Protecting people is the first job of government, but over the last few weeks, the coronavirus crisis has exposed gaping holes in the UK’s social security net.
Even before the outbreak, a 2019 investigation by the UN found that social security in the UK had been intentionally dismantled and “replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.
The coronavirus pandemic is exposing what that ethos means for millions of people as they struggle to access benefits following redundancies or when they fall ill.
No one could have foreseen this pandemic at the turn of the year, but new poverty figures released today show just how many people were already falling through the social safety net before this crisis started.
According to the latest poverty figures, there are now 14.5 million people, including 4.2 million children, living in relative poverty after housing costs. And a record 8.1 million people living in poverty are part of a working family.
It’s clear that work is clearly not a route out of poverty.
We need the government to improve its economic response to coronavirus so that more people aren’t pushed into poverty as a result of the crisis.
We also need long-term fixes to our broken social security net, including scrapping universal credit, as well as a higher minimum wage of £10 per hour to ensure work pays everyone enough to live on.
What’s wrong with social security in the UK?
Universal Credit has been one of the biggest reforms to the social security system for decades, but it’s been a complete disaster.
The roll out has been plagued with problems, and our worst fears about how it works have been confirmed. UC is both punitive and inadequate, pushing people into hardship, poverty and debt.
Our sick pay system is also broken.
Statutory sick pay (SSP) in the UK is just £94.25 per week – far short of a weekly living wage and therefore not enough to cover basic living costs.
Many people aren’t even eligible for SSP, with two millions missing out because they don’t earn enough and five-million self-employed workers ineligible due to their employment status.
On top of this, workers are dealing with increased job insecurity and a 12-year pay squeeze that all but the most favourable measures suggest is still going on.
Over a decade of lost wages has left many without savings to fall back on and added to a growing household debt crisis.
What does this mean for poverty in the UK?
One of the clearest signs of our broken social security system is the number of people in poverty.
Today’s new poverty statistics were compiled before the coronavirus outbreak started. They show that a record-high 14.5 million people are in poverty. 4.2 million of these are children.
The figures show that after housing costs 56 per cent of those living in relative poverty are in working households. This means that 8.1 million people are now living in poverty, despite being part of a working family.
A record-high 72 per cent of children living in poverty are in households where at least one adult works. This equates to 3 million children.
The number of people living in poverty shows just how broken our economy is, and how necessary it is that the government puts in place measures to help those who were already struggling.
What needs to be done
The government needs to act now to mend the holes in the safety set.
Last week the Chancellor announced that the government will cover 80% of employee wages to avoid redundancies due to coronavirus-related slowdowns.
This was a big, positive step won by unions through hard negotiation with the government. But we’ve yet to hear about how ministers are going to support the over 5-million self-employed workers in the UK.
Removing the three-day wait for SSP was another positive step, but it’s far from enough. We urgently need decent #SickPayForAll – SSP equivalent to a real weekly wage available to everyone who needs it.
Otherwise, people showing symptoms of coronavirus who follow official instructions to self-isolate face being unable to pay their bills.
We also still need clarity over support for parents of children who are off school, as well as a wider economic support package that protects household finances.
This must include further increases to benefits payments, the end of the five-week wait for Universal Credit, and measures to reduce costs for households and protect renters.
Mend the safety net
Without proper economic support and urgent improvements to our social safety net, the impact of this pandemic will be felt for many years to come, especially by those already struggling.
And without better government intervention, the dire state of poverty in the UK is likely to get worse.
This pandemic has exposed that fact that our social safety net is broken.
The government must take urgent steps now to rebuild a system that offers real protection and a decent standard of living for all.
Wednesday 1 April 2-3pm
Join TUC’s Kate Bell who played a leading role in the negotiations, to discuss what the wage subsidy means, how reps can get involved, and what the next steps are for all of us to build on this important win. Register for webinar