On 6 October, the country’s richest MP will pick the pockets of six million of its most hard-pressed citizens by cutting their universal credit payments and relieving them of around a thousand pounds a year. The chancellor’s justification for this act of mass larceny is that the ‘uplift’ was only intended to mitigate a temporary financial emergency.
Now, Sunak reckons the crisis, like so many Polish HGV drivers, has simply vanished over the horizon. No doubt it’s easier to conclude that everything in the economic garden is rosy if you’re more concerned about where to put your new swimming pool than how to afford the hike in heating bills. But for millions struggling on low incomes, the emergency is as real as ever.
Rishi Sunak, the MP who won’t meet his constituents
Mr Sunak is my local MP and a man with a PR operation so slick it could kill a dozen seabirds. He has a dedicated website as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds. You can even sign up for a weekly ‘Number 11’ email if you feel the need for an extra fix of Rishi.
However, Richmondshire’s actual elected representative is trickier to get hold of than his virtual self. For the best part of two months, I have been asking to speak with him about the benefits cut, but his communications team aren’t keen. Initially, they insisted it was a strictly national issue, covered by a succession of dismissive Treasury statements.
Apparently, they’d forgotten that over 6,000 of Sunak’s own constituents, nearly half of whom are working, rely on universal credit. Then, they complained that the chancellor’s constituency diary was already very full; I said I’d be brief. They said he had local events to attend; I offered to meet him there. They said they’d see what they could do; I didn’t hold my breath.
Since then, Sunak has popped up at a truly impressive number of local photo opportunities, covering everything from shop openings to country shows. On one weekend, he managed to dash between three different village fêtes, but he’s never had time to discuss why everyone from Shelter to the United Nations’ poverty envoy believes the proposed cut would be disastrous.
Take Morgan Wild, head of policy at Citizens Advice, his assessment is stark:
“We know the extra £20 a week has often meant the difference between empty cupboards and food on the table. The government should do the right thing and keep this vital lifeline.”
Business as usual means people going hungry
So, I would have liked to ask my MP – what makes him think the emergency is over?
After all, the Department for Work and Pensions has admitted they have done precisely nothing to assess the impact of reducing universal credit. Instead, Baroness Stedman-Scott insisted the cut represented a welcome return to business as usual, a particularly worrying suggestion, as 11 years of her government’s usual business has seen a terrifying rise in childhood poverty.
Even in the chancellor’s own back yard, voluntary groups are at full stretch. The Hambleton food bank is only eight minutes from his £1.5m mansion, but their latest report details a 27 percent increase in use. And the local Citizens Advice beseeched him not to impose the cut while their clients are making ‘heat or eat’ decisions.
But in Sunak’s world, no one ever has to make such choices and he’s happy to mangle the truth when the facts don’t suit him. In July, he managed to convince himself that “the number of people in poverty” had fallen, by using the simple expediency of changing the definition of the word. Perhaps he shouldn’t be expected to grasp the concept of relative poverty, after all, none of his relatives are poor.
To most people however, it’s self-evident that anyone needing to rely on benefits is in the middle of their own economic crisis. While the government wants us to believe these emergencies only appeared when the country started hording toilet rolls, the truth is the Conservative’s tenure has seen foodbanks become one of the UK’s growth industries. As Anna Taylor, director at the Food Foundation says, food insecurity is surging and is set to get a lot worse.
Sunak promised to fix the benefits system but just made it worse
So, the second question I had hoped to ask my MP was – what advice would he give to people most affected by the cut?
People like Alison H, a carer for her disabled father. She can’t increase the hours she works and says losing £20 a week will mean choosing between heating and food. Or Laura S, working two jobs but still relying on friends to cook her meals at the end of each month. Then there’s Thérèse C who struggles to manage on £80,000 a year, is forced to claim £177,622 in expenses and still doesn’t understand how the benefit system she’s supposed to be in charge of actually works.
Back in 2015, when he was newly elected and feigning concern, Sunak promised a local foodbank that he’d “see if any tweaks are required to the way we administer benefits to limit the risk of people going hungry”. So, my third question to him would have been – why does the tweak you eventually settled on involve taking money from those same hungry people?
Government attitude towards the deserving poor
The government says it has a ‘plan for jobs’, but it’s predicated on the feudal belief that the poor need to be forced into work. The truth is, removing the wherewithal to afford three meals a day won’t enable those excluded by ill health or caring responsibilities to suddenly join the job market. Nor will it encourage employers to pay a living wage. When fulltime workers need to rely on benefits, that’s not a safety net, it’s a subsidy for exploitative bosses, a green light to pay as little as they can get away with.
This attitude to the poor is exemplified in the way universal credit claimants are penalised 63p for every extra pound they earn; the ‘tapering’ that Thérèse Coffey couldn’t get her head around. Even a rumoured 3p reduction would still leave the poorest workers effectively paying the highest rate of income tax in the country.
Then there’s the household support grant, a re-badged ‘covid support grant’ with a smaller budget. Under this scheme, those in the most desperate need can beg their council for help, resurrecting the Victorian view that the poor must literally prove they are deserving.
Now, Sunak isn’t the first MP to be richer than most of his constituents. However, is a man who could ‘earn’ the £20 uplift every 50 seconds by depositing his household wealth in a savings account best placed to decide who doesn’t need emergency help? I should have liked to ask him about that.