Should the chancellor extend the Universal Credit uplift?

We look at the impact Universal Credit has had in Northants and ask if the £20 uplift should be extended

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By Natalie Bloomer

Pressure is growing on the chancellor Rishi Sunak to maintain an increase of £20 per week to Universal Credit in his upcoming budget in March. With the controversial benefit back in the news NN Journal takes a look at the impact it has had in Northamptonshire and asks if the temporary increase should be extended.

Delays and Chaos 

First launched in 2013, Universal Credit was introduced to replace six different benefits and roll them into one. The idea was that it would simplify the welfare system - for example instead of a person having to claim Income Support and Housing Benefit, they would instead make one claim and receive one payment. 

However, the new benefit was heavily criticised after a series of long delays and errors which saw targets missed and families waiting weeks or even months for initial payments. The system should have been fully rolled out by 2017 but is now not expected to be complete until at least 2024.

It was in November 2018 that the rollout began in Northampton. Concerned residents and welfare advisers met at Emmanuel Church in Weston Favell to discuss their worries. Arranged by the Labour candidate for the area Sally Keeble, the meeting was also attended by Labour's then shadow housing secretary John Healy. He told the room:

"Where Universal Credit has been introduced we've seen increased debt, more use of food banks and bigger rent arrears. It's unforgivable that so many of the problems are actually built into the system."

Many of those fears were soon realised. By January the Weston Favell food bank in Northampton had already started to report longer queues of people waiting for food. Many of those were struggling with the built-in five week wait for their first payment or had experienced delays beyond that.

Amid growing criticism nationally, the government launched a PR campaign in the spring of 2019 to try to challenge what they said were misconceptions about the benefit. In a four-page advert they took out in the Metro newspaper, they said they would “set the record straight”. For those who were experiencing the delays first hand, this was a kick in the teeth.

As the months passed, things did start to settle though. The introduction of advance payments and tweaks to the system meant the chaos subsided somewhat. 

Pandemic

Then Covid hit and for some people on the lowest incomes the impact has been devastating. Dave Berry the chief officer of Daventry & District, Citizens Advice service explains:

“The furlough scheme has been great but you do not receive 100 per cent of your earnings and for low income families 20 per cent of your wage is a lot to lose.”

The £20 uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit was announced in response to this need as part of a package of measures to help the country through the crisis. But it is due to end on March 31.  

“These are unprecedented times and an unprecedented response is needed. I’d be very concerned if the government goes ahead with this. Citizens Advice nationally is campaigning for the uplift to be extended,” Dave says.

Lyn Buckingham, Chair of the CENTRA, the neighbourhood association for Corby town centre, agrees that removing the £20 would have a huge impact on people who are already struggling.

“Even with the uplift, we are seeing families in the community struggling,” she says.

“If this happens we’ll see the food banks locally being forced to step up to meet the need. This is taking food out of the mouths of children. It’s the children who will suffer the most.”

A report this week from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty recommended not only that the uplift should be continued, but that it should be extended to people on legacy benefits (those who are not on Universal Credit or Working Tax Credits). This includes many disabled people, carers and those with long term illnesses - none of who are currently entitled to the extra money.

A number of Conservative MPs are now joining calls from Labour for the increase to be maintained and extended. However in Northamptonshire, Wellingborough MP Peter Bone told NN Journal he will wait until the budget is announced before deciding his position.

“I support the government’s policy to keep the uplift until March and then review it. I think the government has done very well on Universal Credit so I will listen to their decision once it’s made and take a view.”

In response to a letter from a constituent, Tom Pursglove MP for Corby and East Northants pointed to other support that is available from the government and said:

“In my experience, including speaking to dedicated Jobcentre staff, as well as many of those in receipt of it, Universal Credit has been administered swiftly and effectively during the pandemic and has been a lifeline for many.”

Gemma Carter from Northampton was moved onto Universal Credit when she had to stop work in 2019 because she was pregnant with her daughter. At the time she experienced long delays and ended up relying on a food bank to feed her family. After her daughter was born she began to rebuild her life and started to volunteer at the food bank herself. Due to health reasons she was told to shield when the pandemic took hold. She says she’s scared about what will happen in March.

“I didn’t know about this until now so I’m really worried. If they take that £20 away I’ll have to rely on the food bank even more than I did before.”

Message from Daventry and District Citizens Advice:

Phone lines and email are still operating for people who need advice. Please call 01327 701646