A letter to Duncan Smith the architect of the cruel and vindictive universal credit:
Dear Mr Duncan Smith,
I was absolutely horrified by your recent statement following Labour’s promises to do away with Universal Credit, where you stated that “they refuse to accept the objective truth work is the best route out of poverty.” Now, firstly and just to get it out of the way, there’s some shocking use of grammar there; I sincerely hope that was written by an intern.
Now, what you have clearly failed to take into account, or perhaps “refuse to accept,” is in-work poverty and how many people that is affecting – not only affecting, but crippling.
Let me detail it for you.
I am the daughter of a Cambridge professor. I obtained a BSc from UCL in 2005 and later battled my way through an MSc which I obtained in 2016. Not a bad start, I think you’d agree. I probably wouldn’t be what you’d think of as a candidate for poverty of any sort. However, I cannot afford to run a bath
Now, I became a mother in 2007, and a single mother in 2010. I have for ten years seen any help from the government slowly but surely chipped away. Tax credits were an unmitigated disaster, it’s true. The way they were calculated on the last year’s earnings did not work for many people like myself, who through no choice of their own (and also, not ever being fired), had to change jobs regularly and earnings fluctuated. As a result, I was repeatedly in the situation of having to repay overpayments, which has been an extremely difficult financial burden to bear. So I approved of the system being revisited.
However, it has been revisited by people who seemingly do not understand the first thing of living a life that the majority of people in the UK live – at or below the average salary of £29,000. Oh my goodness, how I would love to earn that much. I won’t bore you with statistics of how heavily skewed the figures are by the highest earners to give that figure (largely because I’ll go drastically off point, and statistics aren’t my area of expertise being the only GCSE I didn’t get an A or higher in) but I seldom meet anyone earning that average, especially single mothers, so I do hope you haven’t used that in your calculations to draw up the plans for Universal Credit.
On that point, where is the research on which the new system was drawn up? Where is the qualitative data, the observation of lived experiences, the consultations? I’m not saying it wasn’t done; I would love to be pointed towards it and see how those experiences relate to my own
However, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was based on perceptions of policy makers, on prejudices about the lifestyles, choices and indeed prospects of low earners, about Job Centre stats. It was styled by people who are comfortable, have their needs met and, bizarrely, have most of those needs funded through subsidies and “expenses”.
Since becoming a mother, I have never been out of work. Indeed, I worked up until the day before going into labour (actually working on my due date) and then working the day after I gave birth. Honestly, writing that makes me so emotional; I want to cry. Would you want that experience for your wife, for your daughter?
I moved abroad when my daughter was 2 years old to what you might think of as a “third world” or “developing” country (if we are deemed “first”, or god forbid “developed,” then I pity the populations of countries who think this is what they are aspiring to) and I moved there because I knew life would be easier; I would be able to afford to work in a fulfilling job (I still had professional aspirations at that point, of course) and pay for childcare, excellent childcare at that.
I remember going to see my local MP before we left the country, and detailing for him the reasons for our leaving; that I would be better off if I didn’t work at all as a mother of a young baby, rather than trying to work and that I would be better off as a single mum – I was at that point still trying to keep our family together. The MP asked me to write everything down for him so he could take it to the policy makers, because he said the people at the top did not believe that to be the case
The ignorance of “the people at the top” continues – and increases. The Conservative Party have shown themselves to be wildly, wildly out of touch with the people they are attempting to govern and oh, how I hope it proves their undoing
I have been attempting to make ends meet ever since we returned to the UK, and as I say, I have never been out of work
As soon as I came home, I worked from home as an audio typist until I obtained a job at the local public library. I worked there part time, and took home an annual salary of just under £7,500. To supplement my income I continued to do audio typing and also took a position with the council teaching English (having obtained a TEFL qualification in 2002). However, I was not paid for travel, and a two-hour lesson involved an hour’s drive each way; so I was paid a pittance for what took four hours. I could schedule the teaching around the gaps in my library rota, but due to traffic and tight timings I often ended up arriving at one or the other late, and I was constantly stressed and flustered. I was not able to do either job well. Before long, the stress took its toll and panic attacks started; I was put on anti-depressants and beta blockers.
I spied a better alternative; I successfully applied for a job on a research project at Sussex University and relocated. That project (EU funded – ah, the glory days) was a godsend and revived a bit of my self esteem. I loved it. However, pressures meant that it folded 3.5 years early, and I was redeployed within the university to a full time position in the IT department. Then in that role, my salary was too high to qualify for benefits (I was somewhere near the average, finally!) *but* my income didn’t meet my outgoings of rent and childcare to manage the full time position. I took more audio typing work to do in the evenings, and most days had to work until midnight. Whilst I was in the part time job at the university I was also doing audio typing, and I had decided to enrol in an MSc to later be eligible for a higher paid role in the research project. When the research project came to an end early, I had not finished the MSc and desperately did not want to waste the money I had spent on it. So now, I was working a full time job, a part time job, and finishing the MSc – as well as being a single mother to a primary-aged daughter.
Can you imagine, please, for one minute, what that feels like? And then, receive a phone call from the HR department at work telling you that due to an administrative error, they had been overpaying me by £200 a month and they needed it back. My take-home pay went down then by £300, due to the loss of the £200 and the £100 monthly repayments they wanted. I hit a wall; I had a breakdown and needed three weeks off work to recuperate and take stock.
