Fourteen million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty.
“Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials...”
That was Philip Alston, the United Nation “Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights”, reporting on Britain a year ago.
He added: “Various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40% by 2022...
“Homelessness is up 60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%.... Food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis”.
All that has happened while unemployment has been lower than since the mid-70s. Most of those in poverty are in households where people have jobs. Just jobs that do not bring in enough to live properly.
Universal Credit, the new benefits system gradually brought in by the Tories (and Lib Dems) since 2010, to replaced other benefits, has been central to that growth of poverty. It is, as Alston said, “fast falling into Universal Discredit”.
“Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle”, but the punitive way it has been done annuls the good sense.
Labour has pledged to “scrap” Universal Credit. That doesn’t necessarily mean going back to older system of separate benefits. It means reversing cuts and making the system much more generous and supportive.
Labour has promised to:
• reduce the waiting period for benefits from five to two weeks
• scrap the ban on claiming benefits for more than two children
• scrap the overall limit on how much can be received
• suspend the “sanctions” regime used to punish and bully claimants, particularly the unemployed, sick and disabled
• recruit five thousand new benefits advisers so people can get face-to-face support to claim what’s due to them.
Far more benefit money goes unclaimed than is claimed fraudulently.
Independent analysts say these changes will boost the incomes of many of the poorest people in society, in some cases by thousands of pounds a year; and help many hundreds of thousands more.
In a cynical election manoeuvre, the Tories have announced they will end the freeze they imposed on benefits in 2015, which keeps them frozen at the same level so that in fact with inflation their real value falls. That will not undo the damage done by the freeze over the last four years and all their other “reforms”.
For decades the benefits system has become less and less about supporting those in need, and more and more stingy and punitive, pushing down claimants’ living standards to cut costs and create an environment in which workers are more under pressure and vulnerable to exploitation. That shift was, shamefully, encouraged by New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – but it has gathered speed since the Tories returned to office in 2010.