At the start of October, almost six million people woke up £1,000 a year worse off as the £20 per week temporary uplift in Universal Credit was cut.
As ministers threw back wine and belted out eighties power ballads at a Conservative Party conference karaoke party, parents lay wide awake in their beds wondering how they’d afford to pay for their children’s winter coats this year, or how they’d keep their homes warm when the temperature drops.
It is the biggest overnight welfare cut since the Second World War. Families who for the past 18 months have been given a small amount of breathing space with their finances will be forced to get by on £86 a month less for no real reason except an ideology of unnecessary cruelty that tells them it’s time to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get “back to work”.
But there’s a flaw in the government’s argument. Almost 40 per cent of people who claim Universal Credit are classed as being in employment – often in low-paid and insecure jobs that simply do not pay them enough to live on.
The reality is devastating. Last week Jacob Rees-Mogg was confronted outside the Tory Party conference in Manchester by Dominic Hutchins, a former youth worker and disability activist with cerebral palsy who knows all too well the perils of the benefits system. Hutchins brought onlookers to the brink of tears as he told Rees-Mogg his own story of losing his job due to Tory cuts before being subjected to the inhumane assessment process to prove a disability he has had since birth.
There are millions of stories like Hutchins’s – stories of vulnerable people and low income families degraded and dehumanised as they live hand to mouth and battle against rising costs of living.
A former seamstress who once juggled three jobs last week told the BBC how the uplift in Universal Credit had helped her pay for extra heating costs as she underwent cancer treatment. She described how side-effects from chemotherapy often left her cold, and she worried her joints would ache if she could no longer afford to keep her house warm after the benefit cut.
Another case study: a young mum living in temporary accommodation with her four-month-old baby told how the hotel she was staying in had no washing machine, so she had to use a laundrette to keep her baby’s clothes clean. It’s expensive to be poor.
In the country with the fifth largest economy in the world, cancer patients should not have to think twice about how they are going to heat their homes. Parents should not have to go hungry to make sure their children are fed. Every child should have a winter coat.
The £20 a week increase introduced at the start of the pandemic should have been a step towards a fairer and more generous benefits system that is designed to support people when times are hard.
But instead millions of families face a winter of hardship through no fault of their own.
Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy
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