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The universal credit cut is the ending point of years of cruelty to welfare | John Harris

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Hbefore it comes. This Wednesday, the Department of Labor and Pensions will finally end the “increase” introduced in March 2020 for the universal credit by £ 20 a week. Boris Johnson gives his grand speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, which is sure to be full of boosting talks about the “Leveling” the new global Great Britain – and, if the latest announcements are allowed, about the supposed prospect of a country that cannot currently feed itself to become a major player in space exploration. On Earth, however, the sudden loss of £ 86.67 a month for millions of people will inevitably trigger spikes in debt, displacement and silent, grueling hardship.

The surrounding image only makes the cut look even more cruel. Last week the government’s vacation program ended, sparking fears of new layoffs and even more people being loaded into a benefit system that makes livelihoods nearly impossible. We all know about rising energy prices and food inflation. What the cut in universal credit will mean for lives already turned upside down by the pandemic hardly needs an explanation; Among other issues, a change that will add nearly 300,000 children to child poverty looks both ruthless and nasty amid a child mental health crisis.

But the government machine continues to accelerate. Last weekend, Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps said the cut would be “as we get back to the people who are going back to work and at more normal times”. The labor shortage is part of the mood music here, as if an abundance of opportunity awaits anyone who fears the bread, when in reality the labor sectors – freight forwarding, food processing, hospitality – are often built on shifts and hours that predominate most people the end. In any case, if 40% of people with universal credit are already employed, “back to work” is indeed an idiotic mantra.

In his interview with Andrew Marr today, Johnson insisted that the survey was part of a package of Covid measures that were “no longer appropriate”. But behind the public intransigence, fear of the consequences of the cut is now swirling around Whitehall. The Department of Labor and Pensions is said to be in talks with the Treasury Department about reducing what is known as the Universal Credit Taper Council (which cuts benefits for every extra pound earned through work, meaning the 20 Pounds have to be made up if you earn at least another 54 pounds) from 63 pence to 60 pence, which would hardly compensate for the impending loss. Last Thursday, the government, belatedly responding to months of warnings about the effects of the cut, announced a new budget support fund that appears to be administered by local councils. It apparently targets “the neediest as we enter the final stages of recovery” and provides when needed such as “food, clothing, and utilities,” but its inadequacies are evident.

The annual impact of the cut will be around £ 6 billion, but the fund will total £ 500 million. It replaces a basic entitlement with a rationed, discretionary system that is suddenly transferred to local authorities suffering from staff and resources. Also note that one of the deeply ingrained traits of living on the social fringes is the need to struggle endlessly through the great tangle of forms and phone calls, and the main effect of this move will be to reinforce it.

And so to the politics of all of this. During the first lockdown in particular, hopes for a friendlier, less punitive welfare state rose briefly, and the “boom” seemed to indicate that even at the top of government some understanding of the impossibility of life for millions of people had sunk in. Now we see the most terrible kind of rewind. The pandemic obviously hasn’t changed the fundamentals of benefit policy, and we’re where we ever were: people in need of help are pushed around endlessly while politicians scream about the character-building wonders of work and an inhuman, endlessly “conditional” system called just what the public wants.

But I wonder. The idea of ​​the social benefit system as a reluctant last resort for people who have to be prevented from milking (“welfare”, as opposed to the post-war idea of ​​social security) is getting on in years. To some extent it has its roots in the New Labor years, with Tony Blair’s insistence on what he called “welfare for work” and the kind of messages from his successor (it’s good to see that Gordon Brown says the cut is “the most morally unjustifiable thing I’ve seen in politics,” but headlines like “Gordon Brown to crack down on charity fraudsters in Queen’s speech” are worth remembering. This set the stage for David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s cynical distinction between workers and mere applicants, and for the manner in which then Labor and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith in the wake of the cut in social benefits and a series of brutal changes: the massively increased freeze on benefits , the arbitrary and silly benefit cap, the disgraced work ability assessments, the bedroom tax. The system was now inherently punishable: give or take the softening of some rules when the pandemic hit, we’ve been here ever since.

But as the atrocities intensified – not least for disabled people – there was an inevitable setback. A number of social media voices and bloggers have done an amazing job highlighting seemingly endless injustices and outrages. The number of boards increased massively about a decade ago: they may be open to accusations of normalizing hunger, but they also give visibility and urgency to poverty – and a nagging presence in everyday life through things as mundane as public food collection points . The concept – and terrible reality – of “vacation hunger” began to attract attention around 2014. Last year, football player Marcus Rashford’s work on this subject marked a major change; now his loud opposition to the universal credit cut only underscores the fact that questions about poverty and social benefits can no longer be marginalized, mainly thanks to non-politicians.

In a political mainstream too often dominated by notions of “welfare” there are reasons for cautious hope. How Keir Starmer’s talk of a “contribution society” (in which life opportunities evidently after “hard work and how to contribute”) manifests itself in politics must be watched carefully – but his party is obliged to promote universal credit through a “better system “To replace the” perverse “taper system and to abolish both the two-child limit of child benefit and the upper limit of benefits.

In Brighton last week, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham walked around the edge of the conference, advocating a universal basic income. A remorseful Stephen Crabb, Duncan Smith’s short-lived Tory successor at DWP, says that the idea that “if you can make welfare just a little tougher…; Cameron’s former speechwriter says the universal credit cut “will be felt in myriad domestic disasters and humiliations.” Maybe, just maybe, the mindset that has ruined so many lives is slowly falling apart, but there is a characteristic cruelty in one inescapable fact – that it will take more suffering and pain to hasten its downfall.

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