How did we get here?
Last April, in an early attempt to respond to the impact of Covid-19, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, introduced a temporary uplift for Universal Credit claimants of £20 a week. That might not sound like much in the scheme of things, you’d think? Wrong. it’s had such an impact on the families that have received it, that the potential of having it taken away would now be too much to bear. £20 a week means money in utility metres, food on the table, activities for families stuck at home. It’s a life-changing amount of money for families who are only just coping, or already experiencing daily deprivation in their lives.
The temporary extension
To the relief of many charities, campaigners and, of course, UC benefit claimants, the Chancellor announced in his Budget speech last week that the £20 a week uplift introduced last April was to be extended a further 6 months. To help mitigate the impact of coronavirus on household finances the uplift, which was due to end on 31 March, will now remain in place until September. The Chancellor also confirmed working tax credit claimants would receive equivalent support over the next six months through a one-off payment of £500.
But with the UC uplift extension have we just kicked the can further down the street and will the uplift need to be extended or indeed made permanent beyond September?
Surging unemployment has led to a massive increase in UC claimants
The number of people claiming Universal Credit in the UK has doubled since the start of the pandemic, surging from 3 million in March 2020 to 6 million at the start of this year. Around 446 people were still making new claims every hour in the first week of January 2021, and a total of 4.5 million people have made a claim for the benefit since the start of the public health crisis. The statistics reflect the scale of the hardship caused by Covid-19. This has been laid bare with new figures showing that more than a third of claims since Universal Credit was introduced in April 2013 have been made during the COVID19 pandemic.
Moreover, the number of people on company payrolls has fallen by 726,000 during the same period according to the Office for National Statistics, and the unemployment rate reached a five-year high in December. There is no doubt the £20 uplift has provided a safety net for people that have been made redundant or the self employed who have seen their profits drop due to lockdowns and social distancing measures. This is a very bad state of affairs indeed, that we predict will get worse before it gets better.
Why the £20 uplift proves so vital?
Over 620,000 families with children have started claiming Universal Credit since the start of the pandemic, marking a 51 per cent increase. Two thirds of the families now receiving Universal Credit are single parent families, and around 90 per cent of single parents are women. Analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) last year concluded that withdrawing the temporary increase in March risked sweeping 700,000 more people, including 300,000 more children, into poverty.
With the current uplift lifeline in place, Citizens Advice estimated that lockdown debts have already reached £1.6 billion, 2 million households are behind on their energy bills and half a million tenants are behind an average of £730 on their rent. Citizens Advice research showed that the £20 a week uplift equates is the equivalent of 3 days food shopping and almost 7 days of energy costs for many households. With the announcement by Ofgem that energy bills are to rise by £96 to £1,138 a year in April for households on standard or default tariffs combined with the fact we already have higher energy costs due to being confined to our homes and the children having being at home due to schools being shut. Many have already found themselves in a perfect storm of fuel and food poverty due to these factors and the recent cold weather snap.
The loss of the uplift at the end of March would have proved devastating not just for families on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits, but to the economy as a whole; it was estimated that the uplift alone is pumping £500 million a month into local economies at a time when they find themselves on life support due to many high street shops being closed.
What next for the £20 lifeline?
At this time, it is unclear whether the £20 uplift will be extended beyond September. With the vaccine roll out proving successful so far and infection rates dropping it is hard to gauge what will happen when lockdown ends and how quickly people can get back to work. It is difficult to predict how swiftly the economy can bounce back and if we will see a rise in redundancies again as the furlough or job retention scheme winds down similarly to what we witnessed last year as the rates the government paid to businesses were gradually reduced.
The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on poverty, Kevin Hollinrake, recently recommended that “There is a compelling case for making the uplift permanent.” The Trussell Trust found that before the pandemic struck 70% of Universal Credit claimants had experienced debt during the 5 weeks wait for the initial payment of the benefit. They also found out from their survey that only 8% of respondents said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living and only 5% of people who said they were disabled or had ill-health said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living.
The Government has expressed on multiple occasions that the uplift is ‘temporary’ and impossible to sustain. We say families livelihoods will be impossible to sustain without it.
Let’s hope social responsibility takes hold before the Autumn.