Universal Credit: 'I can't afford to live without cutting back on food'

An information note displayed on the Government Gateway website advises people to stay at home during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak as a person visits the website to apply for Universal Credit online. Picture date: Friday March 27, 2020. Photo credit should read: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Step Change have warned cuts to Universal Credit and the end of the furlough scheme could leave people homeless. (PA Images)

Hundreds of thousands of private tenants face a gruelling winter with a double hit of Universal Credit cuts and an end to furlough.

Research by debt advice charity Step Change says more than 550,000 renters claiming Universal Credit are in rent arrears, totalling an estimated £360 million.

The charity say the £20 a week cut to Universal Credit (UC) and an end of the furlough scheme will make the situation worse. Nearly a quarter of a million tenants could lose their home within the next 12 months.

"The Government’s own research shows that private renters have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and that numbers in rent arrears have more than doubled since March 2020," said Phil Andrew, chief executive of Step Change.

"Covid support schemes, while a lifeline for many, haven’t been able to help renters address their arrears and with cuts to Universal Credit and the end of furlough imminent, there is a real danger of thousands losing their homes."

Yahoo News UK spoke to Sue, 61, from south-east England about the challenges she faces when the cut comes into play; she is already in rent arrears as UC does not cover her all of her rent.

"It's causing an awful lot of stress; it means I'm going to be down by £86 a month, which I've some how got to find." she said.

"I honestly don’t know how I’m going to find that sort of money without cutting right back on food."

Despite reports that job vacancies have hit an all-time high, Sue says she has been searching and applying for jobs but it is struggle.

EMBARGOED TO 0001 SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 5 File photo dated 17/02/16 of a Job Centre Plus in London. The UK is set for an increase in unemployment even though recruitment will remain strong as the furlough scheme comes to an end, research suggests. Issue date: Sunday September 5, 2021.
The Office for National Statistics say there are a record breaking one million job vacancies in the UK. (PA Images)

“They’re saying that there’s vacancies out there - and I’m not disputing, there could well be... but there’s an awful lot of people going for the same jobs.”

Sue said that she, and people like her, need "all the help we can get" and said she fears that she could lose her home and end up in emergency accommodation.

"If I lose this house, lose this flat, I would end up in emergency accommodation," she said.

"Because the situation, because being in arrears with the rent, and with other things like credit cards - which have been put on hold on everything - my credit rating would be low which means I wouldn’t stand a chance of being able to find anywhere else.”

The government's policy to terminate these safety nets has been fiercely opposed by Labour, with Labour leader Keir Starmer saying the hike in national insurance along with the UC cut is a "double whammy."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responds after Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke about the Covid-19 pandemic in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday May 12, 2021.
Keir Starmer has criticised the government's decision to cut Universal Credit and end the furlough scheme. (PA Images)

"Two and half million working families will face a double whammy of a national insurance tax rise and a cut to Universal Credit," he has warned.

"This is the same old Tories – putting the very wealthiest ahead of working people who have to pick up the bill."

Oliver De Shutter, UN poverty envoy, has also condemned the cut.

“It’s unconscionable at this point in time to remove this benefit,” he said.

"For these people, £20 a week makes a huge difference, and could be the difference between falling into extreme poverty or remaining just above that poverty line."

However, the government have not been swayed from the decision.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has defended the plans - insisting the £20 uplift was a temporary measure, with prime minister Boris Johnson claiming that the government want to support getting people into work and off benefits.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak giving a statement on the economy in the House of Commons, London.
Rishi Sunak has defended £20 cut to Universal Credit and the end of the furlough scheme. (PA Images)

However, 40 per cent of those that claim Universal Credit, around two million people, are already working.

The work and pensions secretary Therese Coffrey shows no sign of scrapping the cut, saying earlier this week she remains "entirely happy" them.

Despite this, there has been opposition among a handful of Conservative MPs - including two former work and pensions secretaries, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Stephen Crabb.

Smith has called for the £20 increase to be made permanent, and writing in The i paper said: "The Government now needs to recognise that, more than ever, Universal Credit needs to be joined with Universal Support, creating a truly compassionate social security system that helps change lives for the better."

Labour forced a non-binding vote in the House of Commons earlier this week on the cuts, but only four Tory MPs voted with them.

The UC uplift ends on 6th October 2021.