Angry words as Sheffield councillors oppose government ending £10.4m help for poorest families
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All councillors at the full council meeting of Sheffield City Council (February 7) agreed to oppose the government’s decision to end the Household Support Fund, which has helped thousands of city people living in poverty. The government has not announced that it intends to extend the fund, introduced in 2021 to help vulnerable families during the pandemic, beyond the end of March.
During the debate LibDem Coun Kurtis Crossland called Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “Sir Kid Starver” and Coun Mick Rooney responded by attacking the LibDems for going into a government coalition with the Conservatives.
Coun Dawn Dale, chair of the council’s children, education and families policy committee, proposed a motion opposing the ending of the fund next month. It has provided free meal vouchers to 32,000 households during the school holidays and given emergency support to households in Sheffield who struggle to afford energy, food and other essentials.
Coun Dale has written to the government, objecting to the decision. She said during the debate that she has not yet had a response.
She said that many families “don’t have the gas or electricity on when their children aren’t at home because they can’t afford it”.
She added: “They struggle with transport costs to the Jobcentre or medical appointments. The fear for household items such as cookers, freezers and washers breaking or children coming home with a hole in their coat can tip a family over into unimaginably high-cost and dangerous debts through loan sharks.”
She said that children are affected by living in such a high-stress home.
Coun Ruth Milsom, seconding the motion, said that illnesses such as rickets, scurvy, malnutrition and dental decay are at levels that Charles Dickens would recognise from his own time.
She said: “It costs a lot to keep people in poverty. The cost of the Household Support Fund is £542 million. You could have 19 Household Support Funds for the cost of treating malnutrition alone.”
Coun Tim Huggan put forward a LibDem amendment, adding in a call to all parties in Westminster to remove the two-child cap on child benefit “which contributes to child poverty among many, larger families”.
He said that Labour in control had failed to pay for free meal vouchers in time, so many children went hungry and parents were left in debt.
Referring to the Labour motion, he added: “They do nothing and say nothing – no commitments, no monetary value to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis in future. Just a letter.”
Coun Kurtis Crossland, seconding the amendment, said he grew up in a family where his mum was too ill to work, his dad was a full-time carer and three of the four children were disabled.
He said that, because of his background, he had been drawn to Labour but realised that they turn their backs on the people they claim to support. He listed a series of policy U-turns that would affect struggling families.
Urging Labour councillors to back the amendment, he asked: “Who are you going to support – the people of Sheffield or Sir Kid Starver in London?”
Sheffield Green Party put forward an amendment stating that poverty has been made significantly worse by the removal of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and the introduction of the two-child cap on child benefit.
It argued that, in addition to the local flexibility offered by the Household Support Fund, an uplift to national benefits is needed to address systemic poverty.
All amendments were voted through. Any dissent came in the form of abstentions, which did not affect the outcome.
Coun Maroof Raouf proposed the Green amendment. He warned: “There’s nothing short of catastrophe waiting to happen”.
Coun Raouf gave the example of an elderly, disabled and socially isolated housebound woman, who he referred to as Mary (not her real name), living in his Nether Edge and Sharrow ward. She came out of hospital to find only a packet of biscuits and a ready meal in her kitchen.
He said: “The Household Support Fund stepped in and provided her with an emergency food shop and nutritious meals for two months and referred her to advice teams for help with benefits and energy bills.
“Without the Household Support Fund, what would happen to people like Mary? Where would she turn for help?”
Coun Angela Argenzio, seconding the amendment, said: “I am angry that there is a need for this motion, that we normalise food banks and support for people in poverty in one of the richest countries on the planet.
“The gap between haves and have-nots is widening and social justice is worsening year on year. What we need is a national government with a moral conscience – in fact, we need a government with conscience, full stop.”
During the debate, Labour member Coun Mick Rooney said he was “absolutely furious” at remarks made by Couns Huggan and Crossland. “All you did was make sarcastic remarks and innuendoes and on a couple of occasions, Coun Crossland, you actually laughed.
“At no point in your speech did you mention the Conservatives, you spent all of your speeches having a go at the Labour Party. I will remind you that in 2010 – you were on about letting people down – millions of people in this country voted LibDem and ended up with a Tory government and we’ve had one ever since.
“So if you want to start talking about blame, put your hand up and say ‘it’s our fault’ because you conned people into voting LibDem, ie a false promise about fees for kids going to university.
“You conned people into voting for you and they all end up with a Tory government and do you want to apologise to the people of this country for letting them down?”