Why we must keep on talking about Universal Credit - My CMS

In this post, Jennifer Harrison, Head of Policy and Communications, and Lynn Crawford, Financial Inclusion Worker, talk about why Changing Lives will keep fighting for a fairer welfare system for the people we support.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister used his party conference speech to reaffirm that his Government is focused on levelling up our economy, bringing an end to regional disparities he described as ‘not just a question of social justice, [but] an appalling waste of potential’.

Changing Lives supports people living in some of the most disadvantaged communities across England, and we witness daily the challenges people face to access even the most basic public services – housing, education, health and social care. So we agree that there is an urgent imperative to invest in places and rebalance our economy, and have welcomed many of the conversations introduced as part of Levelling Up debate. For example, Danny Kruger MP’s government-commissioned review into levelling up communities published last September makes a compelling case for placing people and communities at the heart of this agenda.

However, we find it difficult to accept the seriousness of the Government’s commitment to levelling up our communities, when the Prime Minister sentiments come on same day as a policy decision is enacted to drive millions of people more deeply into poverty and deprivation. This week, a £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit, introduced to offer essential financial assistance to people during the Covid-19 pandemic, comes to an end.

Despite calls from within their own party, as well as from opposition parties, charities and independent experts, to maintain the uplift to Universal Credit, the Government has chosen to reduce people’s income at the same time that food, fuel and energy bills are rising. This risks increasing people’s vulnerability, making homelessness, hunger, mental ill-health, abuse and exploitation an ever more likely consequence – at a time when many other safety nets, such as the evictions ban and furlough scheme, have also been removed.

One of the people we support told us:

“I’m worried about the drop in Universal Credit as I am struggling… I have not used my heating or cooker to reduce energy costs. I didn’t last two weeks this month without borrowing from my a family member.  The [reduction in Universal Credit] just pushes me further in debt and stress and suffering from trying to survive and being a victim of coercive control and financial abuse.”

Another said:

“I hoped to start paying off debts I accrued whilst unemployed and in receipt of Universal Credit income. Without the uplift, it will no longer be possible to reduce any of my outstanding debts. Removal of the £20 weekly uplift will massively impact my financial situation. It threatens to force me, against my will, into a forever increasing negative spiral of increased poverty-created debt.”

Government ministers have repeatedly stated that the answer to the loss of Universal Credit income people have experienced this week is by creating opportunities for good work. We agree that access to meaningful, high quality employment is needed to help people move away from tough times and towards a fulfilling life.

Each year, we support hundreds of people who are furthest from the job market. Often, the people we work with experience trauma, deprivation and discrimination manifested in current challenges such as homelessness, addiction and long term unemployment.

These barriers to employment can lead to people becoming trapped by low confidence, lack of skills, long-term poverty, worsening mental and physical health problems, and more. We are proud that 20% of our workforce have experience of previously using services such as ours at all levels of the organisation. This is testament to what can be achieved with the right support.

However, we do not accept that the Government’s position is adequate as an immediate response to the hardship that millions of people are now experiencing. Creating the conditions for good work takes time, and an enduring commitment to addressing the practical barriers to employment that exist within our most deprived communities. The Government’s ambition to level up our economy will not be served by driving people into further poverty and deprivation in the meantime.

Even with the uplift in Universal Credit since the beginning of the pandemic, we have continued to see an increase in the number of people we support experiencing financial hardship. Our research shows a powerful link between poverty and destitution and we have seen increasing numbers of women advertising to sell or exchange sex online, and during the pandemic we saw an 83% increase in the number of women accessing our specialist support services. The removal of the Universal Credit uplift will only make these challenges more acute.

That’s why Changing Lives will continue to fight for a fair deal for our communities, challenging Government to provide the welfare safety net people deserve until we can genuinely rebalance for the better.

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