Boris Johnson will show ‘absence of basic humanity’ if he cuts Universal Credit, Nicola Sturgeon says

Andy Gregory
Monday 13 September 2021 23:02
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Boris Johnson will expose an “absence of basic humanity” if he cuts Universal Credit, Nicola Sturgeon says

Boris Johnson will display an “absence of basic humanity” if he allows the planned cut to Universal Credit to go ahead, Nicola Sturgeon has claimed.

Scotland’s first minister used her closing speech at the SNP conference to question how Mr Johnson’s conscience could allow him to end the £20-a-week uplift brought in at the start of the pandemic – which she described as the “biggest overnight reduction” to a social security payment since the 1930s.

Despite facing a sizeable Tory revolt over the plans, which have been opposed by six former work and pensions secretaries including Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the prime minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak appear determined to plough ahead with the cut – which totals £1,040 per year – on 6 October.

Not only has the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned the cut will hit more than one in three working-age families with children in nearly every constituency across the country, but internal government modelling also reportedly predicts that homelessness, poverty and food bank use will soar as a result.

While the Department for Work and Pensions denied carrying out any formal assessment of the cut, one Whitehall official described the modelling as “catastrophic”, telling the Financial Times: “It could be the real disaster of the autumn.”

With millions people expected to be affected by the removal of the uplift, Ms Sturgeon said that in Scotland alone it risks pushing 60,000 people – including 20,000 children – into the formal definition of poverty.

“The loss of more than £1,000 a year will be utterly devastating, it will quite literally take food out of children's mouths,” she said on the fourth and final day of the SNP conference. “It will drive people into debt and, in some cases, to destitution and despair – and the Tories know all of this.”

The SNP leader added: “To even contemplate a cut like this displays a lack of basic understanding of the reality of life for those on the breadline – or maybe it's actually a lack of care.

“But to go ahead and implement this cut would expose an absence of basic humanity and moral compass.”

Claiming that “if this deeply cruel cut does happen, the only conclusion it will be possible to reach is that Boris Johnson simply has no shame”, Ms Sturgeon urged the prime minister “for the sake of millions of desperate people across the country” not to “let that be history’s verdict upon you”.

The first minister’s plea came hours after Westminster’s work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey made the furiously disputed claim that people could work two extra hours per week to make up for the loss.

“I'm conscious that £20 a week is about two hours’ extra work every week – we will be seeing what we can do to help people perhaps secure those extra hours, but ideally also to make sure they're also in a place to get better paid jobs as well,” Ms Coffey told BBC Breakfast.

But Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner argued that Universal Credit’s taper means a £20 cut for a claimant would mean they need to do more than £50 worth of work, saying: “This is a lie and the work and pensions secretary either knows she's lying or shouldn't be in the job.”

According to the Resolution Foundation, claimants who work additional hours see their Universal Credit payment fall by 63p for every £1 they earn.

As a result, claimants of the benefit who earn the National Living Wage can take a home as little as £2.24 from an extra hour's work – meaning they would need to work nine extra hours a week to make up for the government’s planned cut in just over three weeks’ time.

“This is a government that half the time doesn't know what it is doing and the rest of the time just doesn't care,” Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds told the Commons on Monday as he criticised Ms Coffey’s claim.

Ms Coffey replied: “I don’t know the basis of the calculation on what he has just suggested.”

The prime minister, meanwhile, displayed his intent to press on with the cut as recently as Thursday, telling broadcasters: “My strong preference is for people to see their wages rise through their efforts rather than through taxation of other people put into their pay packets.”

The previous day, when Mr Johnson’s controversial plans to hike National Insurance contributions to pay for social care weathered a vote in the Commons, a Tory minister told the Financial Times that Universal Credit posed a greater political problem.

“Colleagues are really worried; I think it will definitely eclipse social care as a political problem,” they were quoted as saying. “It’s not just red wall MPs who are fearing a major backlash from the public.”

Labour is expected to force a symbolic vote on the issue in the Commons on Wednesday, although no vote is formally needed for the government to make the cut.

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