Unite has reiterated its call for the government to cancel a proposed cut of £20 a week to Universal Credit payments after a new survey has revealed the depth of suffering of low-income families who are struggling to make ends meet.
The Unite survey, which was undertaken over three weeks earlier this month and received more than 500 responses, shows how Universal Credit claimants are barely surviving – and how cutting the £20 a week increase, introduced as an emergency measure last March – would send many families over the edge.
An overwhelming majority – 78 per cent – of those polled said that Universal Credit as it stands is not enough to live on, with a further 85 per cent reporting that getting through the five-week wait period before receiving their first Universal Credit payment was ‘difficult’.
Just over half of those surveyed – 54 per cent – said they were forced to take out an advance payment to get through the five-week wait period, and almost just as many – 43 per cent – said repaying this loan was ‘difficult’.
The extra £20 a week introduced in March has helped make ends meet ‘a lot’ for just over half of those surveyed, with an additional 18 per cent – nearly one in five – saying it helped ‘some’.
‘I live in terror of needing a new fridge’
Heartbreaking comments from the survey revealed how for some, the £20 extra a week that they’ve received since March last year has served as a vital lifeline, enabling them to afford food and bills, and avoid food banks.
Many reported how the extra £20 helped them survive what’s been one of the coldest Februarys on record.
“I have the heating on when I first wake up to help me out of bed,” said one respondent. “I have arthritis so am incredibly stiff without it. I can barely afford this but I definitely won’t be able to with £20 less.”
“When it’s really cold [the £20 a week] helped me use my heating to keep my children warm,” said another.
Several Universal Credit claimants said in the survey that the uplift has helped them pay for broadband – a vital amenity in lockdown. One respondent said being able to afford an internet connection has helped them “look for work and upskill” and others said it helped “educate my children as their schools have shut”.
For others, the £20 a week uplift has given them just a bit of extra breathing space.
“It’s meant I could afford to not count every penny for the first time in years and it means I’ve eaten more healthily because an extra £20 a week makes a huge difference,” said one respondent.
Another respondent commented, “[The £20 a week] has enabled me to buy things not normally possible; I replaced my broken bed. Normally I live in terror of needing a new fridge.”
‘Rising cost of everything’
Others highlighted how the extra £20 has become an absolute necessity because basic living costs have increased dramatically during the pandemic, with one survey participant saying the uplift “has helped with the rising cost of everything”.
“As I am at home more am using more gas and electricity, so the extra money has gone on that,” said another respondent.
Several parents, whose children are not entitled to free school meals, said the extra £20 a week has gone to feeding their growing kids who are now at home all the time during lockdown.
One parent said they were now able to buy ‘treats’ like ‘fresh fruit’ for their kids, which, they said, “was really important during lockdown to ensure, while exercise was limited, that I could make meals a bit healthier”.
Many highlighted that the £20 a week they’ve received since March has gone almost exclusively to paying debts racked up by a system that’s simply not enough to live on.
“We can afford bills but not food without going into debt,” said one respondent. “The extra £20 has helped reduce the debt we’re accumulating to pay for food.”
Another survey participant, who is self-employed and so not entitled to sick pay, said the £20 a week had gone to “debt repayments to credit cards from debts incurred after being ill from coronavirus”.
‘I don’t know how I will cope’
A significant proportion of Universal Credit claimants polled – 14 per cent — said the extra £20 had helped ‘only a little’, while similar number – just over 15 per cent – said it did not help at all.
Many reported that since they were relatively new to Universal Credit, they have not yet known what it means to live with £80 less each month. This is an experience shared by millions – since March last year, the number of Universal Credit claimants has nearly doubled from 3 million to almost 6 million.
“I’ve only just starting receiving Universal Credit,” said one respondent. “I didn’t know about the £20 but if that’s taken away then it will be difficult for me to pay all my bills.”
Another claimant, who started Universal Credit in March last year when the extra £20 a week was first introduced, said, “I still struggle to meet all bills. Since I started UC in March 2020, I have always received the extra amount and still struggle — I don’t know how I will cope.”
This abject terror of the impending cut to Universal Credit was a sentiment shared by many in the survey.
“I can’t bear to think what it would be like without the £20 extra as it’s still not enough to pay bills and buy food,” one respondent said. “I worry about putting the heating on, and it’s been so cold and miserable.”
Another said, “Things are still tight and I dread the removal of the extra £20 a week.”
‘Extend the uplift indefinitely’
Unite is one of a number of organisations lobbying the chancellor in next Wednesday’s (March 3) budget to make the uplift permanent and not to just extend it for another six months, as the chancellor is reportedly considering, given that unemployment could rise further as lockdown restrictions are eased and the furlough payments taper off.
The financial crisis facing the estimated 5.6 million UC claimants was thrown into sharp relief by figures from Resolution Foundation which show that removing the £20-a-week boost after six months will mean the poorest households will be £350 worse off over the whole of 2021-22.
Separate research from the House of Commons Library found that cutting the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift would plunge an additional 420,000 children into poverty.
Commenting, Unite general secretary Len McCluksey said, “The lesson this survey and the many heart-breaking comments of Unite Community members about their experience of living on Universal Credit so starkly proves is that the £20 ‘top up’ has been a lifeline to millions, literally the difference between heating and eating.
“The economic havoc the Covid pandemic has unleashed has yet to be fully felt, with unemployment expected to get a lot worse later on in the year,” he added. “It is vital that families, who are struggling the most on the lowest incomes, are given immediate reassurance that the government will not suddenly abandon in their hour of need.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner added, “Even before the pandemic, child poverty was a deeply entrenched problem in the UK – for the government to consign a further 420,000 children to hunger and hardship would be a scandal.
“Instead of taking Universal Credit away from those in need – the majority of whom are in work – the chancellor should be extending the uplift indefinitely.
“These should include those on legacy benefits who have had no additional support, along with ending the five week wait which has forced people to turn to foodbanks in droves,” he noted.
“The grim reality is that work doesn’t pay in this country and our benefits support system has been destroyed. Those who have lost their jobs in this crisis are finding out how little this government thinks they should live on.
“It is a disgrace and a humane government would be addressing this. We will carry on the fight to stop this cut.”
You can support Unite’s campaign to keep the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift by emailing your MP – you can insert your postcode in our form here to contact your MP and urge them to call on the government do the right thing.
By Hajera Blagg