“Think about the vulnerable” – families, politicians and food banks plead for Government U-turn over £20 Universal Credit cut as North East set to be worst hit
“Families will be faced with the choice of putting their heating on or feeding their children” - the stark warning from one Washington family as the government gets set to press ahead with cutting its £20 per week Universal Credit uplift payment.
The additional money was brought in to support out-of-work and low income families with the increased financial burden of the Covid pandemic and a campaign has now been launched urging the government not to remove the uplift payment on the expiry date of October 6.
Tori Hetherington, 35, Lee Nicholson, 42, and their six children fell on challenging times after Lee lost his job as a bathroom fitter. Like many families across the region they’re currently dependent on additional support provided by Universal Credit.
Tori said: “It was brilliant to get the additional £20 per week which for families on low incomes is a lot of money. For us it’s been massively beneficial.
“If this is taken away as we move into winter then a lot of families will have to choose between putting the heating on or having something to eat.
“This shouldn’t be a choice - these are basic needs. Before the additional £20, I know of some parents who went without food in order to feed their children - although fortunately we’ve never been in that position.”
It’s a situation Lee feels has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
He added: “Any decrease in income is obviously a worry and with the rising costs of living and taxation you do wonder how some families will survive.
“Many people have lost their jobs during the pandemic and don’t want to be on Universal Credit - it’s not a choice for people.”
While the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has preached the mantra of returning people to work rather than being dependent on benefits, almost 40 per cent of people claiming Universal Credit are in low income employment.
Lee said: “They’re going to take this money away but many people on Universal Credit are working people and are now going have to pay this additional National Insurance tax as well as the increased cost of living.
Tori added: “The basic cost of living has gone up. Gas and electricity bills have increased and if they take away this £20 it will be a big hit to people.”
After losing his job, Lee and Tori have recently started the Building Block Day Day Centre in Concord - a community hub and cafe providing support to local people.
Launched as a non-profit making enterprise, Tori is concerned the Universal Credit cut will also have an adverse effect on their fledgling business.
She said: “If this money is taken away then it won’t be getting spent in local businesses which could obviously affect our cafe.”
Lee added: “I would urge the government to consider the effects taking away this payment will have on the most vulnerable people. I really think it will end up having bigger costs in other ways.”
Universal Credit claimants “very likely” to skip meals when £20 cut hits, says survey
The impact of the pandemic has already seen an increase in dependence on food banks from local families and a recent survey carried out by the Trussell Trust - the UK’s biggest food bank charity - showed one in four people in the region claiming Universal Credit said they are “very likely” to need to skip meals when the cut hits.
A third of people surveyed in the North East – representing 84,000 people – told researchers they would struggle to heat their homes this winter if their income is slashed in October.
Peter MacLellan, Chief Executive Officer of Durham Christian Partnership, said: “In Sunderland and County Durham our food banks are providing three days' food for around 1,600 people every month - including 600 children.
“Cutting some of the most vulnerable people’s income by a fifth is going to have a major impact at a time of rising prices for both food and energy.
“We stand ready to support those affected, and we anticipate a significant rise in food bank use if this cut goes ahead. However, it isn’t right that people should be forced to depend on charity for their most basic needs."
Figures provided from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent social change organisation to solve UK poverty, shows the cuts will have a disproportionately negative impact on families in Sunderland, South Tyneside and across the North East.
The region is already financially precariously positioned with 46 per cent of the region’s households with children in receipt of Universal or Working Tax Credit - the highest in the country along with Yorkshire and Humber.
Figures for Sunderland Central, Washington & Sunderland West and Houghton & Sunderland South show Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit household claimants with children in the area, coming in at 47, 51 and 49 per cent respectively.
For South Shields it is 49 per cent while for Jarrow it is slightly lower at 43 per cent.
In a letter to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, pleading with him not to go ahead with the cut, the North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC) calculated the cuts would hit 34 per cent of all working-age households across our region – 2 in 5 of which are families with children - which would “push many into poverty and cause severe hardship for those already struggling to stay afloat”.
The letter, which has also been signed by the region’s Citizens Advice Chief Executive Officers, stated: “It would also take almost £5 million a week out of our regional economy, damaging local jobs and businesses just as they begin to recover from the terrible impact of Covid-19.”
Concerns over child poverty levels
The NECPC is particularly concerned about the impact the cuts will have on children, highlighting even before the onset of the pandemic, the North East had the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK at an average of 37 per cent.
NECPC Director Amanda Bailey said: “I think what the pandemic has shown is that before this increase, Universal Credit was not really enough to live on. Removing this payment is going to put a lot of families - many of whom are working on low incomes - into a situation where they’re going to have to make very difficult decisions such as whether to put the heating on or parents having to go without food to buy their child a coat or new school shoes.
“With the joint highest number of families with children on Universal and Working tax credit, the North East and places such as Sunderland and South Tyneside are going to be disproportionately hit by this cut.
“This is a very worrying time for families and the Government needs to reconsider this policy - although at present there is no indication they are going to.
“Given the impact this cut is going to have on the North East, we need every MP in the region to be standing up and fighting our cause.”
Led by Durham City MP, Mary Kelly Foy, 17 Labour MPs from across the North East have also penned a letter to the Chancellor, pleading with him to reconsider his decision.
Mrs Kelly Foy said: “There isn’t a single MP who’s not aware of the devastating impact the cut to Universal Credit will have on their constituents and their local economies, so for any politician to support it is both cruel and illogical.
“In my own constituency we have 6510 working age families who will be impacted by the cut, as well as 3260 working age families with children. Every MP will have seen similar data for their own constituency, and they owe it to their constituents to do everything they can to fight this cut.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Sunderland City Council’s portfolio holder for Children’s Services, Cllr Louise Farthing, who added: “I find the decision to press ahead with this cut abhorrent and I can’t believe we live in a country where a government would even consider removing this payment.
“Many people in receipt of Universal Credit do work and will also now also face the increase in National Insurance contributions. It’s heartbreaking. The government talks about levelling up but all this will do is make poor people even poorer.
“I certainly think the government needs to look at this again and think about the impact it will have.”
Responding to calls for a rethink, the government stressed the payment was always meant to be “temporary” and highlighted the £9bn which will has been spent on the Universal Credit £20 per week uplift initiative since the onset of the pandemic.
A government spokesman said: “As announced by the Chancellor at the Budget, the uplift to Universal Credit was always temporary. It was designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and it has done so.
“Universal Credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work and it’s right that the Government should focus on our Plan for Jobs, supporting people back into work and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more.”