The Guardian view on bereavement benefit cuts: cruel, stingy, wrong | Editorial

Editorial
Theresa May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, did not write the 2015 budget. But it was theirs to review. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Almost the first move Theresa May made as prime minister was to sack the man who had been chancellor for the previous six years, George Osborne. Her pointed remarks on the steps of No 10 that day in July last year about making decisions not for the powerful but for those for whom making ends meet was a struggle, seemed aimed directly at the wealthy and well-connected Mr Osborne. But this week, as benefits cuts that by 2020 will take £12bn out of spending on help for the country’s poorest families take effect, the truth comes home: she sacked the minister, but the policies he designed remain. This will be a week of arbitrary meanness, a week that shames a civilised society and sets a bleak pattern for the future.

The worst of the cuts are the changes to bereavement payments. Families with young children who lose a parent on Thursday, when the cuts take effect, rather than on Wednesday, when the old system still applies, will lose out by thousands of pounds – more than £100,000 in rare cases where there are very young children. Until now, the system has reflected the value of national insurance payments made by the dead person. The benefit was paid in lieu of the pension they had not lived to receive. In other words, it was an earned entitlement. In future there will be a tax-free lump sum of £2,500 for childless widows or widowers, or £3,500 for those with children; and a monthly tax-free payment of £100 for the childless or £350 for a parent, for a mere 18 months.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says this is a mere updating, intended to reflect families’ changing working patterns. That might be marginally more credible if it applied to unmarried couples too. After all, nearly half of births last year were to parents who are not married. It is nothing to do with modernisation. It is a nasty, chiselling, mean piece of official stinginess, offered up by a department under pressure to meet a target for cuts that was only ever meant to be a piece of electoral positioning, to a benefit that accounts for barely a quarter of 1% of Britain’s benefits budget.

It is the most unjust but not the only cut that will fall arbitrarily on the cash flow of the hard up. From Thursday, any family welcoming the arrival of a third child will do so with minimal extra support from the state. There will be no housing benefit supplement for the new arrival, nor child tax credit. Child benefit is already frozen. Independent analysis of the impact of these changes suggests more than a quarter of a million children will be in poverty by 2020 simply as a result of these changes.

The DWP appears to have thought the announcement of the third child policy in 2015 would trigger behaviour change; families would stop at two. That makes two bold assumptions – that every family would be aware of the impending cuts, and that all pregnancies are planned. Once again, it doesn’t stack up. From next year, if you have three children and suddenly lose your job, or have to go part-time, your third child, who might have been born long before the cut-off at two was even considered, will also be discriminated against.

Many families with children who rely on some help with housing costs or in-work benefits to get by are going to be losers by the end of this parliament. Cuts to the new universal credit before it was even rolled out mean such families will be worse off by an average of £960 a year in 2020. Single-parent families are penalised even more. They lose on average as much as £2,380.

Benefits account for the largest share of government spending, more than £200bn a year. But nearly half of the budget goes on pensions whose value is protected by the plainly unsustainable triple lock. As a result, universal credit, an ambitious attempt to make sure that it was always worth working, has been hollowed out until it is a husk of what it was meant to be.

Brexit has made Britain’s future deeply uncertain; but it is still ours to make. Mrs May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, did not write the 2015 budget. But it was theirs to review. Mrs May says the referendum was an instruction to do everything differently. She could have made a start by abandoning cuts that fall on people, newly bereaved, who may well already feel that they have been abandoned by fortune.

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