Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey has told Sky News she is “entirely happy” with a £20 per week cut to Universal Credit, despite calls from senior Conservatives to keep the benefits uplift.
Ms Coffey described the £20 per week boost to benefits, which is due to end from next month, as a “temporary stop-gap” during the COVID crisis.
And she said the government’s focus was now shifting to their “plan for jobs”, with attention on getting more people into work, to get those people in work for more hours, or help them progress in their jobs.
Labour have claimed the planned cut to Universal Credit – along with the newly-announced increase in National Insurance contributions and a freezing of the income tax personal allowance – will leave many key workers more than £1,000 per year worse off.
Six former Conservative work and pension secretaries have also pleaded with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit.
One of those ex-cabinet ministers, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who oversaw the creation of Universal Credit while in office, on Monday repeated his call for the government to retain the benefits uplift as a means to restore Universal Credit “to its rightful level”.
He also warned the prime minister’s “levelling up” agenda could be harmed by the scrapping of the benefits boost.
But, asked if she was “entirely happy” with the planned cut, Ms Coffey told Sky News: “Yes. We made this decision earlier in the year, the chancellor announced it in the budget.
“And that’s why we’re building up the update to the plan for jobs, to make sure as we see the end of the furlough scheme… as we see the end of the other support schemes that we’ve put in place during this time of COVID, that we accelerate our plan for jobs.”
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Ms Coffey said the £20 per week uplift was a “specific” measure to deal with the “shock” of the coronavirus pandemic, “particularly for people newly coming into benefits”, as she set out other areas in which ministers were attempting to help those looking for work or better-paid jobs.
“We do want to make sure that people are getting aspects of more training on skills, there’s been over 80,000 apprenticeship starts helped by the incentive we’ve given for employers to take people on, over 60,000 young people are in Kickstart,” she said.
“Overall, we’re seeing employment rise month after month after month, and we want to continue people getting in, but also things like the lifetime skills guarantee helping them get better paid jobs.”
Ms Coffey added there were now 27,000 work coaches around the country, with more than 200 extra job centres, aimed at “supporting people getting work but also to progress in work as well”.
And, asked about the possible squeeze on the incomes of key workers, the work and pensions secretary said: “If I think about the £20 uplift, that’s just about two hours of national minimum wage.
“That’s why we are working through our work coaches with people on low pay who may well be in work about what we can do to help them get more hours or, indeed, to get the skills in order to get a higher paid job.
“We’ve already lifted the national minimum wage, so it’s about 60% of median earnings.”
In an article for the Conservative Home website on Monday, Sir Iain said the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit had reversed previous benefits cuts by former chancellor George Osborne.
“The additional money shouldn’t be seen as an exceptional uplift, but as a means of restoring UC to its rightful level,” he wrote.
“Removing it now would hit one third of working age families with children across the country.”
Sir Iain added that Universal Credit had “the greatest capacity to tackle poverty” – more than any other form of government spending.
“Instead of seeing this £20 uplift to Universal Credit as a problem to be solved, we should see it as a dynamic investment in a system that can turn people’s prospects around, in turn saving taxpayers’ money whilst improving lives,” he said.
“As the economy reopens, UC won’t just be critical in building social cohesion, but will be seen as an investment in people who have too often been left behind.
“After all, you can’t advocate levelling up if you first level down.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the government of delivering a “slap in the face” for key workers, as she estimated 2.5 million people would be hit by the “double whammy” of the Universal Credit cut and hike in National Insurance.
“Never mind clapping care workers, a band five nurse will see over £1,000 cut from their income because of this government’s announcement on Universal Credit, as well as the announcement on the National Insurance tax hike, which they broke their manifesto on,” she told Sky News.
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