Why Universal Credit Is Not A Universal Answer To Covid's Economic Devastation

Arj Singh
·Deputy Political Editor, HuffPost UK
·3 min read

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It’s been another day and another 24 hours of damage for Boris Johnson over free school meals as he considers how to get away with a climbdown without it being branded as another U-turn.

The prime minister’s strategy is understandable given the situation he has got himself in, having made a whopping 13 policy U-turns since the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson is said to be considering giving extra cash to councils to set up holiday clubs, which could feed hungry children in England, in a bid to defuse the row.

But with the Marcus Rashford-inspired petition set to hit 1m signatures, the damage has already been done.

The PM will also have to ensure the plan actually works, with Kirsty McHugh of the Mayor’s Fund for London, which is involved in holiday club trials, telling PA that many of the voluntary groups and public sector organisations that run the clubs are likely to be closed at Christmas.

Of course many Tory MPs are bemoaning how Johnson got himself into this mess, as my colleague Paul highlighted with this essential piece yesterday.

And it may just be down to a seemingly misguided belief among some Tories that universal credit (UC) should be enough to solve the problem.

I have been passed a voter’s Facebook post which was doing the rounds among Tory MPs on Tuesday.

In it, a voter insists that there is “absolutely no reason that any child out there being paid this amount should be going hungry”. Attached is a UC statement showing the person in question is eligible for £281 monthly support for their one child for October.

But even George Osborne – yes the Tory deficit hawk former chancellor who slashed welfare budgets and was the architect of austerity – acknowledges that explaining away the free school meals problem with UC is “tin eared”.

Osborne explains in his Evening Standard newspaper of his time as an MP: “When I visited the food bank in my Cheshire constituency it confirmed two contradictory realities.

“First, the people I met there were receiving the same welfare payments as lots of others who were managing without the food bank. In other words, Whitehall would argue that they didn’t need handouts.

“Second, however, the people I met were in real need of help. Life had dealt them very hard blows. Many struggled (as so many of us would) to manage very tight budgets.

“A few had chaotic lives and simply couldn’t cope. It was no good telling them to manage their money better. If the food bank wasn’t there, their children would go hungry.”

Osborne now believes a government U-turn is “inevitable”.

And it is hard to argue when Rishi Sunak made a similar case that UC would cover the hit to incomes caused by replacing furlough (80% state wage subsidy) with his job support scheme (67% of wages covered), before U-turning and making the latter scheme more generous.

Rashford’s bigger goal is believed to be increased eligibility for school meals for all on UC, and Johnson may be wise not to pick another fight.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.