The debate over the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit and whether it should be continued points to wider truths which are too uncomfortable to be given consistent attention, WRITES BRIAN WILSON
To many, 20 quid is the cost of a taxi fare or an average restaurant meal. That does not denote great wealth but a modest level of disposable income that helps make the economy go round.
Yet, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, removing the 20 quid would plunge more than a third of those on Universal Credit into debt with a similar proportion left unable to feed their children.
Twenty quid a week – that is how fine the margins are and while Universal Credit is the issue of the hour, the statistics confirm a stunning level of entrenched inequality which would be exacerbated by the cut but will never be challenged until it becomes the first priority of government.
That applies to Edinburgh as much as Whitehall.. On the wider issue of entrenched inequality, benefits are one lever among many including education, health, funding of council services … they all contribute to the same outcomes.
The scale of dependency on Universal Credit tells the shocking story of a divided society. In three Glasgow constituencies, In three Glasgow constituencies, more than half of families with children – 63 per cent in Glasgow Central – are on the benefit, while in Dundee West, Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, Aberdeen North and North Ayrshire the figure is also over 40 per cent.. No society should have that imbalance.
The difference 20 quid a week can make to so many households has been described by none less than Sir Iain Duncan Smith as “one of the benefits of the pandemic’ which should not be thrown away. He is one of six former Tory Social Security Secretaries who have called for the top-up to be continued, so far without sign of success.
Yet the arguments on economic, as well as humane, grounds are powerful. The £6 billion a year involved is money spent in the economy – every last penny of it., supporting fragile businesses in poor places. It is also lifting families out of dependence on other services as well as informal provision like foodbanks.
The balance between deterring people taking employment and giving a decent standard of living is one all governments have to determine. In that respect, it is scarcely the time to take a hard line. More than a third of those on UC are also in low-paid work. Yet they too would be caught in this universal cut just at the point when they are managing to balance finances.
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, households on Universal Credit has doubled to five million through the pandemic, so many facing the cut have never known the situation in which they would be paid £20 a week less than at present. That is a particularly cruel blow to inflict overnight with all sorts of unforeseen consequences.
According to the IFS, more than a third of claimants are single people with no children who are entitled to no more than £92 per week, including the £20. What despair will it cause when that sudden fall occurs? For more than a quarter of UC claimants, the £20 is more than a quarter of their income. How are they expected to adjust without debt and destitution, Mr Sunak?
The furlough scheme has been a huge success and I have no quarrel with it being wound down. Only then will the labour market start to clarify itself. There is a huge dichotomy between job vacancies and people to fill them which is the product of many behavioural changes during the pandemic as well as the Brexit factor.
The least this demands is an extension of the uplift until some of the fog lifts. By that point, it may also be clear that the economic argument is highly compatible with the social one. Even then, the underlying fact will not have gone away – that for so many in our society, £20 a week is the difference between poverty and heads above water, including the heads of children.
THE WHOLE FERRY DEBACLE NEEDS A JUDGE-LED INQUIRY – NOT DENIAL
The intimation by Caledonian Marine Assets Limited (CMAL) that it plans to expand its headquarters in Port Glasgow and take on 21 more people raises an immediate question – has this bravura the approval of the Scottish Government, of which CMAL is a wholly-owned creature?
If not, it confirms CMAL is a law to itself. If so, then communities reliant on ferry services which CMAL have helped reduce to chaos have another right to ask what on earth is going on? There would be virtual unanimity in these places that CMAL should be scrapped, not digging deeper to secure its own future.
Even Ministers acknowledged the problem by appointing Ernst & Young – they do love big ticket consultants, don’t they? – to report on the whole mess involving CMAL, Transport Scotland (i.e. civil servants) and Caledonian MacBrayne (the ones at the sharp end). Are CMAL already assuming they are safe?
Who would one ask? The board of CMAL is made up of people with no connection to the communities these ferries serve in line with Scottish Government policy to allow the natives nowhere near the quangos that rule their lives. Nobody has been held accountable for the Ferguson’s scandal or any of the other botches to which CMAL was central.
With hundreds of millions of pounds at stake, the only appointment Scottish Ministers should authorise is of a High Court Judge to lead an inquiry into the a debacle which shows absolutely no sign of resolution. That call is backed by, among others, Jim McColl, former chairman of Ferguson’s. Why not by his old patron, Nicola Sturgeon, and the board of CMAL?