This week the Conservative Party scrapped the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit that was introduced at the beginning of the pandemic. The move is predicted to plunge at least 840,000 people into poverty according to the Conservative peer Philippa Stroud, one of the original architects of the scheme.

This cut to universal credit is taking place against the backdrop of a country still battling a pandemic in which many have lost their jobs. Now add skyrocketing energy costs and general price rises, compliments of Brexit and Covid-19, and you have a clearer picture of what the average household faces.

Austerity for the ‘greater good’

As with previous Tory regimes, this government seeks to justify the cut to public spending under the ruse of fiscal responsibility. Rishi Sunak is already echoing the sentiments of ex-chancellor George Osborne, talking of the need to put ‘our public finances […] back on a sustainable footing’.

This has been the way of the Conservatives for some time. They portray themselves as the practical party and the party that can make tough decisions about the economy. Their supporters sometimes even concede that although their decisions are not always morally palatable, they are nevertheless for the greater good.

The problem is that this veneer of practicality and responsibility quickly crumbles under further inspection, revealing the Conservatives’ policies for what they really are: needlessly cruel.

It seems the Tories have not learnt from their mistakes. If the pandemic showed us anything, it’s that underfunding and austerity now might save a quick buck but cost us tenfold down the line.

A report from the Health Foundation found that the cut in universal credit would ‘further widen health inequalities’. Families and individuals in the 10 per cent of local authorities with the worst health are losing twice as much as those in the 10 per cent of local authorities with the best health. 

Further analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that: ‘for every £1 that could be invested from the Levelling Up Fund in England, £1.80 would be taken from these local economies’ if the cut to universal credit goes ahead.

Thanks to over a decade of austerity, we already have plenty of data on the costs — both economic and human — of widening inequality and lack of investment in local economies and healthcare. As I write this, a baby born in Gateshead is expected to live 15 years less than a baby born in Guildford. This follows a pattern of worsening health inequality since 2010. 

A syndemic of health inequality

If you are not stirred by the human impact of the reduction in universal credit as part of the Tories’ legacy of austerity, then consider the impact on the economy. After all, it is this kind of rational assessment that the Tories use to justify their actions.

An epidemic of worsening health outcomes in large sections of society is inevitably going to be very costly. Take obesity: we already know it is far cheaper for a government to enact legislation — subsidies for healthier foods, increases in minimum wage and/or benefit pay-outs, etc. — to reduce the growing obesity crisis than it is to ignore it and face the consequences later.

The same principle applies to a multitude of health issues. It is not only cheaper but far more effective to tackle health issues at their root rather than letting them fester and the costs spiral.

A less healthy population also means a potentially more sickly and less productive workforce. In a recent interview, Boris Johnson spoke of the UK’s declining productivity. But how does the PM expect the nation’s health to improve if we are becoming increasingly less healthy and more susceptible to illness as a result of having to make tough choices? Such as the choice between eating and heating.

The myth of Tory practicality

To carry on dismantling the myth of Tory economic practicality, let’s assess what happens to the money people receive from Universal Credit. Unlike the money of the rich, these sums are unlikely to end up in offshore bank accounts as savings, or non-liquid assets. Instead, most of the money goes straight back into the economy as VAT from the products and services bought with it. In other words, it is largely recycled and then reinvested to help create new jobs and more services.

As well as boosting the economy, this money also helps keep many of its recipients from things like destitution and malnutrition — all of which will be far more costly to deal with down the line.

In one sense, the Tories are of course right. Universal Credit and the like cannot be more than a temporary fix. We must seek to radically restructure society. This involves creating better jobs and legislating better pay, as well as rethinking our tax system and introducing better protection for renters, together with building more affordable social housing. 

In the meantime, taking away such an important lifeline at such a crucial moment isn’t the way forward. Nor is it a matter of fiscal responsibility. It’s cruelty, plain and simple.

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