Derry MLAs warn of impact of £20 Universal Credit cut in Foyle

The Executive must find funding to ensure Derry’s 8,000-plus Universal Credit claimants aren’t left out of pocket when the £20 uplift ends next week, SDLP MLA Mark Durkan has demanded.
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Mr. Durkan raised the looming cut during an adjournment debate on its potential impact in Derry at Stormont this week.

He said: “Foyle has the highest number of universal credit claimants in the North and, indeed, the UK, with over 8,000 claimants. The cut runs the risk of stripping almost £8·5 million from vulnerable households in Foyle alone.

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“The removal will be most profoundly felt in areas of high deprivation such as Derry, and I have listened to many heartfelt pleas, mostly from single parents who have reached out to me in recent weeks, highlighting the fact that the uplift has been a lifeline.

Thousands of people in Derry will be affected by the £20 Universal Credit cut.Thousands of people in Derry will be affected by the £20 Universal Credit cut.
Thousands of people in Derry will be affected by the £20 Universal Credit cut.

“It is a lifeline that they cannot afford to have removed. The extra £20 a week has allowed them merely to keep their head above water, to buy nappies and to put food on the table for their children that week. For them, the fear of the cut is becoming a stark reality, with claimants already being informed of their cut-off date.”

Mr. Durkan said the consequences of removing the payment would be ‘catastrophic’ and would hit Derry harder than than anywhere else.

“Families here will be plunged into poverty. If they needed this help 18 months ago, they sure as hell need it now. Now, people have to battle the spiralling cost of living — a 35% gas hike that, in real terms, means a rise of about £200 in the average annual household bill and, with the implications of Brexit, grocery bills rising rapidly. We all see that.

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“Rising property values mean rising rents, and I have witnessed the outworkings of that, as, I am sure, many others have, with more and more people contacting my constituency office for housing support because they have been forced from private rented properties due to affordability issues.

“It is clear that people are at breaking point. They cannot afford to lose over £1,000 a year, and we cannot afford to let them lose it.”

He said the Executive needs to find the money to retain the £20 uplift if the British Government proceeds with the proposed cut next week.

“If Westminster insists on proceeding with this draconian cut, we need to see action from the Communities Minister, working with her Executive colleagues, particularly the Finance Minister, to find the funding to continue the uplift for the rest of this financial year. This accounts for just 0.5% of the Executive’s Budget.

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“What COVID money remains unspent? What money budgeted for welfare mitigations is at risk of going unspent? Are those questions being asked by the Communities Minister, who tells us how committed she is to protecting the vulnerable?

“Rather than writing letters, we implore the Minister to find the resource and to find a way to protect hard-pressed families across the North from this devastating cut to their income. We need to be more proactive, not reactive.”

Sinn Féin MLA Ciara Ferguson has accused the British Government of adopting a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to poorer families by moving ahead with its proposed £20 cut to Universal Credit.

She said more people will be forced to rely on foodbanks and charity shops to survive if the cut is inflicted.

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“It is clear that, once again, Boris Johnson and the Tory Government have taken a couldn’t-care-less attitude to our most vulnerable individuals and families, not only in Foyle but across the North.

"These are Tory cuts that will, once again, make life worse for our most vulnerable groups. These regressive cuts by Westminster will not just hit our low-income and working-poor individuals and families hardest; they will hit women, young people and the minority ethnic communities hardest too.

"Over the years, our most vulnerable have faced relentless cuts and freezes to the rates of their social security payments by Westminster and, of course, the introduction of the abhorrent two-child rule.

“Now, we see this expected cut coming at the same time as the recently announced increase in national insurance contributions, the rise in energy costs, the rise in the cost of living and the end of furlough,” she said.

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She added: “For many years, we have increasingly found that low-income families and the working poor require assistance at food banks and the provision of fuel vouchers and clothes and furniture from charity shops.

"I have worked in that field for 20 years, and this is not new; it is ongoing under the Tory Government. I have worked with food banks, family support hubs, social supermarkets, local charities, Fareshare and a range of organisations that have been working tirelessly in our communities.”

DUP MLA Gary Middleton has warned the proposed £20 cut to Universal Credit next week will wreak further devastation on struggling families in Derry.

“Almost one in four of the working-age families in NI will lose out through the cut to universal credit. Already, statistics show that one in four children in our society are in poverty. That is a stark and devastating statistic. It is a statistic, but it represents real people.

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“We see the devastation across the Foyle constituency, in particular, when we look at the increase in the number of people using food banks. I pay tribute to those who manage the food banks and acknowledge the sterling work that they do.

“We also see the increase in homelessness. Our constituency offices see the stress and distress that people are going through. Unfortunately, in the Foyle constituency, we top the league table when it comes to the claimant level for universal credit. That should trouble all of us in this political Chamber,” he said.

Mr. Middleton, a junior minister at the Executive Office, welcoming of Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, in writing to the UK Government ‘to reiterate the position not only of people in the Chamber but of the Executive’.

“The decision is not one that was taken by the Northern Ireland Executive. I appreciate that Members will call for action to be taken: the first priority was to raise the concern, and we need to now look at how we can ensure that people are not affected by the cut,” he said.

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Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey as slammed the proposed £20 cut to Universal Credit as ‘outrageous.’

She was speaking during an adjournment debate called by SDLP MLA Mark H. Durkan this week.

“The planned action by the British Government — the proposed cut — is outrageous. It will result in the biggest cut to the basic rate of social security to date. It will result in hardship and poverty for people across the North who are already struggling. That is totally unacceptable,” she said.

The minister advised she has written to the British Government registering her concern about the cutback.

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“I wrote to the British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for an uplift and asking her to make sure that it was permanent. I highlighted the difficulties that a cut would create for ordinary people, workers and their families.

"I wrote a joint letter with Ministers from Scotland and Wales, and I called again for the uplift to be made permanent. That followed a previous joint letter and action taken in conjunction with my Scottish and Welsh counterparts last November.

"I also brought the matter to the Executive and achieved the agreement of the whole Executive that we would speak out in a united voice against the cuts. Just recently, it was agreed that the Executive Office would call for a meeting with the British Government to reiterate and make our position known, to discuss and highlight the damage that the cut would cause and to call on the British Government to reverse the decision. The reply so far from the British Government is extremely worrying and disappointing.”