Universal Credit: Boris Johnson needs to listen to SNP, Labour and Iain Duncan Smith over £20-a-week benefit cut – Ian Swanson
Rishi Sunak was rightly praised at the beginning of the pandemic for the bold measures he announced to help individuals and businesses survive what has turned out to be a more prolonged period of lockdowns and restrictions than most people envisaged.
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Those bold measures included the furlough scheme paying people’s wages, a whole series of grants and loans for firms forced to close – and a £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit payments.
But such dramatic state intervention went against the Chancellor's free-market instincts. And now it has been announced the £20 uplift – worth £1,000 a year to some of the UK's poorest families – is to be phased out from the end of September.
The SNP's Westminster leader Ian Blackford says the move shows the Tories have no intention of building a "fair recovery" and will effectively cancel out the benefits of Scottish government measures like the Scottish Child Payment. “By slashing the incomes of six million families, the Chancellor will reverse crucial progress being made in Scotland to tackle poverty and send the UK full-steam towards a Tory poverty crisis this winter.”
Labour's Ian Murray called the decision "shameful and callous”. “It’s time the Tories see sense, back struggling families and reverse this cut,” he said.
The STUC labelled the reduction “a disgrace” and claimed it signalled a return to austerity which would further worsen the plight of those hardest hit during the pandemic.
And there is high-profile opposition to the decision even in Tory ranks. Before the announcement was made, six of the party’s former Work and Pensions Secretaries wrote to Mr Sunak urging him to maintain the current level of support.
One of them, Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned that failing to make the uplift permanent would “damage living standards, health and opportunities” for those that “need our support most as we emerge from the pandemic”.
Current Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey sought to justify the end of the higher payment by saying “as we see the economy open up, we shift the focus strongly on to getting people into work and jobs” – an astonishing argument when almost 40 per cent of UC claimants are already in some form of employment.
The Covid crisis has brought hardship for many and reliance on foodbanks has soared. The UC uplift provided a much-needed lifeline.
Charities have warned that ending it will push 200,000 more children below the breadline. How does that fit with the government’s much-vaunted “levelling up” policy?
The government says the uplift was always meant to be temporary, but right from the start organisations working in the field said the increased payments would make a big difference and should be made permanent.
U-turns are not an unknown phenomenon with Boris Johnson’s government.
The extra £20-a-week payments were originally due to end in April but after pressure from anti-poverty campaigners and MPs across the political spectrum, the Chancellor announced a six-month extension.
And thanks to footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, there was also a volte face on the extraordinary reluctance of the government to provide free school meals during holidays.
The government has set the end of September as the date to start phasing out the uplift. There is still time for a change of heart.
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