The Guardian view on austerity: reversing Robin Hood | Editorial

The poorest are pushed further into poverty, while the rich are given billions. Not satire, but the data

One loosely applied law for the rich. Another tightly monitored one for the poor. Next Monday, the government reduces the total amount of benefits families are allowed to claim. Using the Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures, 88,000 families with a quarter of a million children will have to manage on less money. A lot less: the average cut will be £260 a month. Sums that large spell eviction and homelessness for many. Independent experts expect the turmoil to be even greater.

Not so long ago, the Conservatives vowed to end child poverty. Now they are enacting laws to create not just poverty, but generations of destitution. Nor are they alone in this project. The benefits cap was brought in by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. It was endorsed by Ed Miliband’s Labour party. As acting leader last year, Harriet Harman instructed Labour MPs not to oppose the reduction of the cap. Still, the fact remains that the benefit cap was a Conservative idea.

Meanwhile, as a report from the Resolution Foundation points out this morning, the Conservatives have since 2010 brought in tax cut after tax cut, worth a total £32bn this year. Set that against the reduction of the benefit cap, which will inflict chaos on hundreds of thousands of the poorest to raise a measly £65m this year. Over George Osborne’s six years in No 11, corporation tax rates have been slashed. The threshold at which personal income is taxed has risen to over £10,000 and will next year hit £11,500. Under the party that once promised “vote blue, go green”, fuel duty was first cut and then frozen. These giveaways have gone largely to big business and to the rich. The rise in the personal income tax threshold was sold by Nick Clegg and David Cameron as a way of boosting the living standards of the working poor. It was actually a hugely expensive sop to the rich.

Then there is the kid-glove treatment of the super-rich, as detailed by the National Audit Office yesterday. The NAO report is not political, yet its investigation is a must-read for all those who want to get to grips with the government’s austerity project. Tax inspectors have identified potential evasion or avoidance worth £2bn among 6,500 super-rich individuals. Of those, only two individuals have been criminally investigated, with one single prosecution. Tax inspectors have identified a variety of ways in which the very wealthy game the system: from failing to declare foreign income to investing in schemes that are sold as tax dodges. The NAO points out that hundreds of millions stand to be collected from enforcing the law. It also paints a picture in which the tax inspectors are outnumbered and outgunned by the super-wealthy and their armies of advisers.

Theresa May’s promise is “a country that works for all”. Yet she has been involved in and is now in charge of an austerity project that does the opposite: pushing the poorest deeper into poverty while letting the richest off scot-free. If the prime minister wants to make good on her pledges of social justice, she has her chance in the autumn statement later this month. She can follow Labour’s suggestion of giving more money and more firepower to the tax inspectors. She can reverse the wasteful giveaway on income tax thresholds. And she can roll back the cuts to social security and public spending. Here’s her chance; let’s hope she takes it.



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