MPs pass motion urging Boris Johnson not to cut universal credit for millions

Conservative Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot, voted for this motion, the remaining local Tory MPs abstained as instructed.

www.independent.co.uk

Boris Johnson is facing rising pressure not to remove support for millions of families in the middle of the pandemic as some of his own MPs backed a Labour motion demanding the government abandons a cut in universal credit.

It comes amid a major row over whether to extend the £20-per-week increase in benefits that is due to expire at the end of March. The £6bn measure was introduced at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis to alleviate pressures on low-paid families.

In the absence of a guarantee the support will be extended in the spring, the Commons voted in 278-0 in favour of the non-binding motion on Monday evening, urging the government to maintain the payments as the country suffers the economic fallout from Covid-19.

It passed after the prime minister – bruised by a previous row over a similar motion on free school meals – instructed Conservative MPs to abstain on the issue to avoid the prospect of a potentially damaging defeat on the issue.

Despite ministers describing the Labour motion as a “political stunt”, six Conservatives voted with the opposition including Stephen Crabb, the former work and pensions secretary, Robert Halfon, the chair of the Commons Education Committee, and backbench MPs Peter Aldous, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris and Matthew Offord.

During the debate Mr Crabb urged the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to increase the uplift for another 12 months and provide certainty to low-paid families.

He told MPs: “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.”

Conservative MP Simon Fell echoed Mr Crabb’s comments, saying “now is not the time” to cut the benefit, adding: “This uplift was brought in to help people through the extreme challenges of the pandemic and those challenges haven’t passed. Indeed, as furlough ends we may be entering even more challenging times.”

However, alongside several Tories, he argued it was “absolutely right” that decisions are taken at the Budget in March by Mr Sunak rather than through Labour’s Opposition Day motion. Reports have also suggested the chancellor is mulling a one-off £500 payment to claimants to avoid the uplift in payments becoming permanent.

Earlier on Monday, 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,” he told reporters. “We have already done £280bn worth of support and we will keep all measures under constant review.”

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.

After the vote, shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds added: “It is disappointing that the Conservative government refused to vote with Labour to provide families with certainty and secure our economy. They can still do the right thing and drop their plans to cut universal credit.

“Britain is facing the worst recession of any major economy because of the government’s incompetence and indecision. Families cannot be made to pay the price.”

Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “The pandemic and its economic fallout are far from over and families are looking to the government to provide some security of income and some certainty so that they can plan for the future.”

“In dodging a decision on the universal credit uplift the government today failed to provide that security and certainty.

“The £20 uplift has acted as a stabiliser for millions of families forced on to universal credit by coronavirus. If it is not retained and extended to all legacy benefit claimants, struggle will turn to real hardship for many more families – at the bleakest point – and more children will show up in the poverty statistics.”

A report published by the Resolution Foundation also warned on Monday that Britain’s poorest households would be pushed further into poverty if the government cut the increase, worth £1,040 a year, with millions facing the sharpest drop in living standards in a generation in 2021.

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

“Deciding if the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit should be extended will determine whether millions of households are able to enjoy any sort of living standards recovery next year,” said the Resolution Foundation’s senior economist Karl Handscomb.

“And looking further ahead, the decision on whether to keep the UC boost will help define whether this is to be a parliament of ‘levelling up’ living standards, or pushing up poverty.”