Universal Credit: The two words missing from Rishi Sunak's conference speech

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Picture date: Monday October 4, 2021.
The chancellor failed to touch on the contentious issue of Universal Credit during his speech at the Tory party conference (PA Images) (PA)

In his keynote Tory party conference speech, Rishi Sunak was keen to present himself as someone who could be trusted with the nation’s finances.

Laying out his plan to balance Britain’s books, the chancellor took aim at “dangerous, mindless ideology” and insisted he was a "pragmatist" who would not stack up bills for future generations.

That “pragmatic” approach may be the reason why a man tipped by many as a future PM seemed so reluctant to mention two words that he is currently under criticism for: Universal Credit.

A £20 boost to Universal Credit, introduced as a temporary response to the coronavirus pandemic, comes to an end on 6 October.

At a time of rising inflation, soaring household bills, and national insurance hikes, many politicians – including many within the Conservatives – are warning that the cut to families' finances could have devastating consequences.

Former work and pensions secretary and architect of Universal Credit, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, has argued fiercely in favour of maintaining the uplift.

Watch: Chancellor refuses to rule out further tax hikes

Addressing the Conservative party conference, Sunak said he would do “whatever it takes” to support the British people.

“I will do whatever I can to protect people’s livelihoods and create new opportunities, too,” he told his party.

“Pragmatism, fiscal responsibility, a belief in work, and an unshakeable optimism about the future: this is who I am.

“This is what I stand for. This is what it will take – and we will do whatever it takes.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the audience as Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak addresses the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Picture date: Monday October 4, 2021. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
Boris Johnson was in the audience as Rishi Sunak addressed the Conservative party conference in Manchester. The prime minister has back the cancellation of the Universal credit uplift (PA Images) (Empics Entertainment)

The chancellor did not mention Universal Credit once in his more than 2,000 word speech – amid widespread anger about the consequences the end of the £20 uplift will have on low income families.

It is estimated that up to 800,000 people could be pushed further into poverty by the cuts.

Sunak claimed the best way out of poverty was work, not benefits. “Is the answer to their hopes and dreams just to increase their benefits?” he asked the audience.

“I believe that the only sustainable route out of poverty comes from having a good job,” he added

Critics have also highlighted the fact that 40% of people on Universal Credit are already in work, while many claimants are disabled and may be unable to work.

Labour have warned that the government risk creating a “perfect storm” this winter for those on low incomes – branding the cuts immoral.

Read more: Conservatives 'on course to lose up to 32 ‘red wall’ seats to Labour'

“Taking £1,000 a year from millions of struggling families, inflicting the biggest overnight cut to social security in modern times, is economically and morally the wrong decision,” said Jonathan Reynolds, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions.

“Yet again this Government have shown they aren’t on the side of working people.

“With record levels of in-work poverty, the prime minister is completely ignorant when he says this is a choice between work and social security.

“The prime minister must see sense, back struggling families and cancel this devastating cut.

"Labour will do everything possible to fight this cut and replace Universal Credit with a fairer social security system.”

Therese Coffey, secretary of state for work and pensions, came under fire in September when she falsely claimed that those in work losing the £20 uplift only needed to work and extra two hour’s a week to make up the difference.

Asked how she felt about the cuts, she described herself as “entirely happy” with the end of the uplift.

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