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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Universal credit: Claimants’ fears as £20 a week uplift ends


People claiming universal credit in Northern Ireland have said they do not know how they will cope after the end of a £20 a week uplift.

The removal of the uplift on Wednesday comes as the cost of living continues to rise.

In Northern Ireland, there are approximately 134,000 universal credit claimants, with slightly more than a quarter of them working.

The government has stated that it has “always been clear” that the increase in universal credit is only temporary.

Deirdre McCausland, a single mother of two from west Belfast, expressed concern about the reduction’s impact on her family.

“They’ve brought in a 35% increase in gas,” she told BBC News NI.

“My electric bill has increased dramatically.

“How can they even weigh that, take the money away, but then raise all these costs while still charging for uniforms and bus passes?

“I just think I’m going to be financially crushed.”

Universal credit, which is claimed by more than 5.5 million households in the UK, was introduced to replace six benefits and merge them into one benefit payment for working-age people.

The £20 top-up, which Chancellor Rishi Sunak said was only a temporary measure to help people cope with the pandemic, was extended by six months in March, but MPs from all parties, as well as charities and campaigners, have urged it to be extended beyond the autumn.

“It was designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the pandemic’s toughest stages, and it has done so,” a government spokesman added.

Universal credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work, and it is right that the government should focus on our Plan for Jobs, helping people get back into work and helping those who are already working to advance and earn more.”

The first ministers of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have previously called on Boris Johnson to reverse plans to end the £20 uplift.

May 2021 figures from the Department for Communities showed that of those claiming universal credit in Northern Ireland there were:

  • 33,290 single parents
  • 10,830 couples with children

Increases in gas and electricity prices have been announced in the last month as wholesale energy prices have reached an all-time high – a cost which has been passed on to the consumer.

‘Not a third world country’

Maria, a single mother of two young children from Greater Belfast, had to give up her job to care for her disabled son.

“They’re taking this £20 away at the worst possible time; they shouldn’t be taking it away at all; they should make it permanent,” she said on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster.

“All they’re doing is making poor people poorer.”

She expressed hope that the government would reconsider its decision and that the Northern Ireland Assembly would “step up and help the people of Northern Ireland.”

“This isn’t a third-world country, and we shouldn’t have to rely on charities and food banks; there should be enough money for everyone to live comfortably,” she said.

“I don’t mean a lavish lifestyle; I simply mean enough to feed your family, keep the heat on, and keep your children healthy and well.”

Deirdre McDaid, a trustee at Foyle Food Bank in Londonderry, expressed concern about the impact of the £20 uplift on people.

“In the middle of the pandemic, we fed 6,000 people, but now it’s 12,000 people – that gives you an idea of the scale,” she explained.

“In terms of background, some of those people are working; nearly 30% of people claiming universal credit are employed, indicating that there is something fundamentally wrong with the universal credit system.”

“More than half of the people who come to Foyle Food Bank come because they can’t make ends meet with the benefits they’re receiving – it’s impossible.”

According to the charity Save the Children, between now and early November, more than 83,000 children in over 44,000 Northern Ireland households will have their universal credit payments reduced by £87 per month, or £1,040 per year.

“People we work with tell us they’ve been relying on this £20 lifeline to buy necessities like food and clothing for themselves and their children,” Save the Children Northern Ireland’s Peter Bryson said.

“Without it, tens of thousands more children are facing a cold and hungry winter. And we know the impacts of childhood poverty can last a lifetime.”

He added: “The UK government must change course. In his budget announcement later this month, the chancellor should reinstate the £20 lifeline.”

‘Divisive framing’

Advice NI’s Kevin Higgins expressed regret that the government was “getting back into this divisive framing.”

“Boris Johnson will focus on work and work is the way out of this – he fails to recognise that half of the people on universal credit are working and in poverty and struggling, struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

“After a year and a half, the [Northern Ireland] executive hasn’t discussed social security, hasn’t discussed welfare mitigations – now is the time, this week, this Thursday.”

“The executive has until tomorrow to put this issue on the agenda.”

The lights in Belfast City Hall will be turned off at 20:00 BST on Wednesday to highlight the impact of the cut, the Women’s Regional Consortium said, “as a symbol of what many people on the lowest incomes will face.”

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