Holyrood urges UK Government to reverse ‘harmful’ Universal Credit cuts in overwhelming vote

An overwhelming majority of MSPs have urged the UK Government to reverse its decision to end the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit, warning the cut will plunge tens of thousands of Scots into poverty.

Some 88 MSPs backed a motion on Tuesday by social justice secretary Shona Robison condemning the planned social security cuts, due to come into force next month. Twenty-eight MSPs voted against the motion.

Over half a million Scottish households are in receipt of either Universal Credit or legacy benefits. The primary beneficiaries of the benefits uplift have been households with lone parents and households with young mothers.

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If the uplift is removed on October 6 as is planned, around a fifth of these households will lose more than 5 per cent of their income, according to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE).

The UK Government has said while Universal Credit will continue to provide “vital support” for those in and out of work, it was “right” that it should focus on its plan for jobs.

But addressing a debate in Holyrood, Ms Robison said the reduction of Universal Credit could reduce welfare expenditure in Scotland by £461 million a year by 2023/24, and push around 60,000 people – a third of them children – into poverty.

She told MSPs: “We should not have to consider the hardship the UK Government’s decision will cause. We shouldn’t need to use this chamber to add our voices to the increasingly urgent calls for the UK Government to revere this senseless and harmful decision.

“At a time of rising prices and costs and increasing poverty, they should already have said they would make the £20 uplift permanent. This is a political choice and it is unsustainable for that position to hold.”

Social justice secretary Shona Robison addresses the debate at Holyrood. Picture: JPI Media

Ms Robison said amid a “perfect storm” of rising energy and food prices, the end of the job retention scheme, and a hike in National Insurance contributions, the cut threatened to compound the problems and deal a “hammer blow of hardship” to millions of households.

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She added: “This will be the biggest overnight reduction to a basic rate of social security for more than 70 years.”

However, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives challenged the SNP over whether it was doing enough to utilise its powers and resources to help families.

Scottish Labour’s shadow social justice secretary, Pam Duncan-Glancy, challenged Ms Robison to double the Scottish child payment “immediately,” in light of the looming social security cut.

Ms Robison replied: “The doubling of the Scottish child payment is not in doubt, it has never been in doubt. But we will deal with that and take it forward as part of the budget discussions.”

Ms Duncan-Glancy described the planned cut as “cruel, heartless” and in some cases “deadly”, but also accused Scottish ministers of failing to use their powers to tackle poverty and inequality.

“Removing the £20 uplift will reduce social security to the lowest level in decades, and it will end once and for all any pretence about a just and fair recovery from the pandemic,” she said. “Forget all the rhetoric about levelling up, this is simply about a race to the bottom.

“For millions, slashing their money now will be an assault on basic human rights. The cut has not even taken place yet, but already the increased anxiety is palpable.”

The Glasgow MSP also warned both administrations in Edinburgh and London there was a need for “deeds,” and not just words, explaining: “It is imperative that the Scottish Government use the maximum available resources it has to address poverty and inequality.

“As it stands, 4,000 families are set to lose out on the Scottish child payment when the removal of the £20 uplift kicks in. The Scottish Government has the power to prevent those people having their pockets hit twice.”

Her Scottish Conservative counterpart Miles Briggs hailed the UK Government’s “comprehensive economic response” to the pandemic, which he said had provided £407 billion to support families, jobs, and businesses, “more than almost any other country in the world”.

Mr Briggs tabled an amendment to Ms Robison’s motion that praised the support Universal Credit had provided to half a million Scots throughout the pandemic, and said it was “the right time for the uplift to be removed”.

The amendment also called on the Scottish Government to “work constructively” with their UK counterparts in pursuit of a jobs-led recovery. However, the amendment was defeated by 88 votes to 28.

During the debate, Mr Briggs told his fellow MSPs: “As we now see restrictions lifted and the opening up of the economy, we need to make sure that we have a different focus, and that focus has to be on a jobs-led recovery for the country, both Scotland and the UK as a whole.”

Willie Rennie, the economy and communities spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the uplift was not a “treat” for families, but a “necessity”.

“Their costs continue to rise,” he said.

"Their costs have not gone just because potentially, the impact of the virus is waning. Their costs are going up, and they need more support, not less.”

It comes as a survey by poverty charity Turn2Us found that more than half (52 per cent) of people on Universal Credit will struggle to pay their bills when the cut comes into effect, with a further one in four people (25 per cent) unable to afford their rent or mortgage payments.

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