Conservative politicians like to say that the UK has the most generous benefits system in the world. Whilst it is hard to do a like-for-like comparison with other systems, studies have shown that is not the case and the UK is normally about in the middle or slightly below other first world countries.
What is clear is that the value of benefits has significantly decreased over the last 40 years and especially in the last 10 of Tory austerity. In 2017, the Child Poverty Action Group calculated that unemployment benefits were paid at 22% of the average wage in 1979 and 15% in 2017.
In 2013, the Benefit Cap was introduced. In 2017 the 2 child rule was introduced. And in 2016 benefit rates were frozen. This freeze was not lifted until April 2020.
In 2010 the rate of Job Seekers Allowance for a single person over 25 was £65.45. Until April 2020, this had increased by under £8, to £73.10. Had benefit rates kept pace with inflation the rate for a single adult over 25 in April 2020 would have been £86.00.
In April 2020 at the start of the pandemic there was a huge wave of new Universal Credit claimants, many of whom had never claimed benefit before and who were shocked and appalled at the low rate of the benefit. The Government was forced to act and increased the rate of Universal Credit by £20 per week. This meant that a single person over 25 currently receives £94.59.
When the £20 increase was introduced the Government acknowledged it would strengthen the safety net and benefit the most vulnerable families.
What is so different now? The pandemic continues, and, irrespective of the pandemic, by saying the safety net needed strengthening is tacitly accepting that it was inadequate. That is clearly true, given the real term reduction which has occurred, particularly in the last 10 years of Tory austerity. Indeed, over £10 of the £20 is swallowed up by income which has been lost over the last 10 years by below inflation increases and the benefit freeze.
The Tories claimed at the outset of the pandemic that “we are all in it together”. That clearly has not been the case when so many people have not been able to keep their jobs through furlough or working from home. Cutting Universal Credit would be a further cruel blow to those most in need. The Government should reverse this now.
Stephen Penfold is a Councillor for Brockley Ward, Lewisham