Steve Baker: Wycombe’s food insecurity levels are a huge wake-up call. We must renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

3 Aug

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

On the one hand, it is simple to tell just by walking down the streets of High Wycombe there are people who do not find life easy. It’s probably true of a town of any size across the country. On the other, what did come as a surprise is the Food Foundation’s report, splashed by The Guardian, showing Wycombe had the greatest food insecurity in the whole of the UK. This is not something to dismiss lightly, and we must take this as a clarion call to action. 

The Wycombe constituency has some of the poorest and the richest people in the country, sometimes only living a short distance away from each other. This brings its own challenges. When civil servants are creating public policy and look at Wycombe the overall demographic is one of affluence. It is easy to think that everything is all right. But the constituency contains some areas of true deprivation. People in these areas have worse health outcomes, worse education results, and all the other traditional markers of a hard life. Low pay is compounded with high housing costs which squeeze low-income household budgets to breaking point.

The Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have brought these areas into sharp focus. There was a huge strain on working parents on low incomes; they had to continue to work, home educate children and provide more food such as snacks and lunch which were normally provided at school. My caseworkers were speaking to parents with young children who had not yet received their free school meal vouchers, and this meant they were finding it hard to feed their family.

Many people had jobs, but some had no work or a severely reduced income as a result of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions and did not qualify for any of the Government support schemes due to the nature of their employment. These were people who had to ask for help to feed their families for the first time. 

It is clear the lockdown pushed some people to the edge. I do not want to rehash all the things I said about the need for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so, but these were exactly the sort of people I had in mind when I said it. It wasn’t merely about allowing people to go abroad on holiday; it was about allowing hard working people to manage their everyday lives.

Before I became an MP, I did work for the Centre for Social Justice and I have always had an interest in making sure the least affluent in society are lifted up. For a long time, I have said more money should go into UC; we spend an enormous amount on the welfare state and it should help the people who need it, but this clearly doesn’t always happen.

I have previously lobbied ministers about the five week wait for benefits to kick-in once a new application is made. I know the £20 a week extra on Universal Credit has been welcomed by those who rely on benefits and, ideally, it should be kept. But the amount paid in UC is only one aspect of supporting those most in need. We have not yet broken the cycles of poverty the CSJ identified before we came to power in 2010: it is time now to renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

Charities and public agencies need to work alongside those who use foodbanks regularly or are food insecure to offer life coaching and mentoring. Getting the balance right here will be key. I do not want an authoritarian approach to telling people what to do, but most of us could use a helping hand or sounding board every now and then.

Buckinghamshire Council is working on a project to bring together debt support and advice, helping people get back into employment and addressing local skill shortages and training opportunities, greater take-up of food voucher schemes and better support to access benefits to ensure income maximisation.

All these schemes will help but the best way of lifting people out of poverty, and the knock-on effect of food insecurity, is through work and higher paying jobs. The Government’s Plan For Jobs includes the Kickstart and Restart scheme, and gives support for apprenticeships, traineeships and doubling the number of work coaches to get people back on their feet and into work. 

That’s a great start, but I want long-term prosperity for every one of my constituents. We must unleash the wealth creating potential of our great United Kingdom to secure it.

Bella Wallersteiner: As a parliamentary staffer, I’m appalled by the double standards on who has to wear a mask

25 Jul

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

After England moved to step four of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid restrictions, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, confirmed that face masks were no longer mandatory for Members of Parliament from July 19. Instead, MPs are being “encouraged” to wear face coverings while moving around the wider Parliamentary estate.

Unfortunately, the same discretionary freedom has not been afforded to parliamentary staff for whom mask-wearing remains compulsory. Unions have been quick to point out the unfair and divisive nature of one set of rules for MPs and another set of rules for people working in the engine room of our legislature.

Before the summer recess, a significant number of Conservative MPs celebrated “Freedom Day” by ditching face masks in the House of Commons for the final Prime Minister’s Questions. And who can blame them? Many of us are desperate to say good-riddance to masks, tear down the bossy and infantilising signs which remind us to practice good hygiene (like washing our hands), remove the pointless one-way systems (we all know how to maintain social distance after 16 months of practice) and dismantle the entire edifice which has given birth to a micro-industry of excuses for disruption “due to Covid”.

