The government appears hellbent on inflicting immeasurable hardship. Ignoring warnings, pleas and recommendations from charities, thinktanks, opposition parties and six former Conservative welfare secretaries, Rishi Sunak seems determined to withdraw the £20 weekly uplift in universal credit payments. The chancellor’s move will start hitting people’s pockets in three weeks’ time.
The government’s research points to “catastrophic” consequences from the decision to reduce the incomes of around 1m households by 10%. In around 400 constituencies, more than one-third of families with children will be affected. What makes a bad policy worse is the disingenuous lines that ministers have chosen to try to sell it. The suggestion from the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, that claimants could work “about two hours’ extra” each week to make up for the loss, was quickly exposed as nonsense. The way that benefits are calculated for working claimants means that to repair a £20 hole in household finances would require a single adult on UC to work an extra day, or shift. But the government appears committed to a narrative that falsely paints work as the virtuous alternative to benefits.
This message is so brazenly misleading that it is troubling that anyone has to spend time or effort attacking it. Fewer than half of UC claimants are seeking employment, with 39% already working (in December 2020), and a further 18% not expected to work due to disability, or because they are a carer or the parent of a young child. The financial challenges faced by most of these families are the consequence of some combination of low wages; a dysfunctional system for allocating housing, including a chronic shortage of socially rented homes; and long-term under-investment and lack of subsidies for childcare.
Evidence suggests that the public understands at least some of this. Attitudes have changed since the early 2010s, when the Tories and the rightwing press ran a highly ideological campaign against benefits and in favour of a drastically shrunken state. Now, polling shows that a majority of Conservative voters support retaining the uplift.
A U-turn is unlikely. Instead, anti-poverty campaigners hope that the distressed reaction to the cuts will force a partial retreat, or an increase in the standard allowance (which replaced the basic rate of the old benefits) at a later date. As the footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford has no doubt realised, this is a far harder argument to win than the fight for school lunches. While a nation seemed to rise up behind Mr Rashford last year, amplifying his outraged demand that the government should give primary school pupils the food they need, the case for increased benefits is inevitably more complex, requiring greater leaps of sympathy and imagination.
The Resolution Foundation says that the government is embarking on the biggest overnight benefit cut in modern history, comparing it to the disastrous shrinking of unemployment support during the Great Depression in 1931. Without the uplift, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes, UC will not provide a decent standard of life for those experiencing hard times. Poverty ruins lives. Those that it does not ruin, it makes hard to enjoy. It is extraordinary, and appalling, that there are 4.2 million children living in poverty in a country as rich as the UK. Advocates for the approximately 6m households claiming UC must sharpen their tools, and seek out the voices and the stories that will enable them to cut through.