THE government’s decision to end the £20 weekly increase to Universal Credit brought in at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has garnered a negative reaction from councillors and a food bank worker in Conwy.
The temporary £20 boost to Universal Credit, a benefit for working-age people claimed by almost six million people in England, Scotland and Wales, was introduced in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic, but officially withdrawn on October 6.
Though, Robin Millar, Conservative MP for Aberconwy since 2019, has defended the move, saying it was a ‘temporary’ addition to the basic rate and not, as such, a ‘cut’.
Mr Millar said in a statement: “The temporary uplift in Universal Credit was an emergency response to an unprecedented health and economic crisis.
“As that crisis recedes, and as the economy recovers, it is only right that support is now targeted at helping people back into work and to increase their wages.
“Extending the temporary uplift to Universal Credit, or making it permanent, would cost £6 billion a year. UK government could borrow this money, but it would be our children and their children who have to repay it.
“The alternatives – raising taxes or cutting spending in other areas – are equally unpalatable. That said, the UK government will continue to support vulnerable families and those on lower incomes.”
Mr Millar highlighted the 2.2 per cent increase of the National Living Wage in the last year to £8.91 an hour, the local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and Universal Credit claimants increasing to the 30th percentile of rents, and the extension of the £350 million Warm Home Discount Scheme until at least March 2022 as evidence of the government’s continued support in this regard.
Similarly, David Jones, Conservative MP for Clwyd West, highlighted both that the £20 uplift was always a temporary solution, and the number of ways in which the government supports low-income families.
Mr Jones said: “It was made explicit at the time of that announcement that the uplift was a strictly temporary measure and would in due course be phased out when the pandemic restrictions ended.
“It is important to note that the temporary increases to UC and WTC (working tax credit) have been part of a wider support package, which has consistently prioritised spending to support low-income families and the most vulnerable.
“For example, the Government has:
- “Intervened directly to pay the salaries and protect the jobs of 12 million workers and small business owners through the furlough and self-employed schemes;
- “Provided over £100 billion in business support, including business grants, rates relief, VAT cut extensions, Bounce Back Loans, Restart Grants and Recovery Loans;
- “Increased local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and UC claimants to the 30th percentile of local rents, thereby providing £1 billion of additional support to more than one million households who will, on average, receive an increase of £600 per year; and
- “Introduced mortgage payment holidays, which have helped over two million people and have also been extended so that those who have already started a mortgage payment holiday can extend for a further six months, without this being recorded on their credit file, while new applicants can continue to apply.”
Councillor Emma Leighton-Jones, of the Conwy ward, also acknowledged the temporary nature of the £20 uplift, but criticised the timing of the decision, with the pandemic and its effects ‘far from over’.
Cllr Leighton-Jones said: “The £20 uplift was brought in at the beginning of the pandemic as a temporary measure.
“However, I am disappointed to see that this is being removed now – how can we withdraw support to the poorest in our society at this time?
“The failure to maintain this uplift will increase poverty and hardship for people who are already struggling and I am terribly concerned about the potential impact that this will have – people struggling to travel to medical appointments, heat their homes and put food on the table.
“If wellbeing is a priority, then this seems to be the complete opposite; a U-turn. The problems of the pandemic are far from over and it is wrong to remove this support at this time.”
Likewise, her colleague Councillor Susan Shotter, of the Marl ward, said she feels the ending of the £20 uplift scheme has simply arrived too soon.
Cllr Shotter said: “I’m totally against it. I don’t like things like this happening; the last thing that the government should be doing is taking away this.
“They’re people who are hard-working; they just don’t earn enough money to be able to pay all of their bills.
“It’s a decision that they’re going to make between putting the heating up a little bit more or feeding their children.
“Let’s reverse it until we’re at a time when it’s been properly analysed; they gave it and they’ve taken it away just as quickly.”
Sheryl Briggs is a community champion at Conwy Food Bank, which has been running for 10 years and has found itself as busy as it has been short on essentials at times lately.
Sheryl highlighted the crucial difference an extra £20 could make to some families, and said that, since the end of the scheme, the workload at the food bank has picked up once again.
She said: “I’m not sure if it’s already started having an effect because the last week was horrendously busy. I don’t know whether it was due to that, or whether it just happened to be a busy week.
“Today (October 11) has been the same, with the amount of parcels that have gone out. We’ve really picked up since it stopped. It’s sad that people need us in this day and age.
“I think it’s wrong. People have got used to that money and have started relying on it. It’s still a lot for them to lose if you’ve got a family; it sounds nothing, but it goes a long way.”
Universal Credit was introduced to replace six benefits and merge them into one payment (income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit).
It is paid monthly in England and Wales.