Sometimes it take a full-blown crisis to reveal just how badly our institutions are failing those who need them most.
First introduced in 2013, Universal Credit, the Tory government’s flagship welfare reform, combined six different benefits – into just one payment.
It was purportedly designed to ‘simplify’ the benefits system but has caused untold hardship for millions of families since its inception. Plagued by technical problems when it was first rolled out, the value of payments has also plummeted over the years, leaving many struggling households hundreds if not thousands of pounds worse off each year compared to legacy benefits.
Meanwhile, families have been forced to endure a cruel and needless five-week wait for the initial payment, plunging many from just barely making ends meet into debt and destitution.
When the pandemic first began to sweep through the UK in March, job losses rose and Universal Credit claims suddenly spiked to record-breaking numbers. By October, the number of new people on Universal Credit had risen by an unheard of 3.6m. The total number of people on Universal Credit has now doubled to more than 6m.
Many of these newly jobless, will have had to suffer the indignity of discovering just how full of holes the so-called social safety net is. This is perhaps why, in April, the government agreed to increase Universal Credit payments by £20 a week.
While so many problems still remain with Universal Credit, such a relatively small change to the system has made a massive difference for the millions of people precariously balancing on the bread line, just one step from falling over the edge.
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 how the £20 increase had their changed despair to hope.
“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.”
Despite how life-changing the £20-a-week uplift has been for so many families – indeed, new research showed the increase alone has effectively lifted 700,000 people out of poverty – the threat of it being ripped away now hangs over the more than 6m families claiming Universal Credit.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak was widely expected to listen to unions and anti-poverty campaigners and commit to maintaining the increase beyond the April 2021 deadline in his comprehensive spending review in November. Instead, Universal Credit received no mention at all in his speech – when the government was pressed on the issue afterwards, ministers said a decision on the £20 a week would not be made until January.
Sunak was widely condemned for delaying the decision, and for potentially ending the Universal Credit increase at a time when unemployment is expected to peak.
Unite Community mobilised a Universal Credit day of action on December 9, where tens of thousands participated calling for the government to do the right thing and maintain the £20 increase.
Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves explained why the uplift was so vital, and why Unite will not stop fighting to keep it.
“Universal Credit has since its inception been woefully inadequate in meeting the needs of struggling families who are forced to choose between heating and eating,” she said. “The £20-a-week rise in Universal Credit payments has been a cash lifeline for these families and has kept many hundreds of thousands of households from falling below the breadline. The government should have also extended the £20 uplift to people on other legacy benefits.
“To cruelly retract this crucial uplift in April, just when rising unemployment is expected to be at its highest point ever amid the pandemic, is morally wrong and will harm local economies,” Groves added. ”Every pound given out in benefits is spent in local economies supporting local businesses and jobs.
“Our Unite Community members sent a loud and clear message on our day of action on December 9 that the £20-a-week uplift must be here to stay permanently,” she went on to say. “It is an important stepping stone in further reform of Universal Credit which is simply not fit for purpose. We also call on the government to further commit to ending both the five-week wait period for initial Universal Credit payments as well as stopping benefit sanctions. It cannot be right that in the sixth richest nation in the world, we now have nearly one in four people living in poverty. Let’s build a social safety net we can all be proud of.”
By Hajera Blagg
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list