Every day for the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ this year, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2021. Today, on the twelfth and final day of Christmas in our series, we investigate the suffering that the cut to Universal Credit earlier this year has wrought – and what it means for the future of the welfare state.
Is this the return of the ‘five giant evils’?
Squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease – the ‘five giant evils’ in Sir William Beveridge’s 1942 report that our welfare state was built on, saw falling poverty, slum clearance, the founding of a free health service and education system, a rise in people’s income and a drop in inequality.
But during the last 18 months people have endured thousands of deaths every day, companies collapsing, jobs being lost, isolation and illness all while making huge sacrifices in order to keep our nation safe. Now the great work done by the Beveridge Report is threatened by a government eager to deal us the biggest cut to the welfare state since it was founded more than 70 years ago following the toughest year and a half this generation has seen.
There are currently 5.5m households struggling to get by on Universal Credit, many going without food, struggling to pay bills and rent and living with the risk of losing their home hanging over them each day. The number of households claiming Universal Credit doubled during the pandemic and now the government has ‘phased out’ the £20 uplift, which was brought in to help people get by during the pandemic.
“The determination to rob the poorest workers and families of £20 a week from October was heartless and economically irresponsible,” said Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner. “It is estimated that half a million people have been plunged in to poverty, including 200,000 children and millions more put under tremendous financial strain. It is working families who are affected most by the cuts.
“The majority of those on Universal Credit are in work but earning too little to get by because poverty pay has exploded under a decade of Conservative rule,” added Turner.
The extra money, which worked out as roughly £1,000 a year, was the difference between some families getting by or falling further into poverty. Kerry is a single parent to three children and for her the extra £20 a week did not even bring her incomings in line with her outgoings. Losing the extra money is a worry that plays on her mind daily.
“I am absolutely dreading Christmas. Without the extra £20 a week we will be £200 short each month,” she said.
New analysis from The Joseph Rowntree foundation claims that the income of a family with three children, where one adult is working full-time, and the other is working part-time, would have been £271 a month above the poverty line in 2013/14.
Below the poverty line
But cuts and freezes by the Tories in the decade leading up to the pandemic has eroded income so much that even if the £20 Universal Credit uplift had continued, families would still remain below the poverty line.
Kerry is a full time carer to her 15 year old son who has autism. Because she is in receipt of carer’s allowance she loses a portion of her Universal Credit and any entitlement to winter support cold weather payments.
“I’m constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul. Each month I have to decide which bill I’m not going to pay. It’s absolutely awful living with the worry that I am getting further into debt each month,” she said.
Life for Kerry and her three children changed very suddenly when her partner of 12 years died unexpectedly six years ago.
“Because we weren’t married I wasn’t entitled to anything. I went on to a basic single parent allowance. It was a massive reality check,” she said.
Like many Universal Credit claimants the initial five week wait for the first payment immediately put Kerry at a massive financial disadvantage – one of the failings of a system that seems designed to punish and penalise rather than help and support those in need.
“I was given an advanced payment to see me through the five weeks before the first Universal Credit payment came through,” said Kerry. “Without it we would have had nothing to live on,” she added.
But when Kerry’s first Universal Credit payment appeared in her account it was £125 less than she had expected and budgeted for – a monthly deduction for the advanced payment she had received.
Unite and many other campaigning groups have been calling for the five week wait to be scrapped for years – call that has fallen on deaf ears. The five week wait is forcing hundreds of thousands of claimants to fall further into poverty as they struggle on below survival levels of income. Claimants are told that they can contact the debt management team for help but Kerry says it is impossible to get through to them.
Brutal and immoral
“It is a brutal and immoral system. People should be paid their entitlement straight away,” said Kerry.
Almost half of Britain’s Universal Credit claimants are not getting their full entitlement because they are paying back debts to the Department for Work and Pensions – 49 per cent of all deductions are to pay back a bridging loan to cover the five week wait. In January this year 1.74m children were entitled to free school meals.
