BORIS Johnson has been accused of leaving low-income families across the UK facing “crippling uncertainty” as he looks set to delay any decision on whether to maintain the £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit until the March Budget.
Monday night’s non-binding vote in the House of Commons to make the uplift in the benefit permanent for some six million people saw 278 MPs vote for with none against.
The Prime Minister had ordered Conservative MPs to abstain on the vote but six rebelled to support the Labour motion. One, Stephen Crabb, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, said the weekly rise should be kept for a further 12 months to give people “certainty” over their finances.
Following the vote, Sir Keir Starmer, tweeted that the Conservatives “didn’t even show up” after Tory MPs did not vote with Labour on the motion.
Johnson and Sunak urged not to cut £20-a-week universal credit ‘lifeline’
Jonathan Reynolds, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said the UK Government’s position was disappointing but it could still “do the right thing” and drop the plans to cut Universal Credit[UC].
“Britain is facing the worst recession of any major economy because of the Government’s incompetence and indecision. Families cannot be made to pay the price,” he said.
Last night, campaigners attacked the Government’s stance.
Helen Barnard for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that aims to tackle poverty, said: “Delaying the decision on the future of the Universal Credit uplift leaves families facing crippling uncertainty. With unemployment set to rise much further and remain high in the coming years, it would be totally wrong to cut support and pull half a million people into poverty.”
James Taylor for disability charity Scope, said: “The loss of the temporary uplifts will be particularly felt by disabled people; half of those losing out will be households where there is someone with a disability. Life already costs more for disabled people and the loss of this uplift could be devastating for some families.”
Emma Jackson, National Director of Christians Against Poverty in Scotland said, “The uplift has been a lifeline for people and to remove it would cause devastating effects. We are urging the Government to keep the £20 Universal credit uplift in place and extend it to those on legacy benefits.
“Introducing this was a bold and compassionate measure made by the Government and this one action has prevented hundreds of thousands of families across the UK from being pulled further under by the tide of poverty. We know right now that things are incredibly difficult for those on the lowest of incomes and they need financial support.”
The Government introduced the £20-a-week increase in UC to help people through the pandemic but it is due to be withdrawn by the end of March.
Suggestions have been made that there is a Cabinet split on the issue with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, keen to end the temporary uplift while Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, wants it extended. It is calculated that making the increase permanent would cost around £6 billion a year. It is thought Mr Sunak has considered making a one-off £500 payment.
Earlier, Boris Johnson repeatedly declined to say what the Government was going to do when pressed on the UC uplift issue.
The Prime Minister insisted: “I don’t think you could fault the Government for supporting people, we will continue to do that. What we have said is we will put our arms around the whole of the country throughout the pandemic. We have already done £280 billion worth of support and we will keep all measures under constant review.”
Downing St, which branded the Labour motion a “political stunt,” made clear the Chancellor had not made a definitive decision but would make clear his view “shortly” without specifying the timeframe. However, in the Commons, Stephen Barclay, Mr Sunak’s deputy, stressed how it was “right we wait until the Budget[on March 3]to make future tax and welfare decisions”.
During the debate, Mr Reynolds for Labour said reversing the planned April cut to UC was a “specific, clear and unavoidable decision that needs to be taken”.
Will Quince, the Work and Pensions Minister, said he had “sympathy” with the argument that making a decision now on whether or not to extend the UC increase would give people clarity.
But he told MPs: “The reality is we simply do not know what the landscape will look like and that is why it’s right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward.”
Neil Gray for the SNP pointed out how there were deep holes in the social security safety net, both prior to and during the pandemic, as “people are relying on credit cards for food, heating and clothes; basic essentials”.
Boris Johnson tight-lipped over extending or making permanent £20 weekly Universal Credit increase
The Airdrie MP added: “The UK Government has a choice: make the cuts to social security since 2010 a little less worse by making the uplift permanent and extending it to legacy benefits, and in turn save so many families from poverty, or it can cut that lifeline further and make out-of-work support the least generous it has ever been and impoverish millions.”
Mr Crabb praised Mr Sunak’s “historic” financial support during the pandemic but said: “The question for us right now is whether at the end of March this year, just 10 weeks away, it’s the right time to begin unwinding this support – specifically to remove the extra support for Universal Credit claimants – and I don’t believe it is the right moment.”
The Pembrokeshire MP insisted the extra £20 a week had helped those “right at the bottom of the income scale”, saying: “The truth is the labour market is a horrible place right now for many people.
“Opportunities for people to find new work, increase their hours, boost their earnings, improve their family finances have been massively curtailed by the economic impact of the public health emergency, and that’s the context for this discussion about cutting back the £20 per week uplift.
“It’s why I believe the uplift is so important right now and it’s why I believe it needs to be extended for a further 12 months.”
Conservative colleague Simon Fell added: “I’m glad to stand with my colleagues in the Northern Research Group when we say that now is not the time to consider any reduction in the uplift in Universal Credit.”
But fellow Tory Huw Merriman urged colleagues on the Government benches to “stand firm” behind the Chancellor, saying an extended UC increase would “end up being paid for by young people who have already suffered during the pandemic. Just to chuck more debt on to those young people is completely unfair and unjust”.