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Many people who haven’t been through the benefit system in recent years are horrified, when they find themselves in it, to discover quite how intrusive and mean it is. Detailed information about our lives is used to reduce our entitlement to Universal Credit, straight away, by at least 63 pence for every pound earned – unless we have children or are disabled, in which case the state would allow us to keep the first £3,444 we earned.

And if we, or anyone in our household, has any assets – savings, shares, or property we rent out – we have to declare it all. If these add up to more than £6,000, our benefit payments will, again, be cut. And if they’re worth more than £16,000, then we get nothing from the DWP. We might possibly be allowed to keep a little more of our savings – but only if we could prove these were to pay for our tax return; a COVID-era concession.

There’s no leeway not to declare any of this – however high or low the figures are.

The level of trust and information required is hugely disparate, particularly given that the amounts of money for Universal Credit claimants are piddling. The bullying, the intrusiveness, the scraping through every little detail of your life, all for £4,919 a year for a single, childless person, or £7,128 for a couple, plus some woefully inadequate help for rent costs.

Self-employment and the excluded three million

If our self-employment income had vanished under the pandemic, we might have turned to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for support under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. But HMRC would have gone through our tax records with a fine toothcomb, looking not just at every penny our self-employment netted pre-pandemic, but also at precisely how much we got in rent, savings, PAYE earnings, and dividends (for example, from our own small business).

If more than half our pre-pandemic income was in these ‘wrong’ categories – as it was for many ordinary self-employed people who earn a lot less than the average MP – we wouldn’t have received any support from the self-employment scheme. Nor would anyone whose self-employed work earned more than £50,000 pre-pandemic, nor anyone whose self-employment is new. That’s why three million self-employed people have been excluded from any support at all, whilst MPs’ side hustles boomed.

One rule for MPs… another for us

The rationale for the scrutiny of those of us claiming state support, has long been to stop ‘slackers’ living the life of Riley, and the safeguarding of public finances.

But MPs make huge decisions that affect all our finances, public and private.

Don’t tenants hoping for better regulation of landlords have a right to know how much their MP makes as a landlord? Don’t environmental activists campaigning against Big Oil have a right to know how many shares their representative has in Shell or BP?


[1] Number of private tenants facing rent shortfall leaps by nearly 50% in pandemic | openDemocracy ➤[2]