Legacy Benefits – a year of denial

A year ago, I was one of millions watching the Chancellor’s press conference outlining an emergency package for businesses and individuals affected by the lockdown. When he announced that the Standard Allowance for Universal Credit (UC) would go up by £20 a week, I remember being shocked.

18 March 2021

Marc Francis, Policy and Campaigns Director

Only a few days earlier, Z2K was one of several charities giving evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee, calling for working age benefits to be restored to their true value after being “frozen” for the previous four years.  Here was a Chancellor doing exactly that.  I’d have liked to hear him suspend the Benefit Cap and Two Child Limit too, but I couldn’t help but be impressed!

Later that evening, however, I caught a piece on the news where the then Shadow Chancellor was calling on his opposite number to clarify whether this £20 a week extra applied to legacy benefits too.  I have to admit I thought he was just playing politics.  Surely, the Government couldn’t increase the basic allowance for UC claimants but not increase it for Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Income Support claimants (IS) too?  Surely, it stands to reason that, if new claimants need the extra money in the pandemic, existing claimants will too?

Over the next few days though it became clear that the Government would only be paying that increase to UC claimants and not those on JSA, ESA or IS.  Instead, those people would only get the extra £1.35 a week inflation-linked increase that had been agreed at the start of the year.  And the Secretary of State, Therese Coffey confirmed that in her appearance at the Work & Pensions Select Committee the following Wednesday.  Incredibly, she and the Permanent Secretary tried to pretend this was because DWP’s computer system wasn’t up to the job.  The truth is very different.

As we know now, ministers actually asked DWP officials if the extra £20 a week uplift could be paid just to newly-unemployed UC claimants, not those who were on UC prior to the pandemic.  I think this reveals a lot about their motives.  It was designed to cover-up how low benefits had sunk to as a result of George Osbourne’s freeze to those who had been paying into the National Insurance system all these years.  Thankfully, officials made it clear that wouldn’t be possible.  Less helpfully, they seem not to have had a problem with it not being extended to legacy benefits.  A de facto endorsement for a two-tier welfare state.”

Over the past 12 months, working with colleagues in the Disability Benefits Consortium, Z2K has done everything we can to highlight this injustice.  Over 121,000 people supported the petition calling for the £20 a week increase to be extended to legacy benefits and 13,000 have now written to their local MP about it.  We were delighted to see the select committee focus on it in its report last summer and that Opposition spokespeople have repeatedly challenged ministers on it.  Some back bench Conservative MPs have criticised it too.  And yet, while the Chancellor has extended the UC uplift for six more months, he is now offering the 2.5 million JSA, ESA and IS claimants just 37 pence a week extra.

This is a grim picture.  But there is always hope.  And it was great to see Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis, grill the Chancellor on this issue in a recent interview.  His answer was ridiculous.  I’m sure his Special Advisers were squirming with embarrassment.  So we need to keep up the pressure.  That means challenging and informing mainstream journalists who repeat ministers’ misleading claims those legacy benefit claimants who want the extra £20 a week should just apply for UC.  And it means all of us keeping up the pressure on our own local MPs to raise this discrimination at every opportunity in the House of Commons.

The inadequacy of Social Security benefits was one of the causes that brought Rev Paul Nicolson and Z2K’s other founders together thirty years ago.  And in the month that also marks the sad anniversary of Paul’s death, we are utterly committed to keep campaigning for the Government to #IncreaseLegacyBenefits.  If you haven’t had a chance to already, please join us https://www.z2k.org/increase-legacy-benefits/