The £20 benefit cut is the most morally indefensible thing I’ve seen in politics | Gordon Brown

Seventy-five years after the British welfare state was born, our poorest people are about to be cast aside by the government’s universal credit cut

  • Gordon Brown is the WHO ambassador for global health financing, and was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010

There is, of course, never a right moment to cut social security benefits. But with the world dangling at the edge of an economic precipice, the price of basics – food and energy – threatening to rocket upwards and 30,000 Covid-19 cases a day, lives and livelihoods still hang in the balance. At this point, the government’s planned £20 a week cut to universal credit in October seems more economically illogical, socially divisive and morally indefensible than anything I have witnessed in this country’s politics.

For 75 years, the British welfare state has provided a safety net for families in dire need. After the cuts go into effect on 6 October, the last line of support for families will not be the welfare state, but food banks. Poor people in Britain can no longer rely on social security for the minimum they need to prevent their descent into extreme poverty. Their lifeline is now charity.

Already almost 50% of families with three or more children are below the poverty line. The £20 cut to universal credit will push 500,000 more people into poverty. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, there will be 300,000 more children pushed into poverty, taking the child poverty rate to one in every three children.

Twenty pounds a week is often the difference between breakfast and starting the day hungry; between school clothes and children going out ill-clad. Food poverty – as Marcus Rashford recently warned – is getting “devastatingly” worse. Fuel poverty will force a choice between eating and heating. And added to the country’s 2,000 food banks will be clothes banks, bedding banks and hygiene banks. As a patron of charities in my former constituency, I am already appealing to local businesses to make good the damage done by the withdrawal of the £20.

Our welfare state is no longer even attempting to fulfil the promise made in the Beveridge report of 1942: to abolish the five evils of squalor, want, disease, ignorance and idleness. No longer will social security, as was promised then, take the fear – and the shame – out of need. I can tell ministers from experience that hope is being destroyed in the places they never deign to visit and there is desperation in the faces they never see.

Austerity has been the theme of the past decade, but this cut is vindictive even beyond austerity. It comes 11 weeks before Christmas and it is being coldly and inhumanely executed in spite of the new evidence, mounting month by month, of worsening hardship and continuing crisis.

I have never seen a government act so callously and with so little concern for the consequences of their actions on the poorest in our society. Ministers have published no study to explain their cut; offered no justification in, say, falling poverty figures (they are in fact rising); and offered only one pretext, a throwaway claim by the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, that people on benefits could simply work more.

This shows how little she – and her party – understand Britain today. The gain for working an extra hour on universal credit may be as low as £2.24. Yet the breadwinner, she claimed, could make up the £20 cut by working two hours extra a week. The reality is more like eight to nine hours, and for many already labouring too many hours, this would be a return to Victorian conditions.

Instead of levelling up as they claim, they are doubling down on a losing formula that makes no economic sense. If they wanted to start balancing the books they could do what Labour did in 1997 and initiate a one-time windfall tax. They could easily raise £6bn by imposing a tax on those who have made the greatest speculative gains from the pandemic there is a mass of evidence to show that it is reasonable. Instead they have decided that the most vulnerable will pay the price.

Ministers not only refuse to back down, but also fail to take the opportunity to abandon some of the most backward and punitive aspects of the system. They could easily raise the amount each adult can earn before their universal credit is clawed back. Today, as soon as a family with children, or a disabled employee, earns more than the monthly “work allowance” (£515 for people who do not receive housing support) their payments are clawed back at a rate of 63p per pound earned. Ministers could also allow single parents to claim back more of their high childcare costs. They could restore the £30 a week payment for those with a limited capacity for work.

And they could have implemented the proposals of Rashford’s child food poverty taskforce , ended the iniquitous two-child limit for many benefits (so inhumane that it could be subject to an appeal to the European courts), abolished the arbitrary cap on benefits that large families face, been more generous with rent allowances (which do not meet the full costs of housing), or removed the five-week wait for new payments which condemns so many families to spiralling debt. But little thought appears given to doing anything that could be seen as compensatory or even caring.

Twenty years ago we promised we would abolish child poverty in a generation. Now all we can do is offer charity to prevent destitution. Rashford spoke for millions when he said that his community had little in material goods but what they lacked in money they had in compassion for each other. And that’s what they will now have to rely on: poor people having to come to the aid of the poorest; and all people of conscience and decency, from local businesses to national charities, stepping up to fill the gap in empathy and moral fibre that this government has opened up.

  • Gordon Brown is the WHO ambassador for global health financing, and was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010


Gordon Brown

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The £20 benefit cut won’t happen. Johnson can’t level up while levelling down | Polly Toynbee
The prime minister knows hitting the six million poorest households will backfire, says Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

12, Jul, 2021 @3:40 PM

Article image
The number of children in poverty is rocketing. Who is protecting them? | Frances Ryan
It’s telling that the rightwing zealots who defend the ‘unborn child’ have no qualms about policies that impoverish women and children, says Guardian columnist Frances Ryan

Frances Ryan

29, May, 2018 @2:38 PM

Article image
The universal credit cut is outrageous, but this callousness is nothing new | Frances Ryan
A gulf between those who make policy and those affected by it has brought a decade of misery, says Frances Ryan, a Guardian columnist

Frances Ryan

22, Sep, 2021 @11:20 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on poverty and the Tories: hunger hits home | Editorial
Editorial: Figures showing one in seven people going hungry in an otherwise rich area should shock ministers to act


02, Aug, 2021 @5:56 PM

Article image
Universal credit is the new poll tax. Labour must lead a revolt | Owen Jones
The rollout of universal credit is impoverishment by design but Labour’s response is too timid, says Guardian columnist Owen Jonesir

Owen Jones

10, Oct, 2018 @5:53 PM

Article image
Christmas cancelled by universal credit as benefit cuts hit the most vulnerable | Letters
Letters: Unless urgent changes are made to increase benefits and tax credits, and reform universal credit, the impact on poor families will be devastating, says Mike Stein. Meanwhile, David Higdon is shocked to find a woman at the checkout in tears


06, Nov, 2017 @6:51 PM

Article image
At last, it feels like the tide is turning on universal credit | Margaret Greenwood
Even Esther McVey has admitted some welfare claimants will be worse off under the new benefit – the rollout must be stopped, says the Labour shadow work and pensions secretary

Margaret Greenwood

13, Oct, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Don’t be fooled by Amber Rudd’s phoney attempt at compassion | Owen Jones
The work and pensions secretary’s universal credit tweak will do little to help children living in poverty, says Guardian columnist Owen Jones

Owen Jones

11, Jan, 2019 @1:08 PM

Article image
The Tories will regret ignoring the pain inflicted by universal credit | Dawn Foster
Millions will be hurt by the new benefits system. They will make the government pay at the ballot box, says Guardian columnist Dawn Foster

Dawn Foster

16, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Time to end child benefit | Martin Narey

Martin Narey: Universal payments are unnecessary. Cutting them will enable us to help the poorest families

Martin Narey

03, Oct, 2010 @11:15 PM