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Politics

Kent Tories slammed over universal credit cut ‘sweepstake’

Kent councillor Paul Bartlett has apologised for saying Tory members had organised a sweepstake on when the universal credit cut would first be mentioned at a meeting.

Tory councillors in Kent reportedly ran a sweepstake on when the £20 universal credit cut would first be mentioned at a town hall meeting.

Speaking at a health overview and scrutiny meeting, Labour’s Cllr Karen Constantine said the £1,040 a year cut earlier this month would force many families into poverty. But her speech was interrupted by opposition members “groaning” in the chamber.

After Cllr Constantine finished talking, Tory councillor Paul Bartlett, who chairs the meeting, explained the reasoning for the interruption.

“The reason why you heard collective groans was because some colleagues have lost the sweepstake as to when the £20 universal credit would be mentioned at this meeting,” he said.

Cllr Constantine represents Ramsgate in Thanet, which has the second highest levels of child poverty in the south of England.

She told The Big Issue she was disgusted fellow elected politicians would joke about such an issue and labelled them “out of touch”.

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“I was really shocked and very disheartened,” she said.

“It’s really insulting. These were serious issues we were discussing about a direct link between taking money away from people to buy decent food and the impact on their health and mental health.

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“People are in these meetings to do work they are paid to do. They are completely out of touch – they think it’s insignificant enough to joke about.”

The Big Issue last month revealed the extent of poverty in areas of Kent. As of July, 156,233 people in the county were claiming universal credit – almost double the amount of claimants as before the pandemic began. They have now had their benefits cut by £1,040 a year.

Last week a teenager told The Big Issue she had to quit college following the cut because she could no longer afford a bus pass.

And nearly a third of disabled claimants – around a million people – say they are “very likely” to have to skip meals or go without heating this winter.

Cllr Paul Bartlett said: “I very much regret the comment that I made during the meeting and apologise that the choice of words was insensitive.

“I would like to stress that I have the utmost sympathy for anyone struggling financially and that my comment was not, in any way, made in order to offend or upset anyone.

“The comment about universal credit was made in response to Cllr Constantine raising the issue of health outcomes for those on lower incomes – something that the health overview and scrutiny committee strives to address in everything we do.”

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