As the days get shorter and autumn slowly comes into view, you can feel it: a deep sense of public foreboding, perhaps best summarised as the growing realisation that business as usual is turning out to be nothing of the kind.

People’s anxieties are focused on everything from the closure of the furlough scheme to the fate of an increasingly under-pressure NHS. But for millions, there is no greater source of worry than the end of the so-called £20 weekly “uplift” to universal credit. Scheduled for 6 October, it’s now being confirmed in messages sent via online benefit accounts, and sowing the kind of cold fear that defines far too many British lives. That is the human story: in political terms, the move surely calls time on hopes that Covid-19 might have somehow marked the birth of a less nasty Tory approach to the benefits system.

Last week, the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust – which advises people about housing and benefits issues, and campaigns against poverty – put me in touch with a woman who lives in London and works in a care home for £11 an hour. She is a single mother with two children, aged four and eight, and her employer varies her hours. The universal credit payments that add to her paltry wage are essentially what keeps her family afloat.

She is intimately familiar with the cruelties and arbitrariness of benefit rules: if she is called in for two shifts of seven hours each week, she can just about cover her family’s living costs; any less, and the £440-a-week cap on benefits (which includes housing), means she loses out. Her shift pattern means she either starts early, at 7am, or finishes late, at 8.30pm. When she is at work, her kids are looked after by her former partner. The impossibility of childcare cover for those hours, plus the cost, means two shifts are her weekly limit.

Since March last year, the £20 extra she has received each week – £86.67 a month – has made a big difference. “It’s helping a lot, in terms of the children’s school uniform, or activities,” she told me. “And food.” The prospect of the cut, she said, was almost unthinkable, and her anxiety was increasing as October got closer. “I’m just living in stress, to be honest,” she said.

Even as Whitehall sources brief that the change will be “catastrophic”, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is said to be dead against making the uplift permanent. The move also seems to reflect that time-honoured Tory belief that people can somehow be divided into workers and mere claimants, with the latter routinely kicked around to make politicians appear tough.

When asked about the cut late last month, Boris Johnson said that his “strong preference” was “for people to see their wages rise through their efforts rather than through taxation of other people put into their pay packets”. But as the mother’s comments above highlight, about 40% of people who depend on universal credit are in work, and trying their best in often impossible circumstances.

With the help of the poverty-focused charity Turn2Us, I also spoke last week to Karen, who lives in a shared house in rural Kent. She is 63: three years short of the starting age for the state pension. In 2018 she was in a car accident, and was left with injuries that meant she had to give up a job at Waitrose. Having been judged fit for work despite this, she has since been stranded on universal credit (“I apply for jobs, and I don’t hear anything back – I think it’s probably my age”). The £20 uplift, she said, just about enabled her to pay her heating costs, and feel a little secure about budgeting for food. But now? “I won’t be able cover my direct debits, I won’t be able to pay any bills or anything. I’m not asking for huge payouts, but I need to survive.”

People who run food banks say that just about all the government money that came their way during the pandemic’s first year has now dried up: one organiser recently told me that he and his colleagues were now expecting a surge in need that “could not come at a worse time”. The cut will hit six in every 10 single-parent families. For the under-25s, who arbitrarily receive less universal credit than older people, the loss of money will make lives that are already unspeakably difficult almost intolerable.

Often missing from the conversation are the 2 million people still struggling on the “legacy benefits” that universal credit is replacing, who were not granted the uplift in the first place. And tangled up in all this are other cruelties, such as the way that universal credit’s “taper” snatches back many people’s benefits at the rate of 63p for every extra £1 they earn.

According to one benefits expert, plenty of people not granted a “work allowance” by the benefits system will be hit by punishing maths: if they earn £200 a week, they will have to earn £67 a week more to make up for the £20 loss; and for someone currently not working at all, the figure will be £54.

There have been hints in the past few days of adjustments to this system, as a sop to those who fear the cut’s effects. But even if that happens, other unfairnesses will remain glaring: as Keir Starmer highlighted amid Tory guffaws at last week’s prime minister’s questions, the government’s new health and social care levy will combine with the cut to take even more money from people who are not able to cope.

How will all this play out? This is a noticeably different country from the one that used to be lectured by Tory politicians about the supposed necessity of hacking down what remained of the welfare state. For a start, the number of people on universal credit was sent skyward by the pandemic, and now stands at just under 6 million. The Conservatives now represent an array of constituencies in which countless thousands will be hit by the end of the uplift. Even if the government were to somehow dilute the plans at the 11th hour, the fact it had so cruelly sent such huge numbers of people into panic would surely leave an indelible mark on the Conservatives.

Citizens Advice says that if every penny of the government’s £4bn “levelling up” fund in England was paid directly into local economies, for every pound spent the universal credit cut would still take out £1.80. In that context, politics and its promises threaten to be once again revealed as absurd theatre, with the iron rule of life in the UK once again proved: that if you are unlucky enough to be suffering, the overwhelming likelihood is that you will be made to suffer even more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *