of SSP to support themselves and their families, and in many cases the very survival of their jobs or businesses.
Those constituents who have contacted me include:
- Small business owners and employees, who need to be provided with urgent support to ensure that otherwise healthy businesses do not have to permanently close or lay off staff, with the loss of many jobs, as a result of this temporary crisis.
- People who are technically self-employed or on zero hours contracts who will certainly struggle to find work in the coming months, and who will not be able to claim sick pay under current rules.
- Employees who have recently lost their jobs or fear they will do so in the coming months, or who are or may need to take sick pay for long periods in order to self-isolate.
- Parents and charity workers who are concerned about the loss of free school meals during extended school closures, and the impact that will have on food security.
Many of those who have contacted me are from the entertainment, travel, events, or hospitality industries, who, as you know, are experiencing the economic consequences of the crisis the most rapidly of all. I appreciate that you have already focused your most urgent actions on these sectors, but you will be aware that serious concerns remain, particularly about how rapidly appropriate support will be made available, and about whether further support to enable businesses to remain viable through an extended recession will be forthcoming if it becomes necessary.
The value of SSP and many social security benefits is low in the UK, and many families have little or no savings to draw upon. Many families in my constituency are deeply worried that the income from these payments will not be sufficient to enable them to pay essential bills over the coming weeks and months.
I believe it is very important not to take a limited individual view on the adequacy of social security payments at this time, although even on an individual basis SSP and many other benefit payments are, in my view, clearly insufficient to meet living costs. The reality is that over recent years many of my constituents have taken on jobs as second earners, in addition to caring work, or have taken on second or third jobs in order to make ends meet while incomes have been stagnant and benefits have been falling in real terms.
If even one person in a low-income household loses one or more of their sources of income, this may well leave them unable to afford the rent and at risk of eviction, or with a choice between eviction and utter destitution. If all members of a household lose most of their income as a result of having to isolate together, potentially for many weeks according to the Government’s guidance, this could be devastating.
It is always important to remember that the real value of child benefit has also been eroded over recent years, and that many of my constituents have been seriously affected by the two child limit and limits to Local Housing Allowance over the same period. The reality is that many families’ finances cannot survive further hits to their income, even for just a few months.
Families now face the likelihood that their children’s schools will close sooner rather than later. Many locally will welcome this as a measure to keep them and their children safe. However, the absence of a free school meal for children raises huge concerns about families’ food security. This issue is especially acute in Newham, where, partly in recognition of the high levels of deprivation I have mentioned, free school meals are universal. We already know that hunger for families with children often increases during the school holidays.
If schools remain closed for a very long period, as Government advisors have suggested may be necessary, I believe extra, targeted support will be required to prevent the appalling prospect that more children will go hungry. You will be aware that the Child Poverty Action Group have called for £10 a week to be added to child benefit to reflect the additional burdens that families with children will face over the period of the crisis. I am aware of cases where schools that have already had to partially shut down have offered parents vouchers for accessible supermarkets in place of their normal free school meal. This is also an option that you could consider, although in my view a non-stigmatising universal cash payment to support family budgets would be preferable.
The possibility of three–month ‘mortgage holidays’ announced on the 17 March is a good step. However, there must be similar strong measures in place to support renters. At a national level, recent figures show that there are six million households living in privately or socially rented homes who have no savings to fall back on.
In Newham, we have serious difficulties even before taking into consideration the impact of coronavirus. In the private rented sector, the lower quartile monthly cost to rent a two–bedroom property is £1,300, whereas the lower quartile of monthly pay is just £1,266. As these figures demonstrate, the housing crisis in Newham is already extremely severe. My constituents cannot bear the impact of this crisis. I fear it will push many people off a cliff edge.
Newham already has the highest levels of statutory homelessness and the second highest levels of child poverty in the country. I have repeatedly heard accounts of families going without enough to eat over recent years, and I believe these are only the tip of the iceberg. I am genuinely fearful for what the weeks and months to follow will mean for families in these or similar circumstances.
Housing security and poverty are intimately connected, as you will know. I hope you will therefore take measures to protect my most vulnerable constituents by addressing both issues.
I believe this must include measures to support renters, such as legislation to ban evictions – section 21 and section 8 – due to rent arrears which could reasonably have been built up as a result of coronavirus. It should also include an extension of SSP to workers paid less than the current threshold of £118 per week, as well as self-employed and zero-hours workers. These are the people who stand to be most affected by this crisis. As you will appreciate, they pay taxes and are no less deserving of financial security, and yet they are currently least eligible to receive this protection.
I would be grateful if you could update me as to any steps you plan to take to provide protection to these particular groups so that I may reassure my constituents.
Member of Parliament for West Ham