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Brighton and Hove Liberal Democrats

Read Christine Jardine's Speech to Spring Conference!

March 17, 2019 4:29 PM
By Christine Jardine
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Christine Jardine

It's fantastic to be back here in York… and a bit eerie for me. You see making a speech on this stage to all of you was the very last thing I did before my selection process in Edinburgh West.

A lot of things have changed since then… and there is a lot more we want to change.

Some of them are about the party…. Some are about the country. And then there's Brexit,… but let's not bring the mood down. Certainly, that is one of the things we are working to change.

But on a personal level, I've been focussing on three things…

Asylum seekers …. DWP …. And the thing I've had the most fun with…

The Pink Tax.

Taking multi-national corporations to task for thinking its ok to charge women and girls more for everything from deodorant and disposable razors to clothes and services.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be lining up meetings with some of the big manufacturers and retailers to persuade them that they really.

They've seen what we did to the Gender Pay Gap and well if they don't fix the Pink Tax... I'll set Jo Swinson on them…that'll teach them.

I didn't think I'd be fighting the big corporations the last time I was in York, so it's all very different from the last time I was here. But it is wonderful to be back here in York…

I was going to make a joke about Vikings … or maybe Rowntrees Fruit pastilles… I do love them

But isn't it strange for us, Liberal Democrats, to be holding our conference so close to Theresa May's spiritual home… and the area from which her Government must be drawing its guiding principles…

The Shambles…

Well, actually I'm being too kind to them.

York, on the other hand, deserves a better comparison than this Government. It's a fantastic city and has given us some wonderful people…Dame Judi Dench… Sir Vince Cable… and Joseph Rowntree.

I know you're thinking fruit pastilles again… I'm not. You see, like Vince and I hope most of us, Rowntree was a fierce champion of social reform. In the late 1800s when he was building his fortune… in what was a largely Dickensian Victorian society… he actually looked after his workforce.

They had free education, health care and pensions…

Here was a man who embodied that true British value, a Liberal British value, of looking out for those less fortunate than yourself. Theresa May and her Government could do with taking a leaf out of that book.

There is one particular shambles of theirs that I am now working on… the Department of Work and Pensions.

It's difficult to know where to start with them… it's the department which those who are most IN need… NEED most. It's there to help us through the toughest of times, and MOST of us will have those times when what we need is an official shoulder for comfort.

But the reality is, the Department for Work ISN'T working.

Take the assessments for Personal Independence Payments. They're not fit for purpose. And the Benefits Freeze. It's been described as the biggest cause of poverty in modern Britain. That is an outrage.

And as for Universal Credit, that's a universal failure.

And the most annoying thing is that it might have worked… it might actually have simplified things, got people back into work, if the Tories hadn't dipped into the pot and syphoned off £3 billion.

Yeah, in 2015, as soon as we weren't there any more, 'ooking over their shoulder, checking their work, they started fiddling about with the figures…

Oh, they'll say Phil Hammond put half of it back… yes, HALF OF IT…

There is a chink of hope though, credit where it's due. Amber Rudd the latest Secretary of State. at least acknowledges that Universal Credit has contributed to the distressing growth in the use of food banks in this country…

But she is the sixth Work and Pensions Secretary in eight years… this lot can't even make work pay in their own departments.

None of them… none of them … have gotten to grips with the problems in the system. Late payments, budgeting problems, compounding the stress for those already suffering, creating rent arrears and contributing to putting more people on the streets.

You know, every Monday when I arrive in parliament, or when I go home at night, I walk past people sleeping rough at the entrance to parliament. Not so very long ago one of them died, in the doorway of the mother of Parliaments, in the fifth largest economy in the world.

Oh I know the Tories will say… DWP spends a quarter of all spending. And yes that's the scale of the challenge we face.

But as MPs… or actually just as people who give a damn... we have a duty to be careful with our language, to be sure that the story we tell about poverty isn't one that blames the victims.

That we accept responsibility for people who are homeless and don't somehow make it sound like their own fault. That we recognise that the whole point of DWP is to help people out of poverty, to support them into work, and to provide them with security in their old age.

But conference… that is not what current government policy and actions reflect.

No, the 5-week waiting time for Universal Credit just reinforces the feeling among claimants that actually the state doesn't want to help them. What they see is a delaying tactic.

In my constituency of Edinburgh West we are only just beginning to feel the impact of Universal Credit and we don't like it.

Sometimes it seems like it's just another problem for people to cope with, and believe me there's plenty of them already. And there are thousands of people out there… who are looking to us to fight their corner… people like a constituent who came to me because she had been told that she wasn't entitled to the motability car she had had for a year.

No, she didn't need it because if she could drive, well she could obviously walk, so she didn't need the motability car… The car was specially adapted SPECIFICALLY because of a disability she was born with that affects her legs, makes it difficult to walk.

We fought her corner, raised her case with ministers in Parliament and eventually, thankful she was told she could keep her car… no, sorry, that she could keep her LIFELINE, but NOW…. NOW they seem to think that her disability will somehow end and so they've put an end date on how long she came claim for

Amazing powers they have in DWP.

Time and again we see it… they can end disabilities at the stroke of a pen…

Well they can't.

But here's a suggestion that might work… and it may be a wee bit radical…

Instead of wasting money on an assessment system that isn't fit for purpose, handing over millions to private companies to make ludicrous decisions…decisions that deny people the help they so obviously deserve, and the majority of which get overturned on appeal... invest that money in people. Bring the assessments in-house and make sure the budget is spent where it's meant to on helping people.

