The twisted logic of making the poor poorer

Ministers seem genuinely to believe that fear and stress are the keys to lifting people out of poverty.

Lord Freud thinks we have a “dreadful welfare system”. No surprise there – the peer has been trying to tinker with, pull apart and generally undermine the benefits system since the partially-implemented 2007 Freud Report – but this time, he’s getting his way with the introduction of Universal Credit. Freud’s answer to the problem of those who don’t have enough is in reach, and it’s a counterintuitive one: what those who already have little need is … even less.

Sound confusing? I’ll let Freud explain in his own words to House magazine: “We have, through our welfare system, created a system which has made [people who are poorer] reluctant to take risks.” Single parents, those with disabilities, the long-term sick – according to Freud, you’ve all just got too comfortable in the “lifestyle” that welfare has afforded you. But lucky for you, Freud’s going to help you hit rock bottom so you can bounce right back up again.

Thanks to Freud’s comments, the incoherence of Universal Credit starts to look like some sort of plan. Over the last few weeks, organisations including the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Joseph Rowntree foundation have issued warnings about what they politely suggest might be the unintended consequences of Universal Credit.

According to the CIH, Universal Credit will leave 400,000 of the UK’s poorest worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010. Families with a weekly household income of £247 will have less; lone parents, whatever their income, lose out.

Meanwhile, the JRF points out that small financial gains will be wiped out by transport and childcare costs under UC, and the withdrawal of benefits such as free school meals and free prescriptions creates a “cliff edge” – incomes will simply drop off once they pass a certain point. And all that assumes the system even works, which seems optimistic given the disaster that accompanied the roll out of Working and Family Tax Credits. With no clear plans for stand-by arrangements in case of failure, the JRF warns that recipients will be forced to start their UC claims in debt.

One might suspect that this financial hammering of those least able to take it is a clerical error, the sort of terrible disaster inflicted by careless meddling in a complex system. But Freud makes it sound as if this is exactly what he planned in the first place. The more stretched your resources, the more Freud sees a moral imperative to thin them down still further until, with nothing left to lose, you might as well risk it all. 

It’s hard to imagine what kind of “risks” Freud imagines a household with less than £247 a week should take. Moving away from established support networks of families, school, friends and social workers to live wherever the council decides you can be cheaply shuffled is one risk. Moving back in with a violent ex because you can’t sustain your children alone? That’s another risk Universal Credit will force people into making. Sofa-surfing, shoplifting, streetwalking: all these are the kind of risks open to a person with nothing to rely on. Risk taking (the positive, speculate-to-accumulate kind that Freud wants you to think of when he says “risk”) is something you do when you have a surplus.

If you have barely enough, of course you live cautiously - not because your luxurious £247 a week has pampered your capitalist instincts into submission, but because if any chunk of that £247 goes to the wrong place or fails to arrive one week, you and your family go under. It’s almost as if Freud doesn’t understand the economics of risk at all; and given that he previously worked in the City, making him an industrial affiliate of those bankers whose desperate miscalculation of risk helped to demolish the world economy, it’s entirely plausible that he really doesn’t.

But there’s at least one person who won’t be risking anything under Universal Credit: Lord Freud. He promises that he’s been listening to feedback, taking advice, keeping himself covered. “I don’t skinny dip, I always have my trunks on,” he promises, summoning a hideous image of him diving into a pool full of benefit claimants and rubbing his Speedo area all over them. You can be certain that many of the worst off will do worse still under Freud’s Universal Credit: they’re the ones being left to take their chances.

The benefits 'lifestyle' is holding people back, says the architect of government welfare reforms. Source: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.