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Covid-19 has exposed inadequacy of safety net, says Archbishop of York

14 May 2020


The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, speaks during a virtual House of Lords debate, last week

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, speaks during a virtual House of Lords debate, last week

THE coronavirus pandemic has exposed “the inadequacy of the safety net provided by our social-security system”, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said on Wednesday of last week.

He was speaking at the start of a virtual debate on his motion — the last that he will move in the chamber as Archbishop of York: “That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the case for increasing income equality and sustainability in the light of the recent health emergency.”

In his speech, Dr Sentamu said that “the vast majority of frontline key workers are hard-pressed on poverty wages”.

He continued: “The solution must be to narrow the gap between wages and basic living costs. The creation of an economic equality and sustainability commission would help to facilitate the creation of more income equality and a fairer society that would solve many of the pressing social problems, such as the supply of genuinely affordable homes and social-care provision.”

He said that it was “shocking that children living in poverty have not been the number one priority in the unprecedented package of support announced by the Chancellor.

“The coronavirus national emergency is already exposing the inadequacy of the safety net provided by our social-security system, as more people who have not previously relied on benefits get to experience how mean it really is. Hopefully, this will lead to a more generous and compassionate system.

“So, why not increase the national living wage to £10 per hour for everyone now? The time has come for us all to stop talking about welfare benefits and talk instead about social insurance — a term which underlines both that our focus should be on need, and that we are all in this together.”

Dr Sentamu also called for “adequate funding, so that all care work is rewarded with, at least, a real living wage. Then, we must deliver fair pay rises for our key workers, and rewards for workers across the economy, to restore what they have lost through ten years of cuts and slow growth. Let us make paying the real living wage the litmus test for a fair recovery.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury also spoke during the debate on Dr Sentamu’s motion, about migrants who do not have recourse to public funds. The Children’s Society is campaigning for No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), a condition which prevents migrants who have not yet settled in the UK from accessing benefits, to be suspended during the pandemic (News, 1 May).

Archbishop Welby said: “Migrants are more likely to be self-employed, in temporary work, or working in industries which have been especially badly hit. They are less likely to own their own homes, risking homelessness if they lose their income. Concerns have been raised that migrants may be compelled to continue working even if they become ill, as to stop would be to risk destitution, which puts their and others’ health at risk. . .

“Can the Government . . . suspend the NRPF condition to allow migrants to access public funds?”

Archbishop Welby also called for charities to be given more government support, “before they are no longer able to function and pick up their normal operations”. The Treasury announced last month that charities would receive a total of £750 million in cash grants, to help them to continue their work during the pandemic (News, 17 April). But charities warned that it was not enough.

The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, gave her maiden speech during the debate — the first bishop to do so virtually, her diocese said.

Bishop Lane said: “At this time of national emergency, we know that there is much to be done: to respond to every child; to keep all our children and young people safe; to support the mental health and well-being of our children; and to protect children and families facing increased financial insecurity as a result of this crisis. The inequalities that affect the more than four million children in poverty in our country run deep and are systemic, so solutions need to be long-term and sustainable.”

Also speaking in the debate, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a dividing experience through its unequal financial impact. The lowest-earning ten per cent are seven times more likely than high earners to work in a sector which has shut down. Archbishop Sentamu champions the real living wage. In-work poverty is compounded by irregular working hours. Such unpredictability means that families cannot easily save to safeguard themselves from unexpected life events. Eighteen per cent of the north-east’s working population experience insecure work.”

The crisis, he said, also “highlights the need for a fairer all-round taxation system in which those on middle and higher incomes, of all ages, contribute more to paying the long-term costs. I hope, too, that we will explore a universal basic income system, and not simply dismiss it.”

The Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, Lord Agnew of Oulton, responding on behalf of the Government, said, in response to Dr Sentamu’s call for an increase in the living wage, that low-paid workers would benefit from the increase in the national living wage that came in last month.

“That represents an increase of over £930 for the annual earnings of a full-time worker on the national living wage — equivalent to a total increase in annual earnings of more than £3,600 since its introduction in April 2016. The Government have also confirmed their target to push on . . . to reach two-thirds of median earnings by 2024, as long as economic conditions are secure. The Government are responsible for setting the legal minimum wage floors, which protect vulnerable low-paid workers. We commend employers who pay more when they can afford to do so. The Living Wage Foundation is clear that its measure is voluntary.”

Regarding pay rises for key workers, he said: “Last July, the Government delivered a second year of above-inflation pay rises for almost one million public-sector workers, in addition to the previously agreed multi-year pay deal for NHS non-medical staff, including nurses. More than one million NHS workers continue to benefit from the three-year ‘Agenda for change’ pay deal.

“The reforms will see the starting salary for a newly qualified nurse rise to £24,900 in 2020-21: 12.5 per cent higher than in 2017-18. The Government have also agreed temporary pay and pension packages for a number of public-sector workforces, including the NHS, to increase system capacity and recognise their work tackling the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Responding to Archbishop Welby’s question about financial support for migrants, Lord Agnew said: “We have announced a range of measures to ensure that people can stay safe, and many of these are available to those with a no recourse to public funds condition, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, protections from eviction for renters, and a mortgage holiday for those who need it.

“Statutory sick pay and some contributory-based benefits are not classed as public funds; so are also available to all. Local authorities may also provide basic safety-net support if it is established that there is a genuine care need that does not arise solely from destitution: for example, when there are community care needs.”

He said that there were “fundamental problems with the realities” of a universal basic income (UBI). “A flat rate of UBI would not take into account people’s circumstances and the additional needs and costs faced by some individuals. Therefore, it would not target support where it was most needed. The Government have therefore announced alternative measures to support people’s jobs and incomes, which can be delivered relatively quickly and effectively through existing benefits.”

The motion was agreed.

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