THIS week, the British Government has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the warnings by campaigners, charities and families that their decision to slash the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit (UC) risks plunging thousands into poverty.
To cut what has been a lifeline for so many throughout the pandemic at a time when rising inflation rates and supply issues are pushing up food and energy prices is nothing short of callous.
The British Government’s spin on this issue is, of course, that the uplift was only ever a temporary measure for the pandemic and that the cut restores UC to its previous level.
Yet, the architects of UC counter this, saying that the uplift set the support at the level initially intended before it became another casualty of the austerity agenda pursued by George Osborne when Chancellor.
It is clear that reducing the income of UC recipients as the cost-of-living jumps isn’t ‘levelling up’. It’s driving down, collectively impacting 22% of Welsh families and stripping them of £300m in income every year.
My office has been inundated with concerned constituents, many expressing the view that the reduction in their weekly income will force them to make impossible decisions about essential priorities such as feeding their families, clothing their children or, with winter upon us, heating their homes.
It is no wonder that those who find themselves in such financial distress are far more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
We already know that the poorest 20% in society are twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues.
Half of those in debt struggle with their mental health.
Reducing the income of thousands of families at once will only worsen their lot.
It will trap people in a vicious circle of poverty from which it is difficult to escape.
Jibes by the Tories that claimants need to get a job are entirely off the mark.
Universal Credit is an in-work benefit, with 40% of recipients in employment.
They are fundamentally missing the point: if they want more people in work, they first need to restructure our economy in such a way that allows everyone who can work to access employment that is both fulfilling and provides at least a real living wage.
For those who cannot work, we must provide a safety net.
We should be using the aftermath of the pandemic and the automation revolution to transform working practices and adapt our economic and social models to meet future challenges rather than reasserting the old normal.
I have written before about using this as an opportunity to have a broader conversation about the imbalances between capital and labour which lead to such vast wealth inequalities across these islands.
The British state should be asking how we can use social protection to help individuals maximise their potential.
How can we adopt an empathetic policy based on training, upskilling, encouraging, and facilitating instead of coercion?
How can we use the resources we have to simultaneously create well paid-jobs and meet our climate targets? How can we transform working practices, including flexible working and a four-day working week, into a wider strategy to level up the economy?
I have little faith that Westminster has any answers.
Suppose we, in Wales, are serious about getting to grips with driving forward the economy and maximising the potential of our people.
In that case, we need to realise that the only way of achieving those aims is through taking responsibility for ourselves.
Indeed, the Wales Governance Centre has estimated that in gaining the same powers as Scotland and Northern Ireland over welfare administration, Wales would receive a £200m boost to our budget.
If we are serious about transforming Wales, we need a Welsh Government empowered with the job creation levers necessary to turbo-boost our economy and control of the social protection system to ensure that we treat our citizens fairly.
It is inescapable; ‘Levelling Up’ for Wales must mean strengthening our Senedd.
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