A perfect storm is brewing for millions of families who rely on Universal Credit and working tax credits to get by. Despite dire predictions and warnings from experts, charities, opposition parties, ordinary citizens and now, apparently, even an internal memo, Johnson’s government remains determined to cut the £20 a week “uplift” payments.
This extra payment – amounting to £86 per month for a low-paid working family claiming income support – was introduced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in April 2020 as part of the government’s Covid support measures and is due to be withdrawn in early October. Yet as critics of the move point out, this cut is both cruel and ill-timed.
Utility bills and household basics rising fast
Utility companies are warning of rising gas and electricity bills, while those with heating oil systems – usually people living outside of major cities and towns – have already had to cope with a recent rapid increase in fuel costs (e.g. a delivery of 500 litres of heating oil in rural East Sussex will currently set you back around £240, which is about double what it cost a year ago).
Household basics are going up too, with everything costing more than it did a few months ago, from petrol to milk (that is, when there’s actually any milk left in the supermarket). Many have reported their average grocery shop total increasing by as much as 50%, while at the same time, previously common items are completely missing from shops because of Brexit.
Train fares are also increasing, and the furlough scheme – which has provided a vital lifeline for many – is being phased out. In spite of all this, the government remains adamant that the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit and working tax credits introduced in 2020 will be withdrawn at the beginning of October.
The uplift was originally intended as a temporary measure to support lower income families through the lockdown period, but has subsequently become a vital addition to many peoples’ incomes.
Over 3 million children will be hurt
As Westminster politicians, whose salaries start at £81K (with generous expenses on top) throw numbers and percentages around, it’s easy to forget that behind these figures are millions of real people.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that around six million people in the UK will be adversely affected if they lose the £20 weekly uplift, many of whom are in low paying work, and over half of whom are children. Many of these individuals and families will consequently be pushed into poverty and debt.
Seaford family faces hardship and hunger
One local story is typical of many. Fiona House, who lives in Seaford, says she is desperate at the thought of losing £80 a month. She has fibromyalgia and had to give up her bookkeeping business after a major operation in 2018. Her husband was made redundant the following year, forcing them to apply for Universal Credit. They live in a council house and, because of Fiona’s disability, have had to spend money on adapting it to make it easier for her to get around.
So what is the impact going to be on her family of losing £80 a month? “It took so long to set up Universal Credit that we fell into arrears with some of our bills,” Fiona says. “We were paying off the debts, but now we will have to reduce our repayments. We struggle to get by as it is, and we’re not extravagant – we don’t drink, and don’t take expensive holidays. I do go without meals sometimes.”
Fiona’s daughter is starting college this month in Lewes, so they will have to find her train fare (even a discounted East Sussex rail pass for sixth form students travelling within the Worthing-Eastbourne area costs £72.60 per month, plus £30 for an annual railcard) and extras for her study. For better off families these might seem like trivial expenses, but for many on benefits a single change of circumstance can set off a chain of events that pushes them further into debt.
The “hidden poor” living right next door
In a prosperous area like Sussex, where pockets of deprivation are often hidden, it is only too easy to miss the parent who’s struggling to find enough money to feed themselves and their children, or not to notice the elderly neighbour who is desperately trying to keep up appearances whilst going without. This is not to overdramatise the situation.
As James MacCleary, the Lib Dem Parliamentary spokesperson for Lewes points out, as many as 17% of working families across this constituency alone face being worse off when the government ends the uplift to Universal Credit. And the figures across the whole of Sussex are even more shocking.
According to the recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a total of 125,000 working age families in Sussex constituencies currently claim Universal Credit or working tax credits, with Hastings and Rye, Eastbourne and Crawley being particular areas of deprivation. In all three constituencies, 25% of working-age families are on benefits, and all are represented by Conservative MPs.
Are Tory MPs ignoring their poorly paid constituents?
Would these Tory MPs agree with their Prime Minister that “as we move beyond [Covid restrictions] we have to have a different emphasis, and the emphasis has to be on getting people into work and getting people into jobs”?
It’s a worthy-sounding ambition of course, but one that ignores the fact that a high percentage of those on Universal Credit are already in work. And for those who are not, having to exist for weeks or months on a significantly reduced income before they manage to find employment could see debts mounting up, and have a real impact on their mental health.
Morally and economically wrong
Certainly, politicians of all parties have warned against the cut, and the Shadow Secretary of State Jonathan Reynolds has called it “morally and economically wrong”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report showed that 4.4m low-income families will lose £1,040 from their annual income, creating serious financial hardship.
As Dame Clare Moriarty, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, points out, the withdrawal of benefit doesn’t even make sound economic sense. She claims that people are one and a half times more likely to be recipients of Universal Benefit in those areas that the government has targeted for investment, including communities prioritised by the “levelling up” fund.
For each £1 of investment from the fund, £1.80 would be taken out of the local economy through the withdrawal of the Universal Benefit uplift.
“Back to the foodbank for me and my kids”
At the beginning of September over 100 organisations, including charities, public health experts, children’s doctors and think tanks, signed a letter asking the government to abandon its plans to remove the uplift. Their plea has been ignored, and it appears as though Johnson’s government is intent on pressing ahead with “the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since the foundation of the modern welfare state” (Joseph Rowntree Foundation).
The consequences are only too graphically expressed by two other Universal Credit recipients from Sussex seaside towns. Dave is a live-in carer for his mother, who has stage 7 Alzheimer’s. “We’ll be left with no money at all to get really basic supplies,” he says. “Even with the uplift I ran out of money the other day and couldn’t get any cash out of the bank to buy milk and pads for my mum.”
And Lynn adds, simply and poignantly: “It will be back to the foodbank for me and my kids”.
Sussex Bylines would like to hear from anyone in Sussex who is willing to share their story about how the planned Universal Credit cut will affect them. Please be reassured that all letters will be treated confidentially, and people are welcome to share their stories anonymously if they prefer.
We have also emailed the MPs representing the three Sussex constituencies hardest hit by the withdrawal of the uplift (Hastings, Crawley and Eastbourne) to ask if they are opposing government plans. We will publish their responses if and when we receive them.
For constituents who might wish to contact them directly, their details are :
Henry Smith MP, Crawley [email protected]
Caroline Ansell MP, Eastbourne [email protected]
Sally-Ann Hart MP, Hastings and Rye [email protected]
UPDATE – 11 September 2021
We have received a response from Crawley MP Henry Smith and, as promised, are publishing it here: