Last year, the impact of Covid-19 resulted in the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announcing a range of financial packages to help businesses and individuals. Among these was an increase in universal credit, which gave claimants an additional £20.00 per week. With the increase due to end on 31st March, the Prime Minister is under pressure to make it permanent.
The move comes after the chancellor and Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions secretary, met with the PM last week to discuss the future of the universal credit increase, which has proven to be a valuable lifeline for millions over the past year.
With more and more people losing their jobs, the number of people claiming universal credit has rocketed since last March. It is not just younger singles and those with young families who are now reliant on the benefit. Many professionals and older working people in their 50s and early 60s have found themselves having to sign on for universal credit after losing their jobs due to Covid-19.
Slashing the level of benefit back to its original amount means that many individuals and households won't have enough money to pay for essentials. There are concerns that many could be plunged below the poverty line if the cuts take place in March while the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the nation.
Opposition forces a Commons vote
The Labour Party has been piling on the pressure for the increase to be extended as the pandemic continues to impact people’s lives. The opposition used a debate on Monday to force a Commons vote on the issue. The PM has also come under pressure from many of his own MPs, who believe the increase needs to be extended.
The Labour motion in the Commons passed by 278 votes to 0. A handful of Tory MPs voted with the opposition, defying orders from the Conservative Party to abstain. While the passing of the motion does not guarantee any changes, it will put the PM under even more pressure from both the opposition and his own MPs.
According to a group of Tory MPs who are part of the Northern Research Group, the move to cut benefits could devastate millions of households at a crucial time. The group said that families and individuals needed to be given support and helped through the recovery.
The opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has also expressed his concern. He said that failing to help people on benefits at this stage could have a damaging impact on economic recovery as the nation emerges from the series of lockdowns. He has urged Boris Johnson to give those on universal credit the reassurance they need with regard to the protection of their income.
Charities call for a permanent extension
While the government is considering cutting universal credit at the end of March, and Labour MPs are calling for an extension, some charities are asking for the increase to be made permanent.
Officials from Action for Children said that unemployment levels would peak in the summer, leaving many people and families facing hardship. In addition, the CEO of Barnardo's, Javed Khan, said that the only way to stop vast numbers of families falling into poverty was by making the increase permanent.