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Tories Who Want To Scrap The “Baffling” Universal Credit Cut Warn It Will Cause Hardship

6 min read

Conservative MPs are bemused by the government’s handling of the latest Universal Credit row, with many dozens privately warning whips that the £20 uplift must be extended until Covid is “in the rear-view mirror” – or risk more rebellion.

Today MPs will debate and then vote on a motion tabled by the Labour Party which calls on the government to extend the £20 increase to Universal Credit to beyond its April expiry date. 

Former Work & Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, is set to vote against the government. Crabb said he was rebelling for the first time in his parliamentary career because going ahead with the cut would “cause hardship” for families whose personal finances were already under severe strain from the pandemic.

“I’ve got thousands of people in my constituency who claim Universal Credit and rely on that to support their family incomes,” he told PoliticsHome.

“No-one can pretend, even with the uplift, we have a generous benefits system. We don’t. I just think withdrawing that additional £20 per week at the end of March, which is still what the Treasury plan is. I think that will cause hardship. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

The increase was put in place by Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the height of the first coronavirus outbreak, but there are fears that taking it away as the full impact of the second wave is felt will leave those who needed it facing serious hardship.

“No-one can pretend, even with the uplift, we have a generous benefits system. We don’t." – Former Work and Pensions Secretary, Stephen Crabb

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation this morning warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that going ahead with the cut would result in 6.2 million families losing out on £1,040, at a time when unemployment in the UK is expected to rise as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

“A lot of those people who will be disproportionately affected will be in those new Conservative seats, Iain Porter from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation told PoliticsHome. 

“It just doesn't sit with government promises to protect people's incomes and do whatever it takes, or to level up the country.”

Dozens of Conservative MPs are strongly opposed to scrapping the increase in April and have expressed their disapproval to government whips. “Colleagues are telling whips that we can’t remove the £20 until either we have an alternative or the coronavirus is well in the rear-view mirror,” one Tory MP and former government minister told PoliticsHome.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon told BBC Politics that he intended to vote with Labour on extending the £20 uplift unless the government offered an alternative, amid widespread reports of a cabinet split on the issue. “I absolutely believe that universal credit should be extended,” Halfon said. 

There is also bafflement among Conservative MPs over how the government has found itself in another uncomfortable position regarding support for vulnerable families during the coronavirus pandemic after already making embarrassing U-turns on free school meals.

Those pushing for Johnson to extend the uplift believe close to 100 Tory MPs want it to be maintained. Sixty-five from the Northern Research Group wrote to the government urging it to extend the uplift, warning that removing it in the spring would have “devastating” consequences for families in their constituencies.

Conservative MPs say that Sunak strongly believes in removing the uplift and has privately been warning them that maintaining it will force him to make cuts elsewhere.

The government is whipping its MPs to abstain on the Labour motion, with Allegra Stratton, Prime Minister Johnson’s Press Secretary, this morning saying “today is not the right and proper moment” to debate the policy and that Chancellor Sunak would update MPs on the government’s decision “in due course”.

She added that “many of our MPs were treated extremely badly on social media” the last time they debated Universal Credit, and accused Labour of “a political stunt”.

There is not expected to be a significant rebellion of Tory MPs when the House of Commons votes on Labour’s Opposition Day motion this afternoon, however. Those opposed to the plan say they would much rather rebel at a later stage rather than side with the opposition in what they regard as a symbolic vote.

One Conservative MP said they believed that Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party had “overplayed their hand” by putting the subject to a vote this far away from the March budget.

Several Tories, including Stephen Crabb, are pushing for the government to extend the uplift by 12 months. This, they say, will provide vulnerable families with sufficient support until early next year, when it is expected that the vaccine will be fully rolled out and the country will no longer be under strict restrictions.

Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions select committee, said he was concerned that the government would U-turn on the £20 uplift at the last minute, creating unnecessary uncertainty for affected families.

“I think it is saying they're not going to announce it until the Budget but I think that's completely unreasonable to expect people to have to wait until the beginning of March to find out whether they're going to lose £20 a week at the end of March,” he told PoliticsHome.

“The government does have a responsibility, as I suggested to the prime minister at the Liaison Committee, to let people know with reasonable notice what their income is going to be, and to leave it so late in the day I think is quite unreasonable.”

The Labour MP said that the increase should be made permanent as financial support that claimants are usually entitled to was “pretty inadequate”.

“Obviously the costs that people are dealing with have gone up during the pandemic, and that was the reason that it was put up to start by £20 a week, but actually I think there's quite a widespread view that even after the pandemic we are going to need it to be maintained at this sort of level.”

"Obviously the costs that people are dealing with have gone up during the pandemic." – Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions select committee.  

Timms was echoed by Karl Handscomb, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, who said that the government’s failure to confirm whether the uplift would stay was “madness” and a “bad policy from objective point of view.”

He said “the government should have made a decision earlier, because it gives peace of mind to a lot of people who are on Universal Credit, who will be looking at the news stories and thinking another £20 a week taken away from me, I’m already struggling, how am I going to cope with that?”

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