Paul Maynard: The pandemic has left many people with serious health and financial problems

21 Jul

Paul Maynard is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, and Chair of the Financial Shield Learning Network

The tremendous effort to vaccinate the UK population has meant that we are now on the verge of ending the lockdown. For most of us that will come as a great relief.

The pandemic has disrupted all our lives. But we must be aware the pandemic has had very unequal impacts too. The downturn has been one of the most uneven on record, and many people now find themselves in serious debt and financial distress, through no fault of their own.

I know in my own constituency that many individuals, families, and businesses working in hospitality and tourism, events and the arts, have been knocked back very hard. Long before the pandemic, I fought for a ‘Breathing Space’ scheme to provide people seeking debt advice with protection from enforcement action.

I was delighted to see this scheme come into force in May this year, although the 60-day protection that it currently provides could yet need to be extended further if people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, struggle to regain work.

There is a proven link between a person’s financial health and their wellbeing. Without sufficient support, the pressure to repay debts can lead to physical and mental health problems which subsequently constrain employability. A longer ‘Breathing Space’ would undoubtedly help, should the economic rebound we are all hoping to see, fail to come through as quickly as we would like.

But even a longer ‘Breathing Space’ would not be enough for many people with both long-term health conditions and debts. Many of these were struggling prior to the pandemic, and many more are struggling now. Protection from debt enforcement needs to be accompanied by support with their health conditions too.

That is why I’m so pleased to have recently been asked to chair the Financial Shield Learning Network. Funded by Impact on Urban Health, the Financial Shield project is currently being trialled in South London, but it could prove to be of national importance. It is bringing together creditors, health, and advice agencies, to improve outcomes for working aged people who have, or are at risk of, long-term health conditions, and who are experiencing financial problems.

The project is highly innovative. Creditors, including the local councils and housing associations, are sharing information about areas of Lambeth and Southwark where there are concentrations of accounts in arrears. This information is then passed to participating GP practices, who search their patient lists and identify people living in those areas, who have long-term health problems.

The GP then proactively text messages these patients and offers to refer them for help with both their finances and, through social prescribing teams, with non-clinical support, to help them better manage their condition.

On the financial support side, people get help from the project’s new ‘Back on Track’ workers to claim benefits, or to obtain grants for essential items. Whilst, from the participating creditors, enforcement activity is suspended pending a repayment plan being worked out. Councils and housing associations also liaise with each other, rather than compete for repayments.

On the health support side, people get access to a huge range of ‘social prescribing’ activities to help boost their mental and physical health, and hopefully improve their prospects of future employment.

This is the UK’s first model of social prescribing to include debt advice and bring together creditors with healthcare providers. If this scheme could be rolled out to other cities and towns where there are large populations of people with both financial and long-term health problems, it could benefit huge numbers of people across the country.

Early analysis indicates there are sixty-four local authority areas in England alone where the Financial Shield approach may be particularly beneficial, including my own constituency.

As Minister for Legal Support, I immediately saw how transformative social prescribing could be in resolving the complex web of financial, health and legal problems the most vulnerable face. This initiative helps deliver that agenda.

It also goes with the grain of current Government thinking. In England, the NHS Long Term Plan includes an ambition for every one of its 1,250 Primary Care Networks to be able to recruit at least one social prescribing link worker. By ensuring they work effectively with creditors and money advice agencies, as well as by providing support with health conditions, I hope we can better support those who now need our help more than ever before.

Paul Maynard: Our political problem with free school meals isn’t happening by accident. We are failing to focus on life chances.

27 Oct

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

With over six thousand children eligible for free school meals in Blackpool North & Cleveleys, tackling food poverty – whether during the school holidays or more generally – is extremely important. It is the ultimate example in politics of where people cry “something” must be done. However, in our topsy-turvy, helter-skelter Parliamentary trench warfare, these issues very quickly morph into one side arguing “anything” should be done if they can paint the other in a poor light.

No-one should have been surprised at either the criticism which came our way (even those like me who abstained in protest) after the free school meals debate, nor the voluntary movement that stepped into the gap as a manifestation of popular disapproval.

If the question was whether the disruption the pandemic had caused, which led to the extension of provision over school holidays in the first place, had sufficiently returned to normality (with schools and school kitchens open again) to go back to not having free school meals, then the answer was no, especially as areas like this entered the instability of Tier Three once more.

A lack of empathy in some comments meant most people’s takeaway is that we want to abolish free school meals altogether, which is a shame given we extended them to sixth forms and introduced universal infant free school meals.

We sort of had advance warning of the storm. A similar debate had occurred that led to us expanding the scheme over the summer holidays. We had a period when we could have developed policies to ensure that the right support reaches the right children and, most importantly, in the right manner to have the impact required. We would have been able to introduce a genuine, long-lasting change in support which would endure beyond merely extending a voucher scheme (that Labour were critical of previously) every time we had a school holiday.