And, yes, I am aware that we have all been through a lot since the pandemic started, and need to respect personal choices as not everyone is ready to return to “normal”. If wearing a mask makes some people feel safer, then that is their right and I would not belittle “brainwashed sheeple” as some freedom crusaders have done.

My concern is that once again our legislators seem to think that it is acceptable to have one rule them, another for Parliamentary staffers who must continue to wear face coverings. Until now, the decision to wear a face covering has been a legal requirement, not a matter of personal choice.

All this changed when the Prime Minister told the public that they are no longer legally required to wear masks from July 19 (in spite of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Office for England, advising that masks should be worn as a “common courtesy”). A confusing miasma of different rules in different settings means that transport operators and some shops have decided to make face coverings mandatory which could bring them into conflict with equality legislation.

The Government has succeeded in making the face covering a daily battle ground between libertarians and those who believe that it is irresponsible to dispense with all protection at a time when nearly 50,000 people a day are testing positive for Coronavirus.

I have stopped wearing my mask in virtually every setting – but as a parliamentary staffer I will be required to carry on wearing one at work. This is just another example of how Covid “guidance” has broken down and become illogical. The Government needs to make up its mind – wearing a face mask should be either mandatory or discretionary, it cannot be both.

I drew attention to this contradiction on social media and Steve Baker, MP for High Wycombe, wrote to the Speaker about this blatant discrepancy in the rules. The Speaker confirmed the House of Commons’ position which is that the Speaker has “no power to prevent democratically elected members from coming on to the estate or in to the chamber when the House is sitting. As such, there is no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on members to wear a face covering.” Sadly, he would not be drawn on the issue of Parliamentary staff being required to wear face coverings at work. In solidarity with staffers, Baker will continue to wear a face mask around Parliament.

The next battleground in the fight for freedom and equality will be the so-called “vaccine passports” for domestic events. The Speaker has rejected the use of Covid passports for MPs around Parliament, but has made no mention of staffers. Vaccination passports will discriminate against people based on decisions they have freely made and threatens the foundations of our liberal society. I have been vaccinated against Covid-19, a personal choice, but I would never stigmatise anyone who is unable to be vaccinated to or chooses not to be vaccinated.

But rules are there to be interpreted in subjective ways as we saw when foreign VIPs were exempted from the burden of travel quarantine to attend the Euro 2020 finals. Who can forget the scenes from the G7 gathering in Cornwall where any pretence of following social distancing rules were dropped quicker than you can say “Build Back Better”.

Fortunately, there are MPs willing to stand up to this discrimination and unfairness. Rumours of a vaccine passport being a condition of entry for the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October have led to a number of Conservative MPs saying they will boycott the event. I have already confirmed publicly I will not attend conference if such discriminatory measures are in place.

The Government so far has presented the pandemic as an “all in it together” chapter of national solidarity. However, this has led to people being branded selfish for visiting family members living overseas or simply going abroad with their families for a summer break after 16 months of self-incarceration. This sort of intolerance is harming the UK’s reputation for nurturing a culture of individualism and self-regulation.

Ministers have enjoyed wide public support even from those horrified by a level of authoritarianism which has not been seen in this country since the time of Oliver Cromwell. It has been borne on the belief that it would be temporary and, once the vaccines were rolled out, dispensed with forever.

But now an “us vs them” dynamic has emerged which is threatening to upset public trust and Parliament is just a microcosm of this phenomenon.

Credibility and honesty will be critical in completing the immense effort we have all undertaken in response to this crisis. Dominic Cummings has shown us what happens to a government’s health message when those responsible for it fail to adhere to their own rules. We have stopped people from leaving their homes and seeing their dying loved ones in the name of being “all in this together”. The Government must restore confidence by pressing ahead with releasing all lockdown restrictions for everyone.

Freedom Day was supposed to be the moment when the country would be liberated from the tyranny of Covid. Instead, we are in danger of entering a two-tiered Orwellian society where “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”