Big Issue Vendor

Universal Credit claimants need certainty, not ‘alms for the poor’

The extra £20 a week isn’t a bonus, writes Z2k chief executive Anela Anwar, it simply unwinds the Government’s own five-year freeze on working-age benefits.
Pressure is mounting on Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Image credit: HM Treasury/Flickr

The Opposition Day Debate on Universal Credit ended in farce, with the Government failing to defend its own policy and nothing more than a symbolic, non-binding vote to keep the £20-a-week increase. But it still marks a key milestone in the campaign to persuade the PM and Chancellor to retain the uplift in Universal Credit which millions across the country have been crying out for.

Let’s be clear, the Government Whips only told their MPs to abstain because they were worried so many of them were going to do that anyway, risking an even more embarrassing defeat. And with an average of nearly 10,000 Universal Credit claimants in each Parliamentary constituency, it’s easy to understand why so many of those MPs were threatening to rebel.

Over the weekend someone close to the Chancellor seems to have briefed key media allies that he was considering a one-off £500 payment to all Universal Credit claimants in April. Of course, any extra money is helpful to those struggling to get by on benefits that were frozen for four years before the £20-a-week uplift at the start of the pandemic. But this kind of ad hoc payment really isn’t the right approach. It offers no certainty of income. No respect for claimants as citizens. And nothing for those who claim after April. In fact, it feels like pre-Victorian conscience-salving “alms for the poor”.

It was really encouraging to hear one of the leading Conservative back bench MPs, Stephen Crabb, calling for the retention of the £20 a week uplift put this idea back in its box.

He quickly tweeted: “The purpose of welfare is to provide targeted, stable and adequate support for the low paid & unemployed and incentive to improve earnings where possible. A £500 ‘gift’ plus £20 per week cut is not the way forward at a time of hardship for many households.”

It is impossible to know how many of his colleagues would go as far is this – he is after all a former work and pensions secretary with little to lose politically. But even if it is only a couple of dozen, that would be enough to force the Chancellor to think again. Not because he will lose a vote on his Budget in March. But because the number of claimants isn’t going to reduce any time soon and he doesn’t want his own MPs saying “I told you so” when he faces the same decision all over again later in the summer. And Marcus Rashford isn’t even on this pitch yet.

For all these reasons, I would still be surprised if the £20-a-week increase wasn’t retained in some form next year. However, the bigger issue for us is that over two million old-style “legacy benefit” claimants still haven’t even had the increase this year. They are now £750 worse off than their neighbours on UC, leaving them less able to heat their home or put food on the table.

This two-tier welfare state is totally unacceptable. It is discriminatory and reeks of the mentality of “the deserving and undeserving poor”. Remember, this extra £20 a week isn’t a bonus. It simply unwinds the Government’s own five-year “freeze” on working-age benefits.

To be fair, opposition party spokespeople have been challenging DWP ministers on behalf of legacy benefit claimants for months. But the harsh reality of 21st century politics is that it is only when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition says something, that the PM and Chancellor will feel the political heat.

Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds’ clear call yesterday for extending the £20 a week uplift to legacy benefit claimant in her own speech was a good step. But we need to see Keir Starmer raising this injustice at Prime Minister’s Questions week in and week out.  Let’s see what he does tomorrow.

Anela Anwar is chief executive of anti-poverty charity Z2k.