But perhaps the most important thing the Government could do is end the benefits freeze. The single biggest single driver of poverty in this country could be the biggest single change. Next month it goes into its final year.

Oh, it would have cost money, £1.4 billion, and the most annoying thing is that the Government decided to spend that money on giving tax cuts to the highest earners.

How does that decision happen? Who decides to help those who need it least, rather than the people who could benefit most?

Conference it is not now, and never could be, morally justifiable to balance the books on the backs of the most vulnerable…

You see for me this is also personal.

I have had quite a lucky life. I know people look at me and see a middle-aged, middle-class professional woman whose relatively comfortable…

But that's where I ended up, it's not where I started.

For my first decade and a half, I lived in rented accommodation in Clydebank in the heart of shipbuilding country, just as the industry was sinking. My father didn't work in the sector but my mum did, part-time to make ends meet, and eventually paid a heavy price for it…

Her name is on a shiny, stainless steel memorial across the road from where the shipyard used to stand. A memorial to the victims of asbestos poisoning.

My sisters and I were provided for. A comfortable, happy, working-class life.

But two things happened in those years which, much later, shaped where I stand today…

First, my dad was made redundant. Thankfully, he was able to get another job, and at the time I didn't notice any difference, but now I see all too clearly that there were sacrifices my parents made, the corners that were cut and I am in awe of how they coped without missing a beat…and I'm in awe of those facing the same situation today.

But by then they had three girls… and every time I think now about the two-child benefit cap, I think of those days, what it might have meant for us. Supposing my Dad hadn't made ends meet/hadn't got that job/the government would have only paid for two of us…

You see, the Tories love to tell us that they are the defenders of the family. But this immoral, punitive and discriminatory cap shows otherwise. It reveals their true colours.

And even if you do buy into their argument that, oh, well, you should be able to afford a third or fourth child before you think about having one, well I say… things change.

Life is uncertain, and your financial situation can be flipped upside down in a heartbeat, just like it did for us.

So what do we say to those people? Your child will have to suffer because you've run into some bad luck?

From Thatcher to May, we see it time and time and again: families are not safe under the Conservatives.

And the other thing that happened to my family…. When my sisters were just 13 and 8 my Dad died. By then my parents had bought their own house and moved out of Clydebank… but overnight we went from that increasingly comfortable existence to being a one-parent family.

And that's where my admiration for my mother and every other parent who finds themselves in that position comes from...

Oh technically I'm a single parent myself now but I have never had to cope with worrying how I would feed my girl, keep us warm and make sure I could pay for the roof above our heads. I look at other single mothers who I aren't as lucky as me and I know I owe it to them to make this government recognise the support they deserve for their children. Without it how on earth will we ensure that the next generation gets the chance to fulfil their potential?

We are already in the unacceptable situation where two-thirds of the children living in poverty in this country come from a household where at least one parents is working.

That's not just unacceptable, that's failure…

A failure by Government to look after those who need its help most. A failure by Government to give our children the best start in life. A failure to protect the welfare state.

Now we have a responsibility as Liberals. Those failures by this Tory Government undermine the drive towards a fairer society that this party, our party, the Liberal Party has always held as its most defining principle.

Lloyd George originally laid the foundations and Beveridge laid out the vision of the welfare state.

So today I want to make a special plea to Amber Rudd… assuming she's still in the job. In the short time she's been there we have all noticed the step change at DWP… but it's not enough. While this Secretary of State has at least acknowledged some of the problems with Universal Credit, ESA and PiP… it's not enough

Amber, you need to fix it. Stop all those who are finding ways to reduce payments, making it difficult to claim or not recognising that poverty can affect those working too…

Fix it. Stop the freeze. Abandon the two-child benefit cap.

Help families caught in that ridiculous trap: they find work, but childcare is too expensive to allow that job to actually transform their lives. Take these families out of poverty.

At least Amber Rudd is acknowledging that there are problems.

I wish that were true of all her colleagues. Why won't they acknowledge the skills and talent that asylum seekers bring to us and allow them to work? Why instead of valuing people who have taken the enormously courageous step of fleeing persecution, leaving everything behind… why do we rob them of the one thing they have left… their dignity.

Instead of helping them to work, to contribute, to feel valued… we push them to the margins living on a pittance of a fiver a day.

Conference, these are the things I got into politics to change…

And I know you did too…

If we are going to do these things we need change, but it isn't going to happen on its own. And if we are going to drive it now the way Liberals did 100 years ago, we need help.

We need to grow, and encourage people to support our movement in the way that is best for them, and we need to work with anyone out there who yearns for the progressive change this country needs.

If we do that… then maybe, just maybe, we will get that Pink Tax outlawed…

We will get the ban lifted on asylum seekers working and feeling valued...

We'll end the benefits freeze…stop the immoral cap on benefits for children…

And introduce a better way to help people dependent on disability payments without robbing them of their dignity.

Maybe then we can then restore some humanity to a system we were once so rightly proud of.

And maybe … just maybe… this generation of Liberals can finish the job that previous ones started...

We can stop the Tories dismantling that fairer society, the welfare state those generations worked so hard to build…

Reject the politics of this rudderless, morally indefensible, shambles of a Government…

Conference, we demand better. We demand a liberal future.