Sir John Major has said the Government should rethink its national roll-out of Universal Credit, warning most Britons will think current plans are unfair after it was suggested that families could end up hundreds of pounds worse off.
The Tory grandee said failing to protect people who could lose out as a result of the welfare reforms would trigger “the sort of problems that the Conservative Party ran into with the poll tax”.
His intervention comes after fellow former prime minister Gordon Brown warned the scheduled roll-out would lead to “chaos” akin to that seen in 1990.
Sir John told the BBC that Universal Credit was “impeccable” and “entirely logical” in theory, but called for its implementation to be reconsidered.
“In order to introduce something like Universal Credit you need to look at those people who in the short term are going to lose and protect them, or you will run into the sort of problems the Conservative Party ran into in the late 1980s,” he told the BBC.
“I don’t oppose the principle of Universal Credit, I think there is a real danger that it will be introduced too soon and in the wrong circumstances.
“So I do think we need to look very carefully at how it is introduced and when it is introduced and what the circumstances are and the resources there are available to assist its introduction.”
Sir John became prime minister in November 1990 – nine months after rioting broke out in London linked to Margaret Thatcher’s doomed poll tax reforms.
He denied he was predicting civil unrest, but warned that the Government could face political difficulties of a similar nature over Universal Credit.
“If you have people who face that degree of loss, that is not something the majority of the British population would think of as fair, and if people think you have removed yourself from fairness then you are in deep political trouble,” he said.
Touted as the most radical reform to welfare since the Second World War, Universal Credit rolls six means-tested benefits and tax credits into one payment.
It is also designed to encourage people to take up work by ensuring they will always be better off having a job.
However, millions of families could be left up to £200 a month worse off when the new system is introduced in July, according to reports.
Sir John said: “The argument that it is to encourage people to get into work isn’t an argument that runs, to me, on something of that sort.”
On Wednesday, Mr Brown called for the Government to halt Universal Credit’s introduction, branding it “cruel and vindictive”.
“We will have chaos like the poll tax after next summer as a result of this,” he said.
“The right thing to do is to abandon the national roll-out of Universal Credit.
“With three million people who will be pushed on to it from next summer, the right thing to do is to review it and see if it can be made better or alternatively replaced.”
His criticism came after shadow chancellor John McDonnell and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for it to be scrapped.Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the Universal Credit system, said £2 billion extra must be put into the system.
The former work and pensions secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Universal Credit and rolling out is functioning very well and there are tens of thousands of people out there who find this a better benefit.”
Mr Duncan Smith said he had resigned because there was a decision to take money out of the new welfare system.
He said: “We should direct the money back into Universal Credit exactly as it was originally planned to be rolled out.”
Asked how much more needed to go into the system, he replied: “The reality is the £2 billion that was taken out.”