‘Wes We Can’ : The Tax Credit Debate – A Local Perspective

Last month, a number of the Redbridge Gingerbread group met with Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for Ilford North, one of 4 Redbridge constituencies. The meeting came at the end of an exciting week in politics. Days earlier, the House of Lords had voted for a motion which would delay George Osborne’s planned tax credit cuts for three years, and the chancellor had been sent back to the drawing board amid cries of a constitutional crisis. Whatever your view on the House of Lords and whether such a move was justified, it made for the biggest news story of the week and single parents (who will be worse off) were arguably at the heart of the debate.

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And that’s where they should have been – as Heidi Allen MP said in her maiden speech during the debate, this is not merely a matter of numbers on a spreadsheet; tax credit claimants are real people and these cuts will have a very real impact. It’s an opinion shared by Gingerbread. They are committed not just to speaking up for single parents but allowing them to tell their own stories. When they were invited to send a representative to speak about the probable impact of the cuts on one parent families they actioned this by giving me the opportunity to share my own personal experiences rather than citing spreadsheet figures, something I am extremely grateful for.

If this idea gets stuck in at grass roots level it has amazing potential to instigate change – single parents get a lot of stick from certain quarters and too often just become statistics, but what if they told their own stories to the people who need to hear them and demanded that they listened? Many times I’ve heard politicians discuss issues impacting single parenting (tax credits, maintenance, divorce etc) and thought that if only they’d had the experiences some of the people in our group have had, their opinions would be completely different. It’s vital that single parents inform current debate about the issues which impact them.

It was with this attitude that we set out arranging our meeting. To be fair, it wasn’t strictly necessary with Wes – he is sympathetic to single parents, has had experience of single parenting in his family and is against the proposed cuts. Still though, we knew that it was important to share real life stories from constituents to help inform any actions he may take in parliament. Wes’s constituency office told us beforehand that they had received loads of letters and emails raising concerns about the cuts but not one of them from an actual tax credit claimant. Wes wanted to know first hand the impact these cuts could have in his constituency – and we were there to tell him.

The meeting was informal. We met in a children’s centre where the kids could play and we sat round a big table over some lunch. Wes told us a bit about his opinion over what was planned and some of the things that the wider Labour party were doing about it. We all shared stories about what tax credits meant to us, what we stood to lose and how this would impact us. Most of those who were there are either teachers or work in education (it was half term so we were the lucky ones not at work that day), none are on minimum wage so the rise in the minimum wage won’t help us. We all stood to lose more than we would gain through other measures such as rises in personal allowance.

OverHelen_imageall it was a great experience and we were really thankful to Wes for coming. It was great to feel listened to, to be able to have our stories influence (even in a small way) a debate which stands to massively impact us. We were joined in the meeting by a journalist from our local paper – you can read the article here if you like: http://bit.ly/1j5Kznk

If you are a single parent reading this, regardless of whether you are part of a Gingerbread group. and would like to meet your MP, here are some tips:

If it’s just you, make an appointment at their surgery. All MPs hold regular surgeries in their constituency and as a constituent you have a right to attend.

Don’t be put off by knock backs. Sometimes it would seem that people aren’t interested in hearing your story but be persistent. MPs are paid representatives of the people in their constituency. If it feels like one person isn’t listening to you. there will be many more who will so keep trying.

Have a clear idea of what you want to say – making notes beforehand is a good idea. Also have an idea of what it is you would like them to do. This may depend on their party (whether they are in government or opposition).

Don’t be nervous – remember that this meeting is also beneficial to the MP. Many MPs are really grateful of first hand information form the people they represent. Without it, their job could be just guesswork at what is going on in their constituency. They have put themselves forward to represent you in parliament so of course they would be pleased to hear from you.

On Wednesday 25 November the Chancellor will be announcing his plans on tax credits in the Autumn Statement. I hope he does justice for single parents like me who continue to so work hard.

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