The Labour party will force a vote today (January 18) on keeping the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit to help millions of struggling families from falling into further hardship amid the worst economic crisis in generations.
The increase to Universal Credit, first introduced at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in April last year, has in recent months been under threat, after the government refused to say whether it would extend the emergency increase beyond when it is due to expire April 2021.
Now, Labour is forcing the issue in an opposition day debate this afternoon in Parliament, and while the subsequent vote is non-binding, such debates have often pressured the government into changing course.
It is understood that Tory MPs are being ordered to abstain on the vote, with some Tory MPs expected to defy the government and vote with Labour. Former Tory work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb said that he would be voting with Labour, noting that under the current crisis, it “was the right thing to do”.
Neither current work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey nor chancellor Rishi Sunak are expected to attend today’s debate to justify why the government believes the uplift should be axed.
The Times reported at the weekend that Sunak is in discussions over a one-off £500 payment to Universal Credit claimants as an alternative to the keeping uplift to stave off a Tory revolt, with dozens of Tory MPs in northern constituencies especially pressing the government to keep the Universal Credit increase.
But Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation explained why the £500 one-off payment is not enough to support the millions of families who are struggling.
He told the Times that the one-off payment wouldn’t address the fact “that our basic rates of benefits don’t provide adequate protection when people have a tough time. They are too low”.
Bell also added that “…if we do it as a lump sum for people who are currently on universal credit lots of people who become unemployed later in the year will not benefit. It wouldn’t target those who need it.
“The minimum the government should do is extend the uplift for another year but the truth is we need a permanently higher basic level of protection,” he added.
Labour leader Kier Starmer urged the government to commit to keeping the Universal Credit uplift ahead of today’s debate.
“Without action from Government, millions of families face a £1,000 per year shortfall in the midst of a historic crisis,” he said.
“We urge Boris Johnson to change course and give families certainty today that their incomes will be protected.”
Many think tanks have outlined just how vital the £20-a-week lifeline has been for an estimated 6m families now on Universal Credit – and why cutting it now would have long-term consequences.
“Cutting Universal Credit by £20 a week could drive up relative poverty from 21% today to 23% by 2024-25, while a further 730,000 children would fall into poverty,” the Resolution Foundation noted. “The decision on Universal Credit will help define whether this is to be a parliament of levelling up incomes, or pushing up poverty.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner told the Guardian that “voters will remember” Tory MPs who vote to cut Universal Credit.
“A lot of people are going to remember this because it’s not a little tweak here or there. It isn’t about, I can’t afford to send the kids on holiday,” she said. “This is about, I’m going under, and I’m going under because of this government’s priorities and what they’ve done to me.”
Indeed, polling commissioned by Unite last month found that there was widespread support for keeping the Universal Credit increase.
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 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.
In December, UniteLIVE also 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.”
Head of Unite Community Liane Groves called on the government to do the right thing.
“Families will face terrible hardship if the government goes ahead with their plan to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week,” she said.
“That £20 is the difference between being able to feed and clothe your children. Being able to pay for broadband so children can be educated and people can apply for jobs.
“Labour’s move of forcing a vote will expose the Tory MPs who want to level up the country and those who just talk the talk. Shame on any that vote against.”
By Hajera Blagg