Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer and government golden boy, has announced his 2021 Budget. Amid the shiny promises and impressive-sounding numbers, what was there for the families currently struggling to make ends meet? For the people living in deep, entrenched poverty, for the parents and carers skipping meals so their children can eat?
Labour have already dubbed the Chancellor’s plans “a Budget for the few”. They’re right. This Budget does little to roll back the decade of austerity that has ravaged Britain’s vital services and left vulnerable families trying desperately to survive.
Yes, the government plans to extend the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit for a further six months, distributed in a one-off payment of £500. But Universal Credit was already much too low before the paltry increase and did not keep pace with the cost of living.
Sunak was right to outline the immense damage Covid-19 has done to the UK’s economy. He told the House of Commons that during the pandemic, 700,000 people have lost their jobs, we’ve seen the largest shrinking of the economy in 300 years, and the pandemic has widened the gap between rich and poor in Britain.
However, Sunak didn’t touch on the damage his Conservative party has done to struggling families with its ideological austerity agenda. Without their decade of brutal cuts, it’s unlikely that the levels of poverty we’re currently seeing in the UK would be quite as disturbingly high.
What people in poverty need is support and investment, not a continuation of the same austerity ideology that put them in poverty in the first place.
It is disappointing, to say the least, that he’s leaning into those same measures again, not least characterised by the plans for millions of people to pay more council tax. The Tories have totally failed to support local councils throughout the pandemic, and higher council tax bills will hit poor families hardest, pushing yet more people into poverty.
Sunak’s generosity in measures like the Universal Credit uplift is short-lived, and does nothing tackle the root causes of poverty in the UK. Six months is not a long time and a lump payment of £500 is not enough to meaningfully change the precarious circumstances of many people.
According to the Legatum Institute, Covid-19 has plunged an additional 700,000 people in the UK into poverty, including 120,000 children. This means that 15 million people in Britain currently live in dire straits, a massive 23% of the population.
Poverty means cold, damp, overcrowded and unsafe homes. It means not having enough nutritious food to regularly eat. It means lack of access to holidays and cultural experiences – things that I would argue make a life worth living. For children, it means not being able to invite friends home due to shame about their living situation or because there just isn’t enough food available to feed another mouth at tea time
What these people need is support and investment, not a continuation of the same austerity ideology that put them in poverty in the first place.
Rishi Sunak does not get to the root of the issue. Instead, we have an ill-fitting bandage slapped over a gaping wound.
Rishi Sunak has failed to tackle this in his Budget. He has not addressed the fact that new claimants must wait up to five weeks to receive a first payment, although they can sometimes request an advance (which must be paid back), leading to debt and people turning to unscrupulous payday lenders.
People living in poverty are increasingly likely to be from working households. Seven in ten people claiming Universal Credit were in work or looking for work last November. One of the issues here is low-paid, insecure work that doesn’t offer the people in these jobs a dignified or decent quality of life.
If Rishi Sunak was truly interested in tackling poverty in the UK, he would steer away from his party’s legacy of punishing austerity, instead of reinforcing it. He would be looking to build on measures such as the furlough scheme, investing in the NHS which has got us through the pandemic and offering a pay rise to NHS staff, and he would be learning from the US’s stimulus efforts as a way of meaningfully supporting people.
Again, while measures like the continued uplift in Universal Credit are welcome, this Budget does not get to the root of the issue. Instead, we have an ill-fitting bandage slapped over a gaping wound.
The current levels of poverty in Britain should be a source of deep shame for the Conservative party. They should be further shamed for doubling down on the efforts that have driven a wrecking ball through the lives of struggling families. But if there’s one thing we know about the Tories, it’s that compassion for the vulnerable is pretty low down on their agenda.
Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @harriepw