The UK Government’s reluctance to halt the roll-out of its flagship Universal Credit benefit could lead to a “summer of discontent” and risks a return of public anger not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s “poll tax”, which many political commentators believe to be a defining moment in the former PM’s fall from grace.
Former Labour PM Gordon Brown warns that cuts to Universal Credit funding, enforced by former Chancellor George Osborne, together with serious flaws in the new benefit system, are almost certain to push a million more children into poverty and force countless families to rely on foodbanks to put food on the table.
Speaking in Edinburgh later today, Mr Brown is expected to say: “Surely the greatest burning injustice of all is children having to go to school ill-clad and hungry. It is the poverty of the innocent – of children too young to know they are not to blame.
“But the Conservative government lit the torch of this burning injustice and they continue to fan the flames with their £3bn of cuts. A return to poll tax-style chaos in a summer of discontent lies ahead.”
He will add: “As one of the architects of tax credits I remind people that it was difficult enough to introduce them even when we were spending billions more and raising benefits.
“But to impose universal credit – and to force 3 million to reapply for their benefits next year – when, on top of a child benefits freeze, the government is spending £3bn less, is chaotic, cruel and vindictive, far beyond austerity.
“For the first time that any of us can remember, the safety net is not now the welfare state but charity – and the lifeline for families in need is not social security but food banks.
“Voluntary groups are now being swamped with desperate and almost unanswerable requests for help.”
Mr Brown will also say: “The online application process is so difficult that only 38% who try to complete the identity check succeed.
“Esther McVey would not be announcing last week millions for Citizens Advice to aid the rollout of universal credit unless they were not deeply worried about the chaos ahead.
“And it is the fear of a poverty crisis that has led Michael Gove to announce funding for food for food banks.”
The call comes after the UK’s largest foodbank network, Trussell Trust, warned that continuing with the roll-out of Universal Credit, which will see an estimated 3million households moved to the new system from legacy benefits, is likely to cause an unprecidented surge in the numbers of people turning to foodbanks due to poverty and hunger.
The nationwide charity, who operate hundreds of foodbanks across the UK, warned that the next stage in the roll-out could cause a “major increase in the proportion of foodbank referrals”.
“This next stage – ‘managed migration’ – will see the three million people currently receiving tax credits or benefit payments under the old system sent a letter telling them to reapply for these payments under Universal Credit”, the charity said.
Emma Revie, Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust, explains: “We created our benefits system in this country to free people from poverty, not lock them into it. As we look at the current plans for the next stage of Universal Credit, we’re really worried that our network of foodbanks could see a big increase in people needing help.
“Leaving three million people to wait at least five weeks for a first payment – especially when we have already decided they need support through our old benefits or tax credits system – is just not good enough.”
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind, added: “Under Universal Credit, even those who are severely unwell and at crisis point are still being required to look for work or risking losing their benefits.
“We’ve also seen a real lack of support for people who aren’t well enough to manage an online claim or monthly payments.
“While some people with mental health problems are able to manage their money well, for others receiving one payment and being responsible for ensuring rent and bills are paid can be problematic.
“Taken together these problems are driving too many people into a cycle of debt, housing problems, and deteriorating mental health.”
Gordon Brown has called on Chancellor Philip Hammond to use his Autumn Statement later this month (29 October) to increase Universal Credit funding and conduct a review into the impact of welfare changes.
“What this government should be doing is immediately ordering a review into what is going wrong – and give emergency help to those families now in despair because of benefit cuts.”
Universal Credit replaces a number of legacy social security benefits and tax credits, including Housing Benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance, as is currently scheduled to roll-out to a further 3million households beginning in July 2019.