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18 October 2017updated 07 Aug 2021 8:38pm

MPs must vote against a morally and economically bankrupt Universal Credit

Tory MPs should follow their consciences and defy the whip.

By Rachel Wilson

Universal Credit seeks to punish those with the misfortune to fall on hard times, and is predicated on a morally and economically bankrupt Tory ideology. Today, MPs will have the opportunity to stop it in its tracks.

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, has tabled a motion to “pause and fix” Universal Credit, which will provide Tory MPs with an opportunity to vote with their consciences this evening. If they do, they’ll have to break the three-line whip ordering them to abstain, imposed by a government on the run and with a scurrilous disregard for democracy.

In 2011, ministers claimed that universal credit would take 900,000 people out of poverty, including 350,000 children. But the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned last year that 7.4 million people, including 2.6 million children, are in poverty despite being in a working family. That means a record 55 per cent of people in poverty are in working homes.

In September, Citizens Advice warned that Universal Credit expansion is “a disaster waiting to happen”. The charity said 79 per cent of claimints have rent or council tax debt, while 41 per cent have no money available to pay creditors as their monthly spend on essential living costs is more than their income.

Universal Credit is infused with the assumption that being poor or vulnerable is a life choice. It isn’t. Those of us who haven’t lived a life of privileged entitlement will have been poor or vulnerable ourselves at some point. I went to the library where my friend works yesterday. Her cat died and I wanted to give her a hug. She’d been awake since 2am worrying about changes to Universal Credit which, she believes, could see a reduction, or loss, of her in-work benefits. After paying childcare costs, she’s already struggling to break even.

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The council slashed library opening hours before selling it to a local charity that, although wanting to retain the library, can’t afford to expand opening hours. The raised Universal Credit threshold means there’s an expectation to lobby your employer for more hours/pay or to get extra income elsewhere.

According to the ONS, this region (West Midlands) has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, which means my friend would indeed be at risk of being sanctioned. If that happened, she would be summoned to the Jobcentre which is a two-hour round trip by car (there’s no public transport). What about people who can’t afford cars, let alone insurance, or petrol to put in them?

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In May 2016, the work and pensions select committee warned that the vast majority of claimants working 30 hours a week already want to increase their income or hours, concluding: “There is strong evidence that their barriers to earning more tend to be structural or due to personal circumstances, rather than motivational.” In other words, low wages and lack of jobs are the primary barriers, not bone idleness, as the Tories would have us believe.

There are alarming resonances between today’s Britain and the austere Victorian era so evocatively chronicled in Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times”. It reveals how society is structured, the divide between the classes, how the haves gain at the have nots’ expense. The unfairness and inequality, the powerlessness in the face of the enormous state machine constructed in such a way as to grind you down and spit you out when you become a burden (old, disabled, poor). 

The way espoused ideology of governments indoctrinate children, through educational constraint (“fact” not corrupting “fancy”), social segregation (private boarding schools) and a cycle of disadvantage and poverty (welfare cuts to the poor and subsidies to the rich).

What differentiates human beings from animals is our ability to empathise. Without ever experiencing hardship, it is difficult (though not impossible) to comprehend that poverty is not a life choice. That many people, through no fault of their own, end up in crisis. Many work hard to escape the cycle but find the odds stacked so high against them that they become paralysed by hopelessness and despair.

Universal Credit was allegedly designed to take vulnerable people out of poverty but all the evidence suggests it is plunging record numbers, mostly women and children, into destitution. MPs must halt this cruelty today – by voting with their conscience. If that means breaking the whip, so be it.