Anela Anwar, Z2K chief executive
Yesterday’s Opposition Day Debate might have ended in farce, with the Government failing to defend its own policy, but it still marks a key milestone in the campaign to persuade the PM and Chancellor to retain the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit. Let’s be clear, the Government Whips only told its 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 UC 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 UC 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 leaders of the Conservative back bench MPs 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 & 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 numbers 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, Z2K 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 still that over two million “legacy benefit” claimants still haven’t even had this 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.
Z2K are calling on the Government to maintain the £20 per week increase to Universal Credit beyond April 2021, and extend it to the 2 million people who have been left without it on legacy benefits – join the campaign and ask your MP to back the call too.