Slashing Universal Credit by £20 a week is an “unconscionable” breach of international human rights law that will trigger an explosion of poverty, the United Nations’ poverty envoy has said.
In a biting intervention – alongside a letter to Boris Johnson – Oliver De Schutter told the Guardian that the withdrawal of the £1,000-a-year uplift is “deliberately regressive”.
“It’s unconscionable at this point in time to remove this benefit,” he said, adding that the decision to cut the uplift – which was introduced last year to help struggling families through the coronavirus pandemic – was based on a “very ill-informed understanding” of its impact.
“For these people, £20 a week makes a huge difference, and could be the difference between falling into extreme poverty or remaining just above that poverty line.
“If the question is one of fiscal consolidation to maintain the public deficit within acceptable levels then you should raise revenues, not cut down on welfare at the expense of people in poverty.”
‘Not the time to move backwards’
De Schutter urged the government to drop its plans to scrap the uplift from 6 October, suggesting there was plentiful evidence that millions would struggle to afford food and essential bills as a result.
He said: “We are not out of the crisis yet. I suspect that when the expiry date of 6 October was set perhaps there was an expectation the economy would have significantly improved, or the pandemic be behind us, but none of these conditions are fulfilled. So it is really not the time now to move backwards.”
Labour last week passed a motion in the House of Commons calling for the cut to be withdrawn – with the support of four Tory MPs. But the motion is non-binding and does not force the government to act.
In a letter to the government, De Schutter said the UK was signatory to the international covenant of economic, social and cultural rights – and ministers must therefore justify “retrogressive measures” by carrying out a formal impact assessment.
Reconsider the cut
“Taking into account these criteria, perhaps your excellency’s government may wish to reconsider the proposed cut, since it is prima facie doubtful whether the removal of the £20 uplift is a measure that conforms to international human rights law and standards,” the letter said.
A government spokesperson said: “Universal Credit is supporting 6 million people and will continue to provide a comprehensive, vital safety net for those both in and out of work.
“As announced by the chancellor at the budget, the universal credit uplift was always a temporary measure designed to help claimants through the financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic – it has done so, and it’s right that the government should focus on its plan for jobs, supporting people back into work and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more.”