In the space of a fortnight, social, economic and political life in the UK has become unrecognisable. Our day-to-day lives have undergone an upheaval the likes of which few of us could have imagined. The most stark changes are obvious: the elderly and vulnerable forced to shut themselves indoors; schools ordered to close; the granting of draconian powers to the police.
However, one change that has not elicited the same level of attention is the increased reliance on our welfare system. For many, this will be the first time they have been required to navigate Universal Credit and other similarly complex benefits. Those already familiar will know how callous and stressful this experience can prove.
In a fair society, it’s essential to have a sound, equitable social welfare system based on the principles of dignity and respect. We shouldn’t need to spell out why. We’re in the midst of a crisis, but even at the best of times anyone can be laid off. Anyone can get ill. Anyone can suffer loss. What matters is that no-one falls through the cracks.
Yet over the years our welfare system, rather than a lifeline on which we rely in our time of need became a symbol of cruelty, derision and sneering. How did we allow our safety net to become so stigmatised?
Well, the coalition smear campaign against those in receipt of help might have been one of the most relentless and toxic in recent times, but it was also one of the most effective. A seemingly endless series of tabloid ‘poverty porn’ documentaries – which sought to denigrate the working class, social housing tenants and benefit claimants – added fuel to the fire.
Rather than being a universally accessible expression of our solidarity as a society, welfare became something that was only for a separate group – an exploitative and undeserving ‘other’. The parallel with the portrayal of immigrants is not a coincidence.
This government-led assault on the poorest in our society was designed to pitch us against each other and distract from the real issue of economic inequality. Depressingly, it succeeded. Our welfare budget was duly slashed while we witnessed the introduction of brutal measures such as the bedroom tax and two-child limit. The results were devastating but predictable: child poverty, food bank dependency and homelessness all increased. We should look back on this period with horror and remember it for what it was: political opportunism at its very worst.
Following the recent spike in redundancies and business closures, the Work and Pensions Secretary reported that almost 500,000 people applied for Universal Credit in nine days. One constituent informed my office that on calling the helpline they were told they were number 15,000 in the queue. Our welfare system, like our NHS, is under exceptional pressure at a time when we need it most.
Getting money to those in need will be pivotal to tackling the economic component of this crisis. The ‘computer says no’ answer on waiving the five-week waiting period and introducing emergency grants simply isn’t going to cut it at this stage. We cannot drift into a situation where families are ignominiously forced to queue at food banks – if they can find one open – or submit payday loan applications just to put food on the table and keep the lights on.
For too long, benefits have been depicted as a handout for failure and fecklessness. This has never been true: it is a narrative we have to counter. If there is any silver lining to the current crisis, it is that it might give people a greater, and much more direct, appreciation of just why the welfare system is needed and how it works.
In a damning report produced by the UN poverty expert, Tory austerity was described as an “ideological project causing pain and misery”. Welfare cuts were central to this project and designed to unpick the fabric of our society, which to this day means many live in destitution. This recklessness must not now be allowed to drive people who have worked all their lives into hardship during the worst crisis we have faced in more than a generation.
No-one who has fallen ill or been laid off due to a public health crisis should suffer unnecessarily because of stigma. You’ve paid in, now it’s time to take out. The application process can be complex, but it is doable – and while everyone is under pressure, help is out there in the form of MPs, councils, Citizens Advice and welfare charities.
There is such a thing as society, and one of its founding tenets is the welfare system. We would do well to remember this when we overcome this challenge – and ask why it took a global pandemic to realise the importance of something so blindingly obvious as a safety net.