AT last someone in the Government has found the courage to stand up and say something. Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, admits that Universal Credit is to blame for the unprecedented demand for food banks.
It’s a truth that’s been staring most of us in the face for ages. If the Government wants to know why children are going to school hungry and without coats or shoes, why rent arrears evictions are on the rise and homelessness apparent in almost every town and city, they need look no further than this benefit which has returned the shame and destitution of the 1930s to one of the most developed nations on earth.
And it doesn’t take a Whitehall genius to do the maths. There are countless non-government organisations and charities which have been counting the cost on their behalf.
The Trussell Trust, the organisation responsible for most of the food banks in England, has already pointed out that it provided an emergency package of three days’ worth of food to 685,048 people between April and September last year, a 13 per cent rise on the previous year.
What has prompted this extraordinary admission, which came as Ms Rudd answered questions in the House of Commons? Was it the emaciated image of Stephen Smith, a 64-year-old from Liverpool literally starving to death because he was denied benefits, which finally tipped the balance?
The image of his pathetic six-stone frame was beamed around the world. It doesn’t look good. It hardly promotes an image of Great Britain as a strong and united country ready to take its independent place amongst leading global nations.
Apart from forcing thousands of people literally on to the breadline, one of the great criticisms of Universal Credit is that it underlines that chasm between Westminster and the rest of the country.
Only a government entirely out of touch with the people could impose a ‘‘monthly’’ pay-cheque on to individuals who in general have no choice but to budget week by week – or even day by day.
What’s more, the typical five or six-week wait to receive money in the first place has caused countless individuals to run out of funds before their claim was even processed, falling behind with rent and their ability to pay for essential services such as heating and electricity.
Universal Credit was also was set up on the proviso that it would encourage people to find work and ‘‘top up’’ their earnings as and when required. A noble aim, but unworkable in practice as anyone who had ever had any experience of child tax credits could have told ministers and civil servants.
Hadn’t these people heard of zero-hours contracts and other challenging circumstances in which a person actually in work doesn’t know what they might be earning week by week? Much of what has made Universal Credit unwieldly lies in a lack of understanding of how most of its intended recipients have to live.
The big question is whether a cynical political purpose is at work here? Rudd’s public acknowledgement that Universal Credit might not be the panacea for poverty intended by its creator, Iain Duncan Smith, is certainly one way to distract a public growing ever more restless over Brexit.
Caring Conservatism might have been trampled in the rush to negotiate a deal with Brussels, but there has to be life – and, eventually, a general election – after March 29.
If Rudd’s admission is an attempt to relight the flame and show voters that there is more to the Tory party than vile infighting, she cannot leave it hanging. Otherwise it will only do her and her party damage; it is morally wrong to score a few cheap points in Parliament by verbally falling on your sword and then stepping delicately away from the mess. Action is needed, not just words.
What is clear is that the whole thing cannot be dismantled overnight and a new system put in its place. Therefore Ms Rudd and her department must start to organise some serious temporary damage limitation. Rumours keep surfacing that she will bring the roll-out to a halt, but nothing certain has been confirmed.
Meanwhile, the queues at the food banks grow longer and more children go to school without coats and shoes. The Trussell Trust is asking the government to pause Universal Credit until a way can be found to force down the initial wait for the first benefit payment at least.
It wouldn’t solve any of the endemic problems with the policy, but it would send a clear signal that concern is genuine and not just politically-motivated. It would also, quite possibly, save people in the same perilous position as Stephen Smith from starving to death.