John Major says Theresa May risks poll tax-style backlash to Universal Credit

Posted On: 
11th October 2018

Ministers risk a public backlash like that against the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher if they fail to address concerns over Universal Credit, John Major has said.

John Major warned the government faced a backlash similar to that of the 1980s
Credit: 
PA Images

The Tory former Prime Minister warned that the controversial welfare reform was perceived as unfair by the public given the thousands of pounds claimants are reportedly losing every year from its roll-out.

Theresa May has consistently defended the programme and yesterday told MPs that "transitional protections" are in place that mean people "will not see any reduction" in their benefits.

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But the scheme, which is due to roll-out next year after extensive delays, has been under fire as it means claimants switching from legacy benefits to the new system face longer waits for their first payment.

Sir John told the BBC that those affected in the short term had to be protected, "or you run into the sort of problems the Conservative Party ran into with the poll tax in the late 1980s".

The tax, formally known as the community charge, sparked widespread rioting when it was introduced by Mrs Thatcher in 1990, and contributed to her downfall a year later.

Her successor in Number 10 added that Universal Credit, which was brought in roll six separate benefits into one payment, risked being brought in "too soon and in the wrong circumstances".

Speaking on the broadcaster's Political Thinking podcast, he said while the principle of the reform was "impeccable" and "entirely logical", its flaws risked landing ministers in “deep political trouble”.

In response to reports that millions of households face losing £2,400 a year, he said: "I am saying that if you have people who have that degree of loss, that is not something that the majority of the British population would think of as fair.

"And if people think you have to remove yourself from fairness, then you are in deep political trouble."

His warning comes just a day after former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown predicted “a return to poll tax-style chaos in a summer of discontent” unless Mrs May changes course on extending the stuttering new regime.

Universal Credit’s chief architect, former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, has meanwhile urged ministers to axe a planned tax cut in order to pump more money into the scheme.

Mr Duncan Smith - who quit the Cabinet in opposition to Treasury-imposed cuts to programme - said that while the Government had already “put £2bn of the money that was taken out back in”, more could be done by ditching the tax promise.

“I think going forward, my personal view is that we should direct the money back into Universal Credit exactly as it was originally planned to be rolled out,” he told the Today programme.

The former Tory leader added: “Essentially the money is set aside at the moment to raise the threshold for lower earners, about 20% of which gets to lower earners. If you move that over to Universal Credit 70% gets to the low earners there, so you’d be able to cover that cost.”