‘Give us a social security package’
England was due to move to stage four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown on 21 June, but scientists called for the reopening to be delayed to allow more people to get their second Covid vaccine with rising cases of the Delta variant.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner yesterday called on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to extend the furlough scheme (also known as the Covid job retention scheme) for as long as is necessary and to make the £20 uplift to Universal Credit (UC) permanent and paid to people on legacy benefits that did not receive the uplift last March.
Unite Community successfully campaigned to extend the £20 a week increase past April 21 but this is now set to end in September 21, the same time as furlough ends.
The number of people claiming Universal Credit has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic. At the end of April there were 3.4m people on furlough, which has helped to pay the wages of those who could have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
The furlough scheme began in March last year in order to try and prevent a jobs loss crisis and has protected more than 11.5m jobs since the pandemic began. It involved the government paying 80 per cent of the wages of people who couldn’t work safely in the nationwide lockdown and an on-going crash in consumer demand.
As the economy is recovering and more workers are returning to work there are fewer workers on furlough but the scheme is scheduled to end abruptly on October 31. Calls from trade unions, businesses, economists, and politicians to extend or modify the scheme have so far fallen on deaf ears.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that as many as 2.2m people could be unemployed when furlough ends. Yet so far Rishi Sunak has rejected calls for an extension.
“The government must extend furlough to help those companies who have not yet recovered from the pandemic. Many sectors will take longer to get back to pre-Covid levels and without longer support companies futures hang in the balance. If they can’t afford to pay their staff then millions of people could potentially be entering the benefits system in less than three months and the government is pitifully unprepared,” said Turner.
‘Not fit for purpose’
Unite has condemned Universal Credit as not fit for purpose and has campaigned for changes and improvements since it first began being rolled out in 2013. The five week wait for the first payment leaves people suffering with nothing to live on – a recent survey by Citizens Advice of over 500 claimants found that 14 per cent who applied for universal credit since the lockdown were unable to afford food and heating while waiting for a first payment.
“For many families, an extra £20 a week has meant not having to worry so much about topping up the electricity meter to cook a hot meal, paying the rent, putting food on the table or shoes on their feet. It has meant not sending their kids to school hungry and not having to rely on growing debt or family and friends to buy school uniforms,” added Turner.
Turner was part of the team that, alongside furlough, negotiated the Universal Credit increase with government as part of a pandemic response package. But even with the £20 a week uplift the basic rate of Universal Credit is still worth just a sixth of average weekly pay.
“While it’s still grossly inadequate and we continue to demand a social solidarity package – not ‘welfare benefits’ equal to two thirds of average earnings – the Universal Credit uplift achieved an immediate £1,000-a-year lifeline to millions desperately in need,” he said.
A survey of more than 1,600 people published by The Fabian Society last month showed widespread public support for permanently maintaining the £20 uplift to Universal Credit.
“Not only do the vast majority of people want the extra £20 a week Universal Credit payment to be made permanent as a very minimum – they believe the government should go beyond this and make the system even more robustly funded,” said Turner.
‘Permanent as a minimum’
“And let’s not forget the majority of Universal Credit claimants are in work. In addition to our on-going campaign to make the benefits system one that actually protects people when they fall through the cracks, Unite will continue to demand decent wages so workers shouldn’t be forced into claiming benefits in the first place,” he added.
Unite is demanding an end to the five week wait for the first Universal Credit payment, the temporary £20 a week increase made permanent to all claimants and a real living wage so that those in work do not need to top up their earnings with Universal Credit.
Later today (Wednesday June 16) the government will deliver a statement on the economy to parliament. Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, will make the statement at around 2pm. Any further news will be reported on UNITElive.
FIND OUT MORE
For more information please visit Unite’s Universal Credit campaign page. Unite community is planning a summer of campaigning activity to stop the £20 cut to Universal Credit. If you’re interested in getting involved contact [email protected]
By Jody Whitehill