Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has joined the Scottish and Welsh social security ministers in urging immediate action on the cost of living crisis from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Chloe Smith.
In a joint letter with the Scottish Minister for Social Security and Local Government, Ben Macpherson and the Welsh Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, Minister Hargey voiced grave concern over the financial hardship being endured by the most vulnerable and called for swift action to be taken.
In the letter, issued after a meeting called by Minister Hargey last week, the Ministers urged: an immediate emergency uplift of Pound 25 to Universal Credit and all legacy benefits; abolition of the benefit cap and the two-child limit; and a benefit take-up campaign.
The Ministers also echoed a call from their respective Finance Ministers for additional funding support for social security benefits, made in a letter to the Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng on 30 September.
Minister Hargey said, "I, along with my Scottish and Welsh colleagues, am deeply concerned about the impact of the cost of living crisis on the most vulnerable, the toll that it is taking on poverty levels, including child poverty, and on the financial health and well-being of people as they struggle to cope with rising costs.
"This unprecedented crisis requires swift and targeted action to support the most vulnerable and to ensure that no one in our communities is faced with a choice between heating and eating this winter."
Minister Hargey continued, "The Pound 20 uplift in Universal Credit, which was implemented during the pandemic, provided a much-needed financial safety net and its withdrawal in October 2021 was strongly opposed by myself and my Scottish and Welsh colleagues at the time.
"Amongst the measures we are calling for is its reinstatement and extension to all legacy benefits with an increase to Pound 25 to reflect the realities of the grave situation people are now facing.
"The benefit cap and the two-child policy are severely affecting families and increasing child poverty and should be abolished.
"Our determination and ability to help people is reflected in the success of the benefit take-up campaigns. We are urging the British government to follow our example in that respect and to implement the additional changes we have called for."
COST OF LIVING CRISIS - URGENT ACTION REQUIRED
We are deeply concerned about the impact the cost of living crisis is having on poverty levels, particularly child poverty. Many people are struggling to afford even the basic essentials, including buying food, heating their homes and paying rising bills. All of the available evidence shows that it is households with the lowest incomes who are being hit the hardest by this crisis, with more of their incomes being spent on covering the basics. This in turn impacts on people's health and wellbeing, and exacerbates existing inequalities. This cannot continue.
Our respective Finance Ministers wrote to the Chancellor on 30 September calling for immediate action to address the impacts of his statement on 23 September, including additional funding support for social security benefits. We echo those calls here. More needs to be done now to provide the essential help and support needed. While some financial support has been provided it will not be nearly enough to meet the increases in basic costs, particularly as we have since seen increasing interest rates and inflation due to the economic turmoil since the Chancellor's fiscal event. To ease some of the pressures on the most financially vulnerable households we strongly urge you to implement the following changes as a matter of urgency.
Implement a comprehensive benefit take-up strategy
The devolved Governments are doing what we can to put money into the pockets of the most vulnerable families and we are delivering excellent results with our benefit take-up projects.
However, maximising the take-up of social security benefits must be a priority for all Governments. It is more critical than ever that people understand, and are helped to access, all the financial support that is available to them. We urge you to take similar action and urgently develop and implement a comprehensive benefit take-up strategy.
In November 2020, a joint letter called upon your Department to lead the development of a take-up strategy. As highlighted in this letter, all the devolved Governments have excellent and well-established benefit uptake models, the aims of which are to ensure that every individual and household receives all the social security benefits and support that they are entitled to. These benefit uptake models could easily be replicated across all benefits and our Governments would be keen to collaborate with you and your officials.
Apply an emergency uplift of Pound 25 to all means-tested benefits including the legacy benefits
In April 2020 your Government introduced a Pound 20 per week uplift in Universal Credit to help people during the pandemic. This provided a vital financial safety net for many individuals and families at a very difficult time.
Despite repeated calls from the public, political and other representatives the uplift was removed in October 2021. Removal of this additional support has undoubtedly contributed to the hardship that people are now experiencing.
Therefore, we strongly urge you to immediately reinstate the uplift to Universal Credit and, in recognition of the increasing costs individuals and families are experiencing, to increase it to Pound 25 per week. This uplift should also be extended to all legacy benefits.
Abolish the benefit cap and the two-child limit
The evidence of the impact of both polices is clear, they are pushing households with multiple children deeper into poverty. Removing the benefit cap and the two-child limit would offer meaningful, targeted support to families and help provide children the best start in life.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimate that a couple with two children subject to the benefit cap are, on average, currently Pound 150 a week below the poverty line. Removing the cap would put an average of an additional Pound 65 per week into their pockets.
Abolishing the two-child limit would also mean additional support for families of around Pound 56 per week for each additional child after the first two. These measures would represent a critical financial lifeline in the current cost of living crisis.
As devolved Governments we are doing what we can to put money into the pockets of those who need it most but we are limited by our powers and fixed budgets.
You and other Westminster Ministers have the responsibility to utilise your powers to ensure that we can all provide the best possible help and support to those suffering the most significant impacts during this crisis.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Deirdre Hargey MLA
Minister for Communities
Ben Macpherson MSP
Scottish Minister for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government
Jane Hutt MS
Minister for Social Justice