As nearly 6m people face from today (October 6) a £20 a week cut to Universal Credit, just an hour before it was due to go into effect, the Tory welfare chief overseeing the cut was filmed shamelessly celebrating.
Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) secretary Thérèse Coffey was captured belting out the 1987 power ballad ‘Time of My Life’ at a Tory conference karaoke party in Manchester last night, with little regard for the fate she will deliver to millions of families who now face devastating hardship.
The cut to Universal Credit – the biggest overnight slash to benefits since the Second World War – will affect more than 3m children. It is estimated that the cut will push 840,000 people instantly into poverty, including nearly 300,000 children.
Despite strong opposition from all sides – even from many backbench Tory MPs – the government has pressed ahead with the Universal Credit cut at the precise moment the UK is facing a cost of living crisis, with energy bills alone estimated to shoot up by 12 per cent as winter approaches.
The government has justified the cut by arguing that the extra £20 a week to Universal Credit payments was introduced as an emergency measure last March and was only ever meant to be temporary.
But unions including Unite, anti-poverty campaigners and many others have warned that the basic rate of Universal Credit was already far too low to begin with after years of cuts and freezes. They’ve highlighted that the cut will be that much more devastating now that the cost of living has skyrocketed in the last few months alone, with further hardship expected as the furlough scheme also ends.
Commenting, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds said, “Today, the Prime Minister made a choice to cut the incomes of hardworking families.
“Any promise the Prime Minister makes to raise the living standards of people in this country rings hollow while this cut goes ahead,” he added. “Under this government prices are up, bills are up and taxes are up, yet the Prime Minister has pressed ahead with the biggest cut to social security ever in the face of widespread opposition.”
Earlier this year, Unite conducted a survey of more than 500 people on Universal Credit, which revealed how claimants are barely surviving – and how cutting the £20 a week to UC payments would send many families over the edge.
The survey, conducted in February – well before the energy price crisis hit the UK – showed how the extra £20 helped many survive the winter.
“I have the heating on when I first wake up to help me out of bed,” said one respondent. “I have arthritis so am incredibly stiff without it. I can barely afford this but I definitely won’t be able to with £20 less.”
“When it’s really cold [the £20 a week] helped me use my heating to keep my children warm,” said another.
Many reported that since they were relatively new to Universal Credit, they had not yet known what it means to live with £80 less each month. This is an experience shared by millions – since March last year, the number of Universal Credit claimants has nearly doubled from 3 million to almost 6 million.
“I’ve only just starting receiving Universal Credit,” said one respondent. “I didn’t know about the £20 but if that’s taken away then it will be difficult for me to pay all my bills.”
Another claimant, who started Universal Credit in March last year when the extra £20 a week was first introduced, said, “I still struggle to meet all bills. Since I started UC in March 2020, I have always received the extra amount and still struggle — I don’t know how I will cope.”
This abject terror of the impending cut to Universal Credit was a sentiment shared by many in the survey.
“I can’t bear to think what it would be like without the £20 extra as it’s still not enough to pay bills and buy food,” one respondent said. “I worry about putting the heating on.”
Another said, “Things are still tight and I dread the removal of the extra £20 a week.”
Unite Community has spearheaded a long-running campaign to stop the cut to Universal Credit, and helped lead a successful push to delay the cut earlier this year. Unite Community staged a demonstration outside Parliament in September, where protesting members were joined by Labour MPs. Unite Community continues to campaign as it calls on the government to reverse its decision.
Unite assistant general secretary with responsibility for Unite Community Steve Turner commented, “We’ve got the lowest level of benefits than any comparable nation certainly across the Europe. The fact that we’re the sixth richest nation on this planet and we say we can’t afford to give dignity to those who are unable to work – for whatever reason – is morally wrong.
“And let’s remember that many people have very serious health conditions that prevent them from working or they indeed can’t find work, or are in such low-paid work, working an untold numbers of hours, that they have no other choice to claim Universal Credit. The fact that we believe we can’t pay them a decent rate as a consequence of crisis that was not of their making is completely unacceptable.”
By Hajera Blagg