Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
1 September 2021

Tory ministers keep repeating the same myth about Universal Credit – here’s why it’s untrue

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak disingenuously suggest that claiming benefits and working are mutually exclusive.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In autumn the government plans to make the biggest overnight cut to benefits since the creation of the welfare state.

The £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit, introduced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, last March to help people through the pandemic, is coming to an end – meaning the UK is heading for the “biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since World War Two”, according to analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[See also: Why cutting Universal Credit is even worse than you think]

The basic Universal Credit payment for a single person aged over 25 will drop by £87 a month (or £1,040 a year).

Half a million more people face being pulled below the poverty line, including 200,000 children, as a result of the £20 uplift expiring at the beginning of October.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

As calls to make the uplift permanent intensify – including from six former Conservative work and pensions secretaries – it’s shaping up to be a point of vulnerability for the government.

Naturally, ministers are getting their excuses in early. One of their main justifications seems to be that they want to focus on bringing people back into work.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

“The emphasis has got to be about getting people into work,” Boris Johnson told the Liaison Committee in July, and that the government is focusing on a “jobs-led” recovery. 

“The collective decision was made that as we see the economy open up, we shift the focus strongly into getting people into work and jobs,” the Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey told the Work and Pensions Select Committee in July.

“I don’t think [the £20 Universal Credit uplift] will help the most… Now, as the economy is reopening and businesses are hiring again, the right thing to do is to help people find really well-paid jobs,” Sunak told Sky News in August. The Prime Minister reiterated this point, saying claimants should rely on wages rises “through their efforts rather than through taxation of other people put into their pay packets, rather than welfare”.

The suggestion that “getting into work” and claiming Universal Credit are mutually exclusive, however, is disingenuous. More than a third of Universal Credit claimants are already working.

The latest figures show 37 per cent are in work, and a further 35 per cent are actively searching for work.

37 per cent of Universal Credit claimants are in work
Percentage of claimants by work condition, July 2021

Chart by Patrick Scott

The figures also show that 42 per cent of claimants have no requirements to search for work, and 51 per cent have requirements to search for work.

Perhaps our politicians should be seeking an end to in-work poverty instead of cutting what remains of the safety net.