Derry & Strabane Council calls on Stormont to retain £20 Universal Credit payment

Derry City and Strabane Councillors have voted unanimously to call on Stormont Ministers to uphold the £20 Universal Credit payment introduced to help low income households at the start of the pandemic.

Local Councillors have also on NI Ministers to progress with a long term anti-poverty strategy for the council area at a reconvened meeting of the Full Council.

The UK government has announced its intention to end the increased payment and return benefits to pre-pandemic levels within days.

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A motion brought by SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney however left all Council members in no doubt about the drastic difference the loss of the £20 would make to claimants.

Councillor Tierney asked the Chamber ‘what does £20 actually look like?’ before saying: “It looks like two packets of pasta, a five pack of bananas, cooked ham, sausage casserole mix, sausages, strawberry jam, rice, cereal, broccoli, four carrots, a large chicken, minced beef, two loaves of bread, garlic baguette, butter, two litres of milk, teabags, coffee, peppers, two onions, potatoes and pasta sauce.

“Imagine someone coming and taking that out of your kitchen. Not one of us would stand for it and we shouldn’t allow the British government to do it either.”

The Ballyarnett councillor said: “The extra £20 a week for Universal Credit claimants has made a huge difference across our council area, which as we all know has some of the highest levels of poverty and deprivation anywhere on these islands.

“Families have just been hit with the large costs associated with children returning to school and we are just months away from Christmas, this cut could not have come at a worse time.

“People are being faced with difficult decisions and wondering how they can heat their home or put food on their table.

“The British government aren’t going to do anything to protect the people of Derry and Strabane therefore we need to take action into our own hands.  The SDLP fought hard to ensure we had control of our welfare powers when others wanted to hand them to the Tories. I am calling all councillors here to use their voice and send a message to the Tories to stand up for Universal Credit claimants and to support this motion which is against the cut.

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“£20 a week could make the difference to some families between having to skip meals and being able to buy clothes for their children. The £20 Universal Credit uplift was introduced to help claimants struggling during the Coronavirus pandemic and it will be removed by the British government at the beginning of this month. This has been described as the biggest overnight benefit cut since World War 2. 

“Every claimant will lose out on £1,040 a year and it comes at a time when people are facing numerous financial pressures including rising utility costs, general increases in the cost of living, the end of furlough and with National Insurance contributions set to rise next year.

“As of May 2021, the North had over 134,000 Universal Credit claimants. To retain the uplift would cost £140M annually or £55.5M for the rest of this financial year. This figure is 1% of the funding provided to the North as part of the British government’s block grant and as the British government and the Prime Minister Boris Johnston have refused calls to u-turn on this issue, the SDLP is calling on the Executive at Stormont to give it back to people by finding the £55.5M needed to allow the uplift to be retained for the rest of this financial year.”

DUP Alderman Hilary McClintock described the £20 as ‘a lifeline for many people’ as she supported the motion.

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She said: “People are worried sick about this £20 per week being taken off them and it’s having a massive effect on people’s health. People are exasperated about how they are going to manage and I think Councillor Tierney’s breakdown of what £20 means to people shows that £20 is a heck of a lot of money to people who are in desperate need.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Christopher Jackson said he was ‘in complete agreement’.

He added: “£20 per week may seem like a paltry sum to a Tory cabinet of millionaires but to many families it makes all the difference to many families in terms of their children going hungry and being kept warm.

“There should only be one message coming out of this council  and it should be putting the focus on and keeping the pressure on the British government.  We believe that when we are challenging these cruel cuts we should be speaking in one voice.”

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PBP Councillor Shaun Harkin called the Universal Credit cut ‘vicious’ adding: “It’s unnecessary, it’s actually evil and will do a tremendous amount of damage to people who are already struggling across our society so we have to do everything we can to stop it from happening.

“We think if the Tories refuse to do a u-turn that Stormont should step up, it should protect people. There’s no point talking about an anti-poverty strategy if it doesn’t start this week to protect people from this cut. The cost is doable. 

“We have to keep the pressure on the Executive and on behalf of the people in our District we have to send the message to the Executive that we can’t allow this vicious cut to go through.”

Members of all parties agreed with the motion with Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher  saying: “Stormont needs to take responsibility and this is something it needs to take responsibility for.”

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DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney said ‘it’s vitally important the £20 is retained’, whilst UUP Alderman Ryan McCready added: ‘Something needs to be done about it and our politicians need to get on and do it.’

The motion passed unanimously.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter