Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Voluntary organisations, Universal Credit and conspiracy theories
I had a very useful catch-up recently with Elissa Newman of Holbeck Together, the voluntary organisation of which I have the honour to be Patron. Despite the lockdown, Elissa and her wonderful team have continued to support their service users with regular phone calls, help with shopping and prescriptions and providing meals, and on Christmas Eve they delivered over 100 surprise Christmas hampers.
Holbeck Together is one shining example of the commitment and creativity being shown by lots of voluntary organisations across South Leeds. They too are heroes of this pandemic along with our NHS staff, care workers, council staff, emergency services and other essential workers who continue to do so much on our behalf. And a special thank you to everyone who is working so hard at the moment to vaccinate the elderly and other priority groups.
The Government is facing a big decision about whether to keep the £20 a week increase in Universal Credit (UC) that is currently due to expire at the end of March. I think they should, given the huge pressure on many families’ finances. The House of Commons voted recently in favour of keeping it and although it isn’t binding, the pressure on ministers is increasing day by day. According to the latest DWP figures, the total number of people on Universal Credit in Leeds Central is currently 19,818 – an 86% increase since the pandemic began. This means that removing the increase would take around £20m a year out of the pockets of people on the lowest incomes in our community who really need this help.
Talking of which, there is also a big campaign to get the Government finally to offer financial support to those who have so far been excluded from both the furlough and self-employed income support schemes. It is estimated that there are about 3 million self-employed workers in all sorts of businesses who have lost out, and I have taken up their cause as many people affected locally have been in touch with me. It’s unfair, and it needs to change.
Amid the thousands of emails I’ve had from constituents over the last 10 months seeking advice and help, there have been quite a few that have questioned the way the pandemic is being handled. We should all welcome scrutiny, including the Government, and part of my job is to provide it along with other MPs, but there is a difference between that and denial of what is going on. I’m referring to those who appear to believe that the virus doesn’t exist, that our hospitals are empty, that it’s no worse than the flu or that this is all a great big plot to abolish our rights and bring in a police state.
I really don’t understand why some people think this way, but it is noticeable that in the last few weeks I have had fewer such emails. I hope that’s because people can now see with their own eyes the reports from inside hospitals as staff struggle to cope with an ever-growing number of Covid cases as the grim national death toll heads towards 100,000.
So where do these ideas come from? The answer is social media and conspiracy theory websites. In a different context, the same is true in the United States of America where a very large number of voters believe that the Presidential election was stolen. It’s worth pointing out that there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim, all of the legal cases alleging fraud have been thrown out by the courts and apart from anything else, it is a hurtful attack on the integrity of election officials in all of the states who simply did their job and counted the votes with diligence and commitment. I’ve seen the same dedication and professionalism from the great elections team in Leeds City Council over many years.
It got to this point because a big lie was repeated over and over again and it ended up in the storming of the Capitol in Washington in which five people died. How can a democracy function if we can’t agree on who won, and how can we function as a society if we cannot even agree on a common set of facts?
Of course, let us to continue to debate, discuss, argue and disagree – all of these are the very lifeblood of a healthy democracy – but where we see big lies and false facts, I think we have a responsibility to call them out for what they are.
First published in the February 2021 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/mps-notebook-voluntary-organisations-universal-credit-and-conspiracy-theories/