Unite Community ramped up its campaign this week as protestors descended on Parliament to demand the government reverse its decision to cut £20 a week from Universal Credit.
The extra £20 a week, added to Universal Credit payments last April, was introduced as an emergency measure under the first lockdown but has since been under constant threat. Unite Community and other organisations successfully lobbied to delay the cut — but now the government has vowed to slash Universal Credit from next month.
Dozens of Unite Community members, joined by Labour MPs, gathered outside Parliament on Wednesday (September 15) holding banners and placards emblazoned with ‘cancel the cut and extend for all’, ‘a warm home and food are not luxuries’ and ‘keep our families fed’.
Unite is calling for the £20 a week cut to Universal Credit to be cancelled, for the uplift to be made permanent and to likewise extend it to the more than 2m people on legacy benefits who were denied the uplift from the beginning.
UniteLive spoke to Unite Community Bromley branch chair Paula Peters (pictured below), a disability rights activist who is on legacy benefits. Paula explained how difficult it has been for her and others like her who have struggled on legacy benefits, especially during the pandemic.
“I was shielding during the pandemic which was really difficult,” she said. “During the pandemic, the supermarkets increased their online delivery charges. I couldn’t get an online delivery slot for shopping. All the shops doubled or tripled their prices during the pandemic so I was having to make really stark choices.
“The energy companies also increased their prices and having an auto-immune condition I needed to keep warm,” she added. “Disabled people like myself also needed to secure vital personal protective equipment but then were also faced with the prices of PPE rising.”
Paula highlighted a report by the Disability Benefits Consortium, which interviewed nearly 2,000 people on legacy benefits and showed the impact the pandemic has had claimants.
“Nearly 80 per cent of legacy benefit claimants said they couldn’t afford to eat during the pandemic,” she noted. “When they were asked what the £20 uplift would mean to them, they said the extra £20 a week would mean everything.
“More than one in five said the uplift would literally be life-changing for them,” Paula added, choking back tears. “It means they would be able to eat and heat their homes — and live.”
Calling the government’s insistence on cutting Universal Credit and excluding legacy benefits claimants “a total travesty”, Paula railed against work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey’s recent comments.
Last week, Coffey said she was ‘happy’ to make the cut, noting that people on Universal Credit simply needed to work more hours to make up for the cut.
“She fails to understand that when you’re on a zero hours contract, you simply can’t find those additional hours to work,” Paula noted. “That’s really got to be stressed – her remarks were callous, cruel and absolutely heartless.”
Unite Community member Kiran Khan (pictured below), who is also a Labour councillor for Crawley Borough Council, agreed.
“The current Universal Credit system is simply not fit for purpose,” she said. “Before the £20 uplift, the rate was already far too low. When the £20 came in, it made a massive difference to people’s lives – it literally meant the difference between being able to afford to eat or not eat.”
Kiran, who herself has claimed Universal Credit, explained the struggles she faced even simply applying to claim the benefit.
“The application process is very difficult and that it’s online-only is very unfair for so many different groups of people,” she said. “Even someone like me who is familiar with computer technology, it’s very difficult to navigate. I dread to think what people who aren’t familiar with technology have to go through. The job search system as part of the Universal Credit application is really tough, and the online journal system really needs to be simplified.”
While Kiran firmly believes the £20 uplift to Universal Credit should be made permanent and also extended to legacy claimants, she noted that to cut Universal Credit now would be especially reckless.
“The pandemic is far from over,” she said. “The Delta variant is still spreading across the country and it is a lot more aggressive than previous variants. There are still millions of people who are unemployed and are struggling through this pandemic. That £20 is a vital lifeline for people at a time when they desperately need support.”
Like Paula, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner (pictured below, centre) also condemned the work and pensions secretary’s recent comments.
Speaking to UniteLive from the demo, Turner said, “The suggestion that you can just work a couple of extra hours to make up for the cut – even if it were true, it’s not realistic.
“The reality is the highest tax rate in the UK is on the poorest in the UK,” he added. “Under Universal Credit, for every one pound that you earn above the work allowance, 63p is taken away from you in benefits. I wish that wealth were taxed at a 63 per cent rate – but that is not the case, they have some of the lowest tax rates.
“We’ve got the lowest level of benefits than any comparable nation certainly across the Europe,” he went on to say. “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.”
Turner said Unite has a clear message for this government – to cancel the cut to Universal Credit, and extend the uplift to legacy benefits claimants.
“This isn’t a crisis of our making or of even of businesses’ making,” he said. “It’s a global pandemic and we need to work together to resolve that — we simply can’t put the burden of a recovery on the poorest.”
Wednesday’s demo came ahead of a Labour opposition day debate, where the party forced a vote on Universal Credit. After Tory MPs were instructed to abstain, Labour’s motion to cancel the Universal Credit cut was passed by 253 votes to 0, with four Tory MPs rebelling and backing the motion. While it was a non-binding vote, it puts additional pressure on the government to take action.
You can help continue to pile on the pressure on the government by taking part in Unite’s campaign to cancel the cut to Universal Credit. Find out more here.
By Hajera Blagg
Pics by Mark Thomas