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PM fails to offer guarantees over future of weekly £20 Universal Credit rise

PA Political Staff
·4-min read

Boris Johnson has refused to guarantee he will not end the £20 weekly rise in Universal Credit in April, as he suffered a backbench MP rebellion supporting an extension.

The Prime Minister defended the extra support during the coronavirus pandemic but did not say whether the rise worth £1,000 a year to families would be extended beyond the end of March.

Labour’s non-binding motion pressing the Government to maintain the increase was approved by 278 votes to zero, majority 278, after Mr Johnson ordered his MPs to abstain.

Six Conservative MPs rebelled to support the motion, including senior Tories Stephen Crabb and Robert Halfon.

Former work and pensions secretary Mr Crabb, rebelling for the first time against the party whip, said the weekly rise should be kept for a further 12 months in order to give people “certainty” over their finances.

Sir Keir Starmer called Mr Johnson “pathetic” for telling Tories not to vote on the motion and said that “in their heart of hearts”, Conservative MPs would back Labour’s move.

Downing Street insisted no decision has been made on whether to keep or scrap the increase, and said Chancellor Rishi Sunak will update the public on the Government’s plans “shortly”.

Mr Johnson repeatedly declined to state whether or not the increase will be extended when questioned during a visit to Oxfordshire.

“What we have said is we will put our arms around the whole of the country throughout the pandemic,” the Prime Minister told reporters.

“We have already done £280 billion worth of support and we will keep all measures under constant review.”

He added: “It’s the policy of the opposition to abolish Universal Credit altogether, which I don’t think is a sensible way forward.”

The Prime Minister was also facing pressure from the 65 Conservative MPs in the Northern Research Group (NRG), who said ending the increase would be “devastating”.

Mr Crabb praised Mr Sunak’s “historic” financial support policies during the pandemic but told the Commons: “The question for us right now is whether at the end of March this year, just 10 weeks away, it’s the right time to begin unwinding this support – specifically to remove the extra support for Universal Credit claimants – and I don’t believe it is the right moment.”

Mr Crabb said the extra £20 a week has helped those “right at the bottom of the income scale”, adding: “The truth is the labour market is a horrible place right now for many people.

“Opportunities for people to find new work, increase their hours, boost their earnings, improve their family finances have been massively curtailed by the economic impact of the public health emergency, and that’s the context for this discussion about cutting back the £20 per week uplift.

“It’s why I believe the uplift is so important right now and it’s why I believe it needs to be extended for a further 12 months.”

Conservative MP Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) added: “I’m glad to stand with my colleagues in the Northern Research Group when we say that now is not the time to consider any reduction in the uplift in Universal Credit.”

For the Government, Work and pensions minister Will Quince said it is right to wait for more clarity on the national economic picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families.

He said: “I have sympathy with the argument that it would give claimants certainty. However, one of the evident features of a pandemic is uncertainty.

“If (shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds) is certain about what the economic and social picture will look like in April, well, to be frank, he must have a crystal ball.

Will Quince said ministers will wait for more clarity (PA)
Will Quince said ministers will wait for more clarity (PA)

“The reality is we simply do not know what the landscape will look like and that is why it’s right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward.”

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi earlier derided Labour’s symbolic move as a “political stunt” and Mr Johnson told Conservatives in a WhatsApp message to miss the vote as he accused Labour of “playing politics” with “legislatively vacuous opposition debates”.

The Government temporarily increased the benefit to help families through the Covid crisis but the uplift is due to expire in April, potentially hitting the incomes of six million families.

The Resolution Foundation warned that scrapping the £20-a-week uplift will lead to a particularly tough 2021 for low-income households, whose incomes could fall by 4%.

The think tank estimated that the withdrawal of the benefit increase would drive up relative poverty from 21% to 23% by 2024-25, pushing a further 730,000 children into poverty.