During the summer holidays, many of them will have faced hunger as their families, living below the poverty line, struggle to provide extra meals on top of their other outgoings. Local councils were given funding this year to run free holiday clubs for children entitled to free school meals however the Holiday Activities and Food Programme was widely criticised.
Not only were they poorly publicised but activities were limited to four days a week, for four weeks of the holidays – analysis by the Labour Party found disadvantaged kids would only receive food support on 14 out of the 30 weekdays over the summer – an estimated 24m missed meals.
Ann-Louise Bayley is a Unite Community member from Doncaster. She volunteers for a local project called Food Aware, which supplies foodbanks and other charities that feed those in need, with food donated by supermarkets. She has been left dismayed and angry by the number of desperate families she has helped and is deeply concerned about those who may not know where to turn for help.
“Poverty in Doncaster has been spiralling since the start of the pandemic,” said Ann-Louise. “People have lost their jobs, been furloughed or their income has dropped. None of them realise how cruel the Universal Credit system is until they have to rely on it themselves.”
Ann-Louise says there were 450 food banks in South Yorkshire before the pandemic. Now there are 4,000. One of the women Ann-Louise helped recently was fraught, with nowhere else to turn and two children to feed. Both her and her husband work but like many they rely on Universal Credit to top up their earnings. An error with their Universal Credit had left them with nothing at all for three weeks.
“This woman has worked her entire life and now is forced to turn to a food bank. For many people it is incredibly difficult to swallow your pride and admit that you need help,” said Ann-Louise. “The real question is why are people being paid so little that they can’t survive on it in the first place?”
Slip through the net
Ann-Louise’s biggest concern is for those who don’t know where to go to get the help when they need it, those who slip through the net and those who are forced to turn to loan sharks to try and make ends meet.
Kerry also believes there urgently needs to be changes made to schools uniform policies to ensure that it is affordable to all families in local communities.
“Two of my kids are in secondary school. One full set of uniform costs £200. I can’t see how that is affordable to anyone, let alone families in similar financial situations to me,” she said.
In the past Kerry has had to rely on her mum to help her pay for her children’s school uniform. She has also had to use foodbanks to get by.
“This is the first year I’ve been able to buy fresh food. I was also able to get broadband connection at home so the kids could get online for their home learning during lockdown too,” said Kerry.
The digital divide put many disadvantaged children even further behind their peers during lockdown and periods of self-isolating. An estimated nine per cent of UK families don’t have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home meaning many children were unable to access education when schools were closed.
Two reports into the digital divide further highlight the inequality in access to education. The report for the National Foundation for Educational Research found that pupils in private schools were five times more likely to get near full-time teaching online as those in the state schools and a UCL survey showed 97 per cent of private schoolchildren had access to a computer at home, while one in five of those on free school meals had no access.
The UK also has extremely high income inequality compared to other developed countries. Chief executives pay themselves more than 200 times the average wage while the UK has the lowest unemployment benefits than any comparable country in Europe. An ONS report on the UK’s wealth found that the richest 10 per cent of households hold 44 per cent of all wealth while the poorest 50 per cent own just 9 per cent.
“Removing the £20 a week was barbaric,” said Ann Louise. “Our benefits system is unethical and those in positions of power are corrupt. As long as we live under a Tory government the system will never change as they have no empathy. We will continue to live in a society that allows tax dodging millionaires, a rich elite who hold all of the country’s wealth and have no interest in looking after everyone in our society.”
It certainly feels as though the very foundations our welfare state was built on have gradually been eroded by a cruel Conservative government and that the five evil’s Sir William Beveridge built it on are back in full force.
“September 30 was a bleak day for workers and our communities with the £20 cut also coinciding with the end of furlough,” said Turner. “It will go down as the day that this Tory government threw hundreds of thousands of working and vulnerable people and children under the bus.”
By Jody Whitehill