ON 18 OCTOBER, Labour unanimously won a symbolic opposition day vote calling for a pause in the introduction of Universal Credit. The motion was non-binding but the result is a fresh sign of the government’s vulnerability, with Tory mps ordered to abstain from the vote. Earlier that day, facing growing disquiet from her own backbenchers, prime minister Theresa May was forced to announce the scrapping of charges of up to 55p a minute for calls to the Universal Credit helpline.
Universal Credit represents the biggest change to the welfare system undertaken since its inception. It has seen the introduction of some of the most severe and punitive benefit cuts for decades, meaning that millions of families moving onto Universal Credit will be worse off. New claimants wait a minimum of 6 weeks for their first payment, forcing people into a spiral of debt as rent arrears soar and as claimants resort to borrowing from payday or doorstep lenders.
A damning study from the Smith Institute, examining 775 rent accounts in London’s Southwark and Croydon boroughs, revealed that the average claimant had £156 in rent arrears 20 weeks after moving on to the benefit, despite being in credit at a similar stage under the old Housing Benefit. Most claimants said they had never been in arrears before.
The strict eligibility conditions imposed amount to a loss of up to £200 a month for many working families. One food bank quoted in the Smith Institute study saw a 179 per cent spike in the number of families with children coming through its doors. According to the Trussell Trust, food bank usage in the uk has reached an all-time high, with a record 1.2 million emergency food parcels handed out last year. Nearly 43 per cent of food bank users in 2016-17 reported that they were in a crisis situation due to changes or delays to their benefit payments.
Many Tory mps see food banks as a worthy charitable exercise, with Jacob Rees-Mogg describing them as “rather uplifting”. In fact they are an indictment of a capitalist Britain where 13 million live below the poverty line. And the explosion of food poverty is set to get worse, as Brexit threatens to affect food prices. In September, union Unite made a freedom of information request after discovering the government’s suppression of data on expected food price inflation when Britain leaves the eu. This will push up inflation overall and will drive even more people into poverty.
In addition to demanding that Universal Credit should be halted, Labour should demand the reversal of the draconian cuts made over years to other benefits, cuts that are pushing even more people into destitution. Changes to Personal Independence Payments announced earlier this year, disqualifying a further 160,000 disabled claimants, are another example of the government’s contemptuous disregard for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
The Tories claim that Universal Credit will give people “incentives to work”. What they mean is that it will push claimants into a job market where workers are increasingly subjected to low paid “flexible” employment and left in a permanent state of uncertainty.
Labour has pledged to abolish zero hours contracts and to introduce a £10 an hour living wage once elected. But millions can’t wait. With such a small majority, the Tories can be beaten. Labour and the union movement must mobilise mass action against the Tories and their programme for poverty.