Universal Credit is back in the spotlight as the Tories dodge a massive issue

Rishi Sunak has avoided talking about an issue with Universal Credit
Steve Topple

The Conservative government’s response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has consistently been in chaos. Now, an open letter is urging it to act over changes to Universal Credit. Because in April next year, hundreds of thousands of people could be “pulled into poverty”. And so far, the Tories have done nothing to avoid this.

Emergency measures

Over 50 charities and organisations have written to the chancellor Rishi Sunak to discuss the increase in certain social security payments that happened in April. The government increased the rate of Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits by around £20 a week. But the Tories are ending this increase in 2021. So, people will see a £20 cut to their payments.

Groups including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the Trussell Trust have stepped in. In the open letter, they say:

We welcomed the swift action you took at the start of the pandemic to implement this much needed investment. Falling incomes and rising costs throughout the pandemic have put families under immense financial pressure, but the £20 uplift has been a lifeline that has enabled many of them to keep their heads above water and has stopped us seeing a marked surge in poverty levels.

Keeping the uplift

The groups are concerned about the increase ending. The JRF has worked out the impact it could have:

around 16 million people will be in households facing an overnight income loss equivalent to £1,040 a year… At a stroke, 700,000 more people will be pulled into poverty, including 300,000 children, and 500,000 more of those already in poverty will be plunged into deep poverty (more than 50% below the poverty line).

The groups are “urging” Sunak to make the increase permanent. So far, he has not said what will happen in April 2021 when the payment ends. The groups estimate it would cost the government £9bn to keep the £20 a week rise intact and extend the programme.

But for some, £20 a week extra may be a drop in the ocean. For example, Universal Credit has a two-child limit built into it. This is where parents/guardians cannot get money for more than two children. The CPAG said this has meant 300,000 more children in poverty. So for these people, £20 extra a week, while probably welcome, still doesn’t cover the overall shortfall they face.

And there are also 1.5 million people who have not seen any support at all.

Sick and disabled people: hit again

Some people still claim so-called “legacy benefits”. These include Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). And the government has not increased their social security payments in line with the Universal Credit/Working Tax Credits uplift. As the groups’ open letter says:

it is simply not right that those on legacy benefits, who are mostly sick or disabled people and carers, and so have been most at risk during this pandemic, have not been thrown an equivalent lifeline.

What’s more, sick and disabled people were already one of the protected groups most hit by poverty before the pandemic. As the charity Scope noted:

After housing costs, the proportion of working age disabled people living in poverty (26%) is higher than the proportion of working age non-disabled people (20%).

Entrenched precarity

This comes against a backdrop of a decade of what the UN called “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights. So, sick and disabled people were already in a precarious position. Since the pandemic began, 59% of coronavirus deaths have been disabled people. And the government isn’t offering them any support if they claim legacy benefits.

It remains to be seen if the government will heed the open letter’s calls. Given its unwillingness to budge on legacy benefits, it doesn’t bode well for keeping the uplift in 2021. Meanwhile, millions of people face an uncertain future. And millions more face a continued struggle just to survive day-to-day.

Featured image via Guardian News – YouTube

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