The opposition Conservative group on the authority came out against its own party’s national policy in order to support a Labour motion demanding a rethink of the cut to the weekly amount given to those receiving the benefit.
In a debate fuelled by passion rather than partisanship, the controversial removal of the additional cash – equivalent to over £1,000 per year – was branded by one Labour councillor as a decision to “systematically punish the poor”.
The move went ahead this week, 18 months after the increase was introduced as part of what the government has always said was a short-term measure to support people struggling during the pandemic.
At a meeting of the full council, Brookfield ward Labour member John Browne – the author of the motion – condemned the government for “not listening” to calls for it to change course.
“[They have], in fact, founded a contingency fund to deal with the further…poverty this is going to create. They knew very well that this was what was going to happen, but they were determined nonetheless to go ahead with it – at a time when fuel costs have gone up [and] when energy prices have gone up,” Cllr Browne said.
Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter was one of several councillors whose voices appeared to break as they spoke of the plight of Prestonians faced with the fallout from the benefit change. He said that residents who had come to rely on the extra money would be pushed “beyond despair” by its sudden disappearance.
“Giving people hope and then snatching it away is torture to those people – and there is something really rotten at the core of this government where they think that this is acceptable.
“People will choose whether they can heat or eat this winter in our city – it’s so hopeless for them. You might [say] the uplift was only temporary, but for them it was a lifeline and you’re pulling it away and pushing their head under water,” Cllr Potter said.
Addressing Tory councillors sitting just feet away from him, he added: “The Conservatives I see in front of me are not that Conservative Party – I refuse to believe that.”
The meeting heard that the number of Universal Credit claimants in Preston has almost doubled during the pandemic – rising from 8,205 in February 2020 to 15,558 by this May, according to data from the Department for Work and Pensions.
The unemployment claimant rate in the city has also climbed this year, standing at 5.8 percent in August, compared to 3.7 percent back in February 2021 – with members told that many amongst that number would have been applying for Universal Credit for the first time as a result of the impact of the pandemic.
The uplift has already continued for six months longer than it was initially intended, costing £9bn from its inception last March until its removal this week.
A series of impassioned contributions to the debate included one from Labour St. Matthew’s ward councillor Jade Morgan who said that people were “absolutely terrified” of the changes implemented in recent days.
“It’s the difference between being able to put fuel in your car, so you can get to work for the week [and] can make money for your family – or [being] able to put gas or electric on so you don’t freeze to death in the winter, or [do] a weekly shop so that your children don’t starve.
“It’s not fair that some of the richest people in this country…get to sit there and systematically punish the poorest people for no reason [other than that] they can.”
Cllr Morgan was one of several members to address Conservative councillors directly, telling them that their stance on the issue would make more of a difference than that of Labour as theirs was the party of government.
Cabinet member for community wealth building Freddie Bailey offered to “stretch out a friendly arm” to Tories on the opposing benches, telling them that he did not believe they would vote for the policy if it was in their hands and urging them to “send a message” to the government – even though he believed it was one that would go unheard.
Having been accused of being “silent” during the debate, Conservative group leader Sue Whittam later rose to announce that her councillors “absolutely [and] totally” supported the motion – explaining that they had already come to that decision before the meeting, but wanted to hear contributions from all sides.
Cllr Whittam said that the £20 uplift meant “a hell of a lot to a lot of people”.
She added: “At the end of the day, we are not [the] nasty in this particular group – we represent the people of Preston and we want to do the best for Preston.
“And although it might be against our government policy…that doesn’t mean to say that we are not prepared to stand up and be counted with the people of Preston,” said Cllr Whittam, who also stressed that the cut would be felt in the rural wards of the city as well as deprived urban areas.
Sharoe Green ward Tory councillor Daniel Duckworth said he was “ashamed and embarrassed” that his party at a national level had proceeded with what was “the biggest ever cut to social security, taking place overnight”.
The city council motion, which received the unanimous support of all members in the chamber, commits the authority to writing to the three Preston area MPs – Labour’s Sir Mark Hendrick (Preston), Tory defence secretary Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) and Conservative member Mark Menzies (Fylde) – asking them to take up the issue with the work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey, and explain the negative impact that the removal of the uplift will have on households in the city.
The council will also itself lobby Ms. Coffey for the £20 per week payments to be reinstated “as part of the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda”.
Ingol and Cottam Conservative member Trevor Hart said that there was one simple reason why the group was supporting the Labour motion – because “it’s right”.
He said that Tory councillors had been lobbying ministers at this week’s Conservative party conference and, addressing Cllr Bailey’s offer of an arm across the chamber, he added: “We offer it back when it’s right, because that’s what we are here for – we are here for the people of Preston, just the same as you are.
“There are many of us on this side that do so much more than we maybe stand and shout about – help those that are struggling, collect in the food donations, encourage the food donations [and] get them out to the people that need it.
“We do care, we do try and we do want to make a difference,” Cllr Hart said.
Meanwhile, Labour council leader Matthew Brown said that the authority would be “stepping up” to help residents hit by the Universal Credit cut.
“We’re not going to lay down and accept it. [We have] put an alternative welfare state into Preston through community food hubs, holiday markets [and] even getting communities to self-organise into food co-operatives so they can save £30 or £40 on a shop by clubbing together.”
As part of the motion, the city council has also resolved to conduct an assessment of the effects of the Universal Credit changes and to try to mitigate them via its work to tackle food poverty and supply affordable housing.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS
Responding to the debate at Preston City Council, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We’ve always been clear that the uplift to Universal Credit was temporary. It was designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and it has done so.
“Universal Credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work and it’s right that the Government should focus on our Plan for Jobs, supporting people back into work and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more.”
The government is also launching a £500m fund to support struggling households with essentials over the coming months as the country continues its recovery from the pandemic.
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