“I’ve been able to get broadband for the first time. 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.” This is just one of the many comments that Unite Community members have shared with me about the difference the extra £20-a-week Universal Credit payment has made to their lives. But the increase, implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, is due to end in April, snatching away a lifeline for struggling families.
The Covid-19 crisis has put an enormous strain on all our lives, and we now face unemployment rates as high or higher than the early 1980s. For many, this will be their first experience of unemployment even though, shamefully, taxpayers’ money has been topping up low pay as a form of ‘corporate welfare’ supporting profitable employers for years.
It was during the 1980s that I spent a couple of years on the dole searching for work that didn’t exist. I remember walking for miles for interviews because I couldn’t afford the bus fare, and having no money for a hot meal. It’s those experiences that drive me to make a difference – I know just how hard it is for those struggling to make ends meet.
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 or keep their homes warm as winter approaches, paying the rent, putting food on the table or shoes on their feet. It has meant being able to buy fruit and treats for the kids, not sending them hungry into class and not having to rely on growing debt or family and friends to buy school uniforms. For many, it will mean being able to enjoy some semblance of a Christmas.
I’m proud to have been part of the team that, alongside furlough, negotiated the Universal Credit increase with government as part of a pandemic response package. 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.
Exactly because that increase was such a significant and welcome move to bolster low and middle-income families’ living standards, its removal will not just be a huge loss to them as individual households, but will hit hard the local economies and communities that have benefited in difficult times from an ability to spend that money locally. And, as the Unite member whose job search has been significantly supported by finally being able to afford broadband would agree, the additional sum is, for many, a route to getting back into work.
The IMF and World Bank both warn that this is not the time for governments to attack the incomes of the poorest and that to do so would be to imperil recovery. Yet, during last month’s comprehensive spending review, the chancellor was silent on the Universal Credit uplift, just as he was on increasing statutory sick pay to a level that would enable low paid workers to self-isolate without additional financial hardship.
If he presses ahead with slashing Universal Credit in April, 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.
The impact of mass unemployment will be savage and heart-breaking; the inevitable surge in homelessness, food bank use, mental health and demand for local services immediate. This is why we’re asking Unite members stand in solidarity with our class 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.
Rishi Sunak talks the talk with his levelling up agenda, but time and time again he shows himself wedded to ideological dogma, applying short-term sticking plasters where urgent and radical action is needed.
Chancellor, you must get real about the long-term misery this virus and growing unemployment will continue to inflict on people, long after a vaccine and demand returns. Full employment and a vibrant economy will take time to rebuild. You cannot allow March’s Universal Credit increase to be just another shot of emergency first aid – and we will not stand by if you fail to act and push millions of families further into poverty next spring.
By Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary
Join Unite Community’s Universal Credit Facebook live event this evening at 6pm-7.15pm. Steve 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.
This comment piece first appeared on Labour List on December 9.