When chancellor Rishi Sunak listened to trade unions and announced in April, at the height of the pandemic, that he would increase Universal Credit payments by £20 a week, millions of families – many of them newly jobless – breathed a sigh of relief.
While many problems remain with the Universal Credit system – namely the cruel five-week wait period for initial payments, senseless benefit sanctions and other issues – the uplift made a massive difference to millions of households just when they needed it most.
But now, this cash lifeline risks being snatched away, after the government has so far refused to extend the extra payment beyond next April.
Unite is now ramping up its campaign to keep the Universal Credit uplift permanently, with Unite Community hosting an online day of action today (December 9).
The day of action comes as a new survey shows more than half of the country wants the Universal Credit uplift to stay.
The survey, commissioned by Unite and conducted by pollster Survation, found that 54 per cent of those polled wanted the £20 boost to Universal Credit, already claimed by six million people in the UK, to be extended beyond next April.
Even a significant portion of Tory voters – 40 per cent – backed the uplift, while 70 per cent of Labour voters supported the increase. Meanwhile, more than half of those surveyed who earned more than £40,000 a year – 51 per cent – believed the increase to Universal Credit should be made permanent.
As part of Unite’s campaign to galvanise nationwide support, councils are being asked to lobby Rishi Sunak and the prime minister Boris Johnson demanding that the £20 increase to Universal Credit is made permanent and extended to claimants on legacy benefits.
‘Now I can open the curtains’
UniteLIVE heard from several Unite Community members on Universal Credit who explained how the £20-a-week uplift has transformed their lives in countless meaningful ways.
Many spoke of how they could finally access vital amenities that most people may take for granted.
“I have been able to get broadband for the first time,” said one member. “It’s already made a huge difference. I’ve been able to search for work much quicker and my kids have been able to study.”
“I was in serious arrears with the water company; I used to keep my curtains closed and worry every time someone knocked at the door,” explained another. “With the £20 I have been able to start a payment plan that’s within my budget. Now I can open the curtains.”
Another member noted, “The £20 a week has meant that I haven’t had to worry as much about topping up my electricity meter to keep warm.”
Parents told of their despair at not being able to provide for their children in the way they so desperately hoped to – the £20 increase has changed this for many.
“It has been great to buy extra fruit and a couple of treats for the children, things I previously could not do,” one parent explained. “Being unable to treat your own children is heartbreaking.”
Another parent added, “Seeing other kids in the park having ice cream was really difficult. But now I can buy my children the occasional ice cream. It sounds small, but to us it’s a huge thing.”
Unite’s calls to keep the Universal Credit uplift come as stark new research shows that extreme poverty amid the pandemic is expected to double to 2m families, including 1m children.
The research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said that a cuts to benefits over the last decade of austerity, and design flaws in the Universal Credit system, among other issues, have all contributed to rising levels of extreme poverty which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a separate study from the Fabian Society published last week, estimated that cutting the £20 a week uplift next April risks plunging a further 3m families into poverty.
Both the JRF and the Fabian Society strongly recommended that the government maintain the £20 Universal Credit increase to fend off a huge spike in poverty.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner warned that if chancellor Rishi Sunak presses ahead with slashing Universal Credit in April, then “we will see state support fall to its lowest real-terms level since 1990-91, its lowest ever level relative to average earnings.
“The basic level of out-of-work support prior to the March boost was – at just £73 a week (£3,800 a year) – less than half the absolute poverty line,” he added. “People are being asked to get by on a tenner a day.
“With savage and heart-breaking rising unemployment, some six million people in this country rely on Universal Credit. The £20 uplift may seem like pennies to the government, but it is literally the difference between turning the heating on or buying a warm coat for the kids for millions.
“Snatching back this cash will be cruel in the extreme – and will certainly offend the voting public,” Turner continued.
“The IMF and World Bank both warn this is not the time for governments to attack the incomes of the poorest and that to do so would be to imperil recovery.
“We are urging the chancellor to make Christmas for the poorest families by saying that the £20 uplift will stay beyond next April. Just do the decent thing and give them this small income security.
“This Survation survey provides further strong evidence as why we’re asking Unite members stand in solidarity and to call on councillors and others to join us in a coalition to force the government to retain the £20 increase, end the waiting time and extend payment to all legacy benefits,” Turner went on to say.
“What Covid-19 has cruelly exposed is the inadequacy of the current welfare system, one of the meanest in Europe, and the entrenched inequalities for some of the country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged families.
“The permanent uplift of £20-a-week would be a small step in easing the already immense burden of thousands of people struggling financially to pay for the essentials of life on a daily basis.”
Don’t miss Unite Community’s Universal Credit Facebook live event this evening (December 9) at 6pm-7.15pm. Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner will be speaking along with Mirror journalist and poverty campaigner Ros Wynn-Jones, Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds MP and a benefit claimant. Click to sign up here.
By Hajera Blagg