The summer holiday support cost some £120 million extra. At the same time, we invested some £5.7 billion more in a Universal Credit uplift, and a further £1 billion in increasing local housing allowance. It is also worth noting that eligibility for universal credit covers far more children than the much narrower eligibility for free school meals does.

All of this extra money is supporting the financial resilience of many families in my constituency at a time of real and growing insecurity due to the devastating impact on Blackpool’s hospitality sector when it went into Tier 3. And yes, it’s right to look at things in the round and ask how we make that money work harder.

As a first step, we need the bare minimum of a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support scheme. It is important for children to retain a link with an outside body during the longer summer break when child neglect as well as food poverty can increase as school supervision and support decreases. Such a scheme would also diminish the risk of them losing some of the learning that they have acquired during the academic year.

But this issue illustrates our wider challenge on social policy. Our life chances agenda gets put to one side, we fail to extinguish our burning injustices, because “something else” always comes along. Instead, we don’t just need to build back better with economic policy, but use the challenges of the pandemic to address social concerns too.

The policy chief of the Leader of the Opposition, Claire Ainsley, observed, in her previous role with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that “strong families able to withstand the shocks of personal change and external pressures such as job loss are vital”.

She was clear, as I am, that strong families matter. We need to return a sense of agency and autonomy to the lives of some of the most disadvantaged in society—people who have had their ability to make choices about how their lives are structured taken away from them by systems that they have not designed. I am talking about choices that most of us take for granted.

Politics is not something that we should do to people; it is something that we do with people.

We keep on trying. Our heart is in the right place. A 2015 manifesto focused on life chances. A new Prime Minister talking about burning injustices as she entered Downing Street. A 2019 election victory whose foundation is a whole new demographic cohort of supporters.

But we put all this to one side because something else “more important” comes along to deflect us. We are, I fear, fast reaching a point, to quote Keith Joseph from back in 1997, where our policies and performance no longer match the analysis and principles on which millions have backed us in past general elections.

Strivers, Battlers, Just About Managings litter recent political history. We find ourselves starting to segment the group, divide it up into smaller groups, or add other suddenly-important groups to the wider group. This is perhaps unsurprising in a society which is more individualistic than ever before, and where people’s identities are no longer rooted simply in class or social status – indeed where their identities are ever more rooted in their immediate community.

Essentially, we are identifying a broad group hitherto ignored by the elite, and demonstrating we care through a constant narrative, underpinned by policy justifying that narrative.

Ainsley, who I referred to earlier, describes this group as being on average or below incomes, in poverty probably one year in three – a “precariat”, in that they struggle to maintain let alone improve their socio-economic status. Almost exclusively reliant on public services (and engaging with them on a more frequent basis), renting privately with often unstable tenancies, exposed to volatile market forces in an insecure working environment – we may think their world is somehow not a Tory world.

But they also value family, fairness, hard work, decency and orderly structure – the Tory double helix. They are a group who feel politics has not worked for them and their interests for many years, under governments of all political parties. This is compounded by their view that their children are likely to fare less well than they did, and feel their status endangered by the ‘hourglass’ economy.

How do we tackle decreasing social mobility and the slow decline of in-work progression for those on lower pay rates? Our language focuses on improving social mobility, and we lament it is not increasing. But we never discuss how it might be diminishing and how downward mobility, like grains of sand in the hourglass economy, is actually more likely for many in the “precariat” or second generation immigrants. Ainsley cites one study of low paid workers suggested only one in six would climb out of their low paid roles over the course of a decade.

For Conservatives, at the heart of these issues is not just the challenges above, but also how to protect people not from bad decisions they may sometimes make, but rather the structures that aggravate the penalty paid for poor decisions, which can sometimes tip people over into extreme poverty when the unexpected occurs.

Then there is the larger question of how we reconnect communities to the wider economic health of the nation, and give them a stake in future growth by ending their relative isolation from many of the beneficial consequences of wider government policy.

For all that, the Government must move much more quickly to fill what has now become a policy vacuum. Free school meals is an issue which has cut through. Departments deserve credit for thinking around the issue – the building blocks are there from the DfE’s Holiday Hunger Pilots, to DEFRA’s National Food Strategy to DHSC’s work on improving take up of Healthy Start Vouchers.

I’ve written before on ConservativeHome about how department silo thinking means cross-departmental issues, however important they are, struggle to get momentum. What could be more critical right now alongside restarting economic growth than tackling some of the fundamental structural challenges that would diminish food poverty?

Failure to do so will just lead to technocratic-sounding, misguided-but-benevolent Labour policies around an emblematic “right to food” set out in legislation or a big-brother National Food Service. The lessons since 1945 are that if we Conservatives don’t get it right, someone else will try, and get it wrong.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.