Charlotte Woodworth is a Campaigns Director at 38 Degrees, running campaigns on issues chosen by more than two million members – from social security to Brexit.
We’re all familiar with the pressures that Philip Hammond is under in the run up to the budget, from his party colleagues to the Prime Minister herself. The Chancellor faces a long and difficult to do list – but fixing universal credit should be at the top of it.
Analysis by 38 Degrees today reveals that, alongside the very real pain many families will experience as a result of the shift to universal credit, the Tory party itself is set to face a big political headache. That’s because in 39 Conservative seats the number of voters due to be enrolled on to Universal Credit is at least double the majority in that seat; in more than 20 of those, the ratio is five to one.
It won’t take many voters dismayed at their – or their neighbours – experience on Universal Credit switching party for seats to change hands. Big reductions in your monthly income have a way of focusing the mind.
Ours is the latest in a long list of warnings around this flagship reform. Earlier this month, Sir John Major said the Universal Credit rollout could be the 21st Century Conservative party’s equivalent of the Poll Tax.
While sympathetic to the principle of Universal Credit, Major told the Today Programme he believed that there was a risk that Universal Credit as it stands – with households potentially losing thousands of pounds in one stroke – could see the Conservatives removed from the concept of fairness in the minds of the average Briton, spelling “deep political trouble”.
Meanwhile Iain Duncan Smith, the original architect of Universal Credit, has urged the Chancellor to invest £2 billion more in the system in order to keep it afloat.
Just last week it was reported some 40 Tory backbenchers have written to Phlip Hammond supporting his call, mindful perhaps of not just families feeling the pinch but also the political impact.
Our analysis shows the electoral risk doesn’t affect any one faction of the party in particular: Theresa Villiers is at risk, as is Anna Soubry, as is, ironically, Iain Duncan Smith himself. That is the basic political calculation for the Conservatives that Sir John Major warned of.
We’ve known for a long time that there are significant problems with how Universal Credit is being rolled out. Charities and others have long warned of the dangers to low income families up and down the country. 38 degrees members are, variously, calling for more money for the programme, for it to be paused while problems are addressed, and ultimately for it to be scrapped if it can’t be fixed. The people emailing their MPs on this issue and signing petitions aimed at the Chancellor and Esther Mcvey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, come from all walks of life, from all parts of the country, and from all political backgrounds.
Hundreds more people who are already worse off because of Universal Credit have used the 38 Degrees website to contact their MPs to tell their own personal stories. This is important because problems caused by the current implementation of this benefit are not fairy tales. It’s causing real hardship among real people.
Many have told us of their own experiences of the current system. One woman told us that after her husband died, she was left to live on Universal Credit of £317 per month, supplemented by a bereavement allowance which will finish in December, in the dead of winter.
Meanwhile Debbie, a 33-year old working mother from Purley, is juggling not knowing how much money she will get each month. She told 38 Degrees:
“I used to receive Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits but was told in April that I had to move to Universal Credit. I understood that cuts would be made, as the Government needed to crack down and encourage some people back into work, but I was reassured I wouldn’t be significantly impacted as a hard-working citizen. But since the changeover, my payments have been inconsistent and have left me much worse off – from anywhere between £150-600 less a month!”
It’s clear from what people are telling us that the system as it stands is not incentivising work, and is, in fact, punishing those who do try to work hard and raise their families – aspirations we should hold dear.
The Chancellor must heed the calls of the tens of thousands of 38 Degrees members demanding he urgently fills the £2 billion gap in funding for Universal Credit. It’s not just the politically astute thing to do: it’s the right thing to do.
Universal Credit is an appealing idea for the Conservatives. It’s clean and simple, seemingly wiping away layers of bureaucracy in one stroke. It also incentivises work, or so goes the theory. But the plan of a streamlined benefits system is at risk of seriously backfiring on the Government if it is not backed up by compassion and much-needed money.
38 Degrees is a politically-independent campaign organisation representing two million people in the UK: from all backgrounds, ages and political outlooks. We campaign to support our NHS, to protect our countryside, to make sure people’s’ voices are heard throughout the Brexit process – and on many other issues, local and national. We sign petitions and email our representatives, we crowdfund important research projects and meet our elected politicians face-to-face. We are a not for profit organisation, funded by thousands of donations.