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£20 uplift row: People ‘struggling to survive’ in London on Universal Credit

Government set to remover £20 extra payment introduced during pandemic

31 August, 2021 — By Richard Osley

Cllr Ranjit Singh shared his concerns

HARROWING scenes from I, Daniel Blake – the Ken Loach film exploring poverty and the benefits system – have become a reality in Camden, the Town Hall was told on Tuesday, amid appeals to extend the furlough support system and to halt a cut to Universal Credit.

And there was a warning that some people may simply not be able to survive on the level of support being offered to the borough’s poorest residents.

Speaking at the council’s resources scrutiny committee, Labour councillor Ranjit Singh directly referenced the part of the movie in which a struggling mother-of-two has a breakdown in a food bank, eating directly from a tin of beans before collapsing in a flood of tears.

The film, which won the Palme D’or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, tells the story of a man forced to take fitness to work tests after a heart attack.

“I recently watched again the film I Daniel Blake by the world renowned and iconic filmmaker Ken Loach,” Cllr Singh told the meeting.

“There’s a really powerful scene where the mother is forced to attend the food bank and you know, unfortunately, that is a reality for far too many families in Camden as well. We’re facing this perfect storm presently with the ending of the £20 uplift.”

The ‘uplift’ was an extra payment for Universal Credit recipients introduced at the start of the pandemic in recognition of the fact some people were already struggling and conditions had become even harder due to Covid.

Meanwhile, the government agreed to pay 80 percent of wages to employees unable to work due to the pandemic – a system best known as ‘furlough’.

But both measures are now due to expire with the government saying it wants to concentrate efforts on getting people into work.

Ken Loach was credited for tackling a subject not normally seen on the big screen

Cllr Singh remained unconvinced, adding: “With the end of furlough, and as we head into winter, it is really dire for many families out there. So in terms of signposting what services are out there, I think we really need to be on the ball so people do get the help when they need it.

“We need to continue putting that pressure on the government to cancel the cut and so that they do extend furlough – and what we can do to support that is absolutely critical.”

Cllr Singh added that he was shocked that there was no breakdown on benefits to show whether there were any disproportionate outcomes for black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities.

Mr Loach divides some of Cllr Singh’s colleagues in the Labour Party.

The filmmaker said he had been expelled for having solidarity with those who had already been thrown out. Admirers, however, say his gritty films best illustrate the challenges that people face just to survive.

He appeared at a rally outside Kentish Town job centre when a man from Kentish Town suffered a heart attack shortly after being asked to prove he was not well enough to work – an incident which echoed the storyline of his own film.

Ken Loach campaigning against welfare changes in Kentish Town

In Camden, there was a 183 per cent increase in Universal Credit claims after the Covid crisis began and the Town Hall received more than 20,000 calls from people in desperate need for help. The council holds no figures on how many are still on furlough in the borough.

Kate Robertson, the council’s director of customer services and an officer lead on welfare reform, told the meeting: “In terms of the likelihood of the £20 uplift being retained – I think it’s anyone’s guess. One of the fundamental problems with Universal Credit, and in particular the ones that are losing the £20 uplift, is how it affects single people – or in particular adults with children who have grown up but are still living at home – so they are non-dependants.”

She added: “The level of support for anyone without a child is very small levels of funding and you could argue that in a place like London it is pretty much impossible to survive and live a sustainable, happy and healthy life on that.

“What we’re seeing is that actually, certainly in terms of Universal Credit, is those really struggling tend to be single adults without children.”

Some people could end up losing around £1,000 a year by the loss of the uplift payment.

Ms Robertson said: “I would hope the continued pressure, across parties, that is being put on the government to retain it [the £20 uplift] would work – but I think we have to be preparing for the worst and that actually we need to address this as a borough: not just as a council, but as a community. How can we support those people that are going to be negatively affected by that?”

She added that Camden was opening ‘neighbourhood hubs’ in Gospel Oak, Regent’s Park and Kilburn which would help people find work.

MPs are expected to vote on the cut when they return from their summer recess next week, if Labour forces a vote on the issue.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week: “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, rather than welfare. And that’s the approach we support.”

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