I needed to lower my outgoings to better match a part-time salary, as working full time was not working for us. Only if you are earning far above the average salary, can a single parent afford to work full time. Oh, believe me, I applied for those higher paid jobs but understandably I didn’t get an interview for a single one of them as I didn’t have the right experience, and my CV was beginning to look a little eclectic. Through no fault of my own, I had amassed a lot of work experience in different areas, and that’s no good for those higher paid jobs.
To lower my outgoings, I decided to look to move out of Brighton. There, I couldn’t afford the £1200 rent for our two bedroom maisonette so looked at other areas of the country where rent was cheaper and many people advised me to move to Norwich.
I had the audio typing work, I could move with that and find another position once I was there.
Since moving here, I have worked as a temp at the university, then as a support worker, and then found a job as a teaching assistant at my daughter’s primary school. I really hoped this would be my forever job, and while I was there I looked into doing a PGCE that would turn the role into a career. The head was very encouraging, thinking I would be a good candidate. I applied to three training programmes and had interviews for all three, but really, I knew that although they were paid training positions, the £14k salary for a full time position would not be manageable as a single mum. I would not have been able to manage the childcare costs, despite the “help” (which is not really help, let’s face it, as it never covers anywhere near the actual cost) through tax credits, and the local options of childcare are pitiful, and would have deprived my daughter of so much that I am currently trying to provide for her.
I could not make ends meet with the TA role, as I was paid £600 a month and my housing benefit and tax credits had been cut so drastically. Still, I did some audio typing to help but was finding that I was extremely tired in the evenings and struggled to work through to midnight to meet the typing deadlines. The TA role nearly bankrupted me – you have to have a rich husband, I concluded, to maintain a job as a TA.
I was extremely lucky to find two new jobs to begin in the same month, one with the Red Cross and one as a researcher for a business insights agency. I get paid roughly £10 an hour for each position, and I work school hours. I would like to work far more, but as a single parent it will not feasible until my daughter is a little older.
This summer, I tried to organise for me and my daughter to have a simple break to Cornwall to stay with a friend. I worked out we could stay with a friend on the way down there, a friend on the way back, and therefore give ourselves a four night trip. This was to be our only expedition over the summer, and we packed our bags, and the car. However, the evening before we went, I checked my bank balance and had a panic. I always knew it was going to be a tight trip, for sure, but I realised I had £200 in my bank account, no access to any other money, and the fuel would cost around £160. Yes, we didn’t have accommodation costs and I’m used to spending £35 a week on food but going away with such a tight margin seemed extremely, extremely risky. So I told my daughter we weren’t going to be going; she was so disappointed.
I couldn’t pay all my rent when it was due last month, because of the costs of school uniform, so I had to ask to pay in two instalments. My landlord is kind, and used to these kinds of requests from me now as I have to juggle so much.
My daughter used to have music lessons at school; now she’s moved up to secondary school the costs have increased wildly and I can’t pay it. She used to go to rollerskating classes; I’ve had to stop those. She used to attend Woodcraft Folk and a samba class; I can’t afford the extra fuel to get her to those sessions on a weekly basis.
I recently had dental treatment; I needed my first fillings. Aged 37, I think I’d done alright, really. Under the previous system of tax credits, I was exempt from these fees and had not been told that that had changed, so I filled in the form at the dentists as an exempt person. I had three appointments, none of which I paid for. However, it turns out, I now earn too much for this but I had never once been informed of this change. So the dentists are currently trying to see if I can just pay the £120 bill (please, tell me where I’ll find the spare money for this?) or if I will have to pay three £100 fines from the NHS for falsely claiming exemption.
Your system is depriving my family of things that we could afford two years ago, yet I’m currently in the ‘best’ work position that I’ve been in for a long, long time.
I’ve detailed my work history and current situation for you in such detail because I want you to rethink your position about universal credit, and publicly recall your statement about Labour not accepting the truth about work being the route out of poverty. Low paid work keeps people like me in poverty, and I do not see a way out of it. You cannot say I have not tried everything within my means to better myself, yet I cannot afford to run a bath; that is a luxury I can’t have. Our heating and hot water is done by oil, you see, and I must find £280 whenever I need a delivery. My oil is running low, and I can’t foresee when I will be able to save the £280, so we’re on strict rations. I just hope I can find the money before the weather gets cold and I need to put the heating on.
You must also support the enforcement of a significantly higher minimum wage – about double what it is now. If you do this, the government will stop having to subsidise these huge corporations that are only concerned with maximising their profit. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that companies pay so little, profit so hugely, and the tax payers are the ones subsidising them by topping up their income with tax credits. Why is this being allowed to happen?! Ah, because who are the big business owners? Ah yes, Conservatives and their voters.
The same for rent; rent caps MUST be put in place, as the tax payer funds billions of pounds worth of rent through housing benefit/elements of Universal Credits. Stop the drain on the national purse this way through such an easy change. But you won’t, will you, because who are the landlords? Ah yes, Conservatives and their voters.
These two simple changes plus a revisit of the Universal Credit system in light of the reality of the situations of those claiming them rather than prejudiced, out-of-touch nonsense could have HUGE positive impacts on our society, and actually do something about ‘the deficit’ that you have all so fraudulently used to justify austerity and, latterly and more appallingly, Brexit.
I expect you to have the decency to respond; furthermore, I would be delighted if you would meet with me to show that you might pay a bit more attention to the everyday lives that are being wrecked by your policies.
(CC: Keith Simpson, MP for Broadland, Chingford & Woodford Green Labour Party, Broadland Labour Party)