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Key workers witnessing ‘worst child poverty levels they can remember’

Labour to lead parliamentary motion to cancel universal credit cuts and extend free school meals

by Bethany Rielly

KEY WORKERS are seeing “the worst child poverty levels they can remember,” campaigners warned today ahead of Labour-led parliamentary motions to cancel universal credit cuts and extend free school meals. 

Ministers appear to be pushing ahead with plans to scrap a £20-per-week boost to universal credit (UC) brought in last year, despite warnings from charities that this will drive 200,000 children into poverty. 

But the Tories could still be pressured into abandoning the cuts as Labour forces a Commons vote on the plans on Monday in an opposition day debate. 

The party’s motion calls on the government to extend the uplift to UC and working tax credit, due to run out in April, and “give certainty today to the six million families for whom it is worth an extra £1,000 a year.” Tory MPs have been ordered to abstain in the non-binding vote.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned that failure to extend the uplift will slow the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. 

“We began 2021 with one of the worst death tolls in Europe and the deepest recession of any major economy,” he said.

“Without action from government, millions of families face a £1,000 per year shortfall in the midst of a historic crisis. We urge Boris Johnson to change course and give families certainty today that their incomes will be protected.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds said the cut would leave “unemployment support at a 30-year low in the midst of a jobs crisis and threaten our economic recovery.”

The £20-a-week increase was introduced by the government last spring to help families cope with the economic fall out of the pandemic, but is set to be withdrawn in April. 

Ministers have faced growing calls from charities, think-tanks and trade unions to make the change permanent, amid warnings that cuts would plunge state support to its lowest real-terms level since 1990-91 at a time of soaring unemployment and child poverty. 

Ahead of the vote, Action for Children director of policy and campaigns Imran Hussain said: “Our key workers are seeing the worst child poverty levels they can remember, and the extra costs of lockdown are only making things worse. 

“The coronavirus emergency, national lockdown and school closures make this an extremely worrying time for millions of hard-pressed families up and down the country. We call on the PM to give them some peace of mind by promising to stop the planned £1,000 cut to UC due in April.”

PM Boris Johnson was adamant last week that he would “rather see a focus on jobs and a growth in wages than focusing on welfare.” 

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also made clear the government’s intentions to scrap the fees, telling BBC One’s Andrew Marr today: “We always said this would be a temporary measure, I think it is right to look at it in the round.”

Ministers are said to be deliberating replacing the £20 increase with one-off payments of £500. The plan was criticised by the Resolution Foundation think tank as a “bad way to give cash to people who need it” and would leave the 800,000 people predicted to lose their jobs after this point with nothing. 

Conservative members of the 50-strong Northern Research Group have called for the uplift to be extended until the end of lockdown.

Today a Unite spokesperson urged Tories not to “hide in this vote, but at least have the decency stand up in the Commons and tell these families why they want to take £20 a week from them.”

MPs will also vote tomorrow on a separate motion tabled by Labour to guarantee children full value free school meals, including during half-term.  

Shadow education secretary Kate Green MP said: “[Education Secretary] Gavin Williamson has created a catalogue of chaos on free school meals. Time and time again he has let down the parents desperately trying to put food on the table and the children who have gone hungry through his incompetence.

“He must guarantee that children will get free school meals over the February half term and put trust in parents by give them the money for free school meals to ensure their children do not go hungry.”

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