Scrap Universal Credit now
It’s a cloudy March morning in Merthyr and there is a steady flow of people going about their business.
This town has received a bad press as the “benefit capital of Britain”. The Mirror newspaper pointed out the average male life expectancy on one of the estates is lower than Haiti’s. But it’s a friendly town.
We set up our stall against Universal Credit. People start approaching as soon as our posters go up.
Lisa signs the petition straight away. She has a young child and, because her partner is working, doesn’t get out-of-work benefits. She’s worried that when Universal Credit hits they will lose tax credits. Her dad has been evicted because of Universal Credit.
“He’s sofa surfing now” she says “59 and nowhere to live”. He lost his flat because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) held up his benefits for so long that the private landlord lost patience and turfed him out.
Sonya comes up to the stall questioning us. “Scrap Universal Credit?” she asks, “what will people live on?” We explain we want it replaced with benefits people can actually live on. “Right!” she says, and signs our petition.
It turns out Sonya has fallen foul of the strict rules on tax credits. She works for McDonald’s and ensured she was contracted for 16 hours a week so she qualified for tax credits to top up her pay.
But then she got a letter from the DWP who had found out that she had a 15-minute unpaid break every day. So, technically, she did not work 16 hours but 13 and a half hours a week, and had therefore never qualified for tax credits. They demanded she return over £3,000 in overpayments. “I couldn’t pay that back!” she said, so they settled for £10 a week for six years!
Then Gwyn comes up to sign: “they’re cruel bastards” he says as he leans his stick on the stall. Gwyn has worked in Merthyr Vale colliery and then bricklaying after the pits closed. His knees are shot. The Welsh NHS sent him for a new knee to the Bupa hospital but it all went wrong and he has to have another one to replace it. Now the other knee has gone and that will have to be replaced as well.
But he says private company Capita found him fit to work – even though he can hardly walk. The DWP cut off his benefits and then an administrative error delayed his appeal so he had to resubmit it. He and his wife have not had a penny since October. They have held off eviction by the housing association so far, but can only live with their family helping out.
Gwyn is a tough but gentle man: “I’m not religious, but if there is a hell that’s where Iain Duncan Smith is going”, he says with unsmiling passion. “How can he treat people like this?”
The café owner comes out to clean the tables outside and offers us a cup of tea or coffee. “They’re all talking about that inside” she says. “Everyone hates it.” Sure enough, as the café empties, a queue forms at our stall. They approach, shaking their heads at the injustice of it all.
And we remind them that the Tories have given the rich nearly £20 billion a year in cuts to Corporation Tax alone, paid for by the suffering of the people at the bottom. They nod when I say the Tories are trying to drive us into the ground. All leave our stall with a copy of the Socialist.
While the Tories are in turmoil over Brexit we should never forget the cold cruelty with which they have had ruined the lives of millions of people. Nor the Blairites who refused to vote against the Welfare Act, or to put up a fight to defend local people in the council chamber.
Universal Credit must be scrapped and replaced with benefits that provide enough to live – paid to all those who need them. And there should be investment in a mass scheme of job creation – providing decent jobs to working-class people, with a minimum wage of at least £10 an hour.
These are policies Corbyn should be loudly championing amid the current parliamentary shambles. This misery must end.