The pandemic is exposing the cruelty of Conservative social security policies

By Bernadette Meaden
December 4, 2020

The government recently increased the UK’s defence budget substantially, citing the duty of a government to protect its people. In a winter of rising unemployment, the real and imminent threats we face are poverty, hunger, homelessness and the mental and physical anguish they bring – but far from strengthening our defences against those threats, the party of government has spent ten years dismantling them.

The economic crisis we now face is exposing the cruelty of a decade of Conservative welfare policies. These policies were always wrong, they were always causing suffering, but as more and more people feel their impact they are becoming more widely understood and deplored. Let's take a look at just two.

This week it was revealed that 73 per cent of households on Universal Credit (UC) and using Trussell Trust foodbanks during the summer were having money taken out of their benefits by the government, to repay an advance. They couldn’t afford to feed themselves, but the government was still taking money off them. 

Of course, this has always been a deliberate design feature of UC, a product of the damaging and incoherent ideology which lies behind it. Claimants must wait five weeks (originally it was six) for their first payment. In a mixture of cluelessness and cruelty, designers and supporters of UC said that claimants could either rely on savings, their last month’s salary, or it would teach them financial discipline and how to budget. The stated aim was to somehow get people in insecure and low paid work to behave as if they had middle class jobs, budgeting from month to month, rather than from week to week. At the same time, however, the government was presenting UC to employers as way of giving them an even more flexible workforce, where hours could be increased and decreased according to the requirements of their business.

Similarly with the two child policy – social engineering bordering on eugenics. This policy was also sold as a way of imposing personal, social and financial responsibility. People shouldn’t have children if they couldn’t afford to raise them without help from the state. But this was always a ridiculously shallow and completely unrealistic way of thinking. Firstly, the majority of people on benefits are working, often in essential ‘key worker’ jobs, but those jobs just don’t pay enough. And what if a family has three children, is managing quite nicely, and then disaster strikes, in the shape of death, illness or unemployment? Is the third child then a mistake, an indulgence unworthy of support? According to the two-child policy, yes, they are, and government policy is to allow that family to fall into hardship.

In the middle of an economic crisis, this is putting more and more women who become pregnant with a third child in a terrible position. Do they go ahead and have the child, knowing they won't receive support, or do they have an abortion because they don’t want to put their family deeper into hardship?

What if they have an abortion, and their financial position improves sooner than expected – they or their partner get a new job and they find that, if they’d just hung on a little longer, the child could have been born? The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has surveyed women who have had an abortion during the pandemic, and over half said the two child policy was “important in their decision-making around whether or not to continue the pregnancy.” And of course it would seem likely that if there is a chance that a child may be disabled, that lack of support would be an even bigger factor. The government likes to talk about difficult decisions, but they are imposing impossible, heartbreaking decisions on low-income parents.

And of course the wait for Universal Credit which puts people into debt, and the two child limit damaging family life are just two of many policies actively creating and exacerbating hardship for people in this crisis. There are many more policies, introduced in the past decade, which have combined to create a deep level of insecurity and anxiety in those who are not financially privileged. So much so, that it is now predicted that by next spring a third of the country will be living below the Minimum Income Standard, a recognised threshold for the minimum socially acceptable standard of living. 

Quite simply, welfare reform policies combined with austerity have turned a system of social security into a system of social insecurity. Did we ever envisage, ten years ago, that widespread hunger would be a problem we faced in the UK?

The deliberate policy of Conservative governments since 2010 has been to remove support for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in the UK. Analysis by Human Rights Watch has found that between 2010 and 2018, state spending on welfare support for children and families was halved as a proportion of GDP.  There can be no more direct an expression of priorities. No matter what rhetoric the government might employ to claim that they care about people, their actions could not be any clearer in showing us what their values really are. As Human Rights Watch says, “This is no accident. It points to bad policy that is harming the country’s most socioeconomically vulnerable children.”

And of course, all of this has been so much worse for people with an illness or disability. Despite being more likely to be living in poverty and more likely to be clinically vulnerable to COVID-19, those in receipt of disability benefits were, in a decision entirely typical of the government’s attitude towards them, denied even the £20 boost to Universal Credit introduced at the start of the pandemic, presumably in an attempt to make their flagship welfare reform policy look slightly less impossible to live on.

But there is a danger that what is now being made obvious by the pandemic will fade from the media and public awareness when this crisis is over. There is a danger that people who fall on hard times due to a pandemic will be regarded as special cases and blameless, whilst those who fall on hard times in the usual way will continue to be disrespected and disregarded. The injustices and misfortunes that lead to people relying on social security happen every day, every week, every year. They happened before the pandemic, and they will happen long after it ends. So we must restore a system which can respectfully support adults and children to live a decent life, whenever they need it, and for whatever reason.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.