'Perfect storm' as thousands brace for tough winter ahead of Universal Credit cut
- Credit: Nick Butcher/Mick Howes/Julian Claxton
Soaring fuel costs are the latest "body blow" for thousands of people "living on the edge of coping" after furlough ended and Universal Credit faces a £20-a-week cut.
Concerns have been raised for countless people struggling to make ends meet around Norfolk and Waveney.
The government's furlough scheme officially ended on September 30, while a weekly £20 boost to Universal Credit added during the pandemic is set to be axed from October 6.
Meanwhile, thousands of households face a spike in their energy bills due to rising wholesale prices, some by more than £100.
Waveney MP Peter Aldous was one of the first Conservative MPs to urge the government to reconsider the planned cut to Universal Credit.
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In a joint letter with Carlisle MP John Stevenson in August, he said 26pc of working-age families in Waveney will be affected by the cut.
Mr Aldous, who has almost 12,000 constituents claiming Universal Credit, said it was "greatly regrettable" the uplift had been withdrawn despite their concerns.
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Speaking as the Tory conference got underway, where the issue is being debated, he said: "I was concerned it would be wrong to remove it after speaking to constituents and local charities, and I wrote to the Prime Minister and re-emphasised my point during the debate.
"I hoped over the next few weeks that I would be proved wrong, but from what has happened so far I have to say I remain very concerned.
"One of the concerns I highlighted was the suggestion there would be an increase in everyday living costs and in the last couple of weeks that has been very clear.
"We have particularly seen that with the energy market, with companies collapsing and bills and fuel prices increasing.
"For an awful lot of people in our area, we need to be able to drive to work.
"There is an awful lot of people, I sense, who are going to be seriously struggling and having to make difficult decisions."
Lowestoft Foodbank, who help thousands of people in Mr Aldous' constituency each year, are braced for another tough winter.
Local lead Ben Parish said: "We will carry on regardless, but with both the Universal Credit cut and furlough ending we are anticipating a big increase in demand.
"It is always tough over winter and people struggle during it every year.
"Already people can't make their Universal Credit last, let along without a further £80 a month.
"Add in the rising energy prices and there have been lots of body blows for people and we're very concerned.
"People live no the edge of coping anyway.
"We will do what we can but it is going to be a very tough winter for a lot of people."
More than 33,000 workers were on furlough as of July 31 in Norfolk and east Suffolk, the latest available figures show.
Economists have warned that although many unemployed workers find jobs in recovering sectors such as hospitality and travel, there is also likely to be a rise in unemployment due to new redundancies.
Speaking as furlough came to an end, Mr Sunak said he was "proud" of what the scheme had achieved, adding the government is "not done" supporting people.
He said: "There were things we did during the crisis to help people get through the worst part of coronavirus and I think like furlough ending, the Universal Credit uplift, it's natural those things will come to an end.
"We have a plan for jobs that is focused on giving people the skills and the opportunities they need to find fantastic work and that’s what we’re now focused on delivering.
"I feel confident about the future."
Despite this, Waveney-based homelessness charity Access Community Trust say they are braced for a busy winter supporting those in need.
CEO Emma Ratzer said: "Back in the first lockdown and all the issues that brought about, we thought the worst time to come was about now when things start to get back to normal.
"With the changes to Universal Credit and furlough, it is a big problem for many families and we haven't seen the worst the pandemic has caused.
"We are braced for a busy winter and we had a meeting last week to gear up for what we expect to be a difficult period of food poverty for many."
A government spokesperson said: "We've always been clear that the uplift to Universal Credit and the furlough scheme were temporary.
"They were designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and they have done so.
"Universal Credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work, and vulnerable households across the country will be able to access a new £500 million support fund to help them with essentials over the coming months as the country continues its recovery from the pandemic."
Universal Credit claimants double
Campaigners and MPs have said the extra money has been a lifeline to those struggling to make ends meet, many of who are still in work and face an increase in National Insurance tax from April 2022 as part of government plans to tackle the social care crisis.
Without it, more than 80,000 people across Norfolk and Waveney will lose more than £1,000 of annual income.
Government figures for August 2021, the latest available, show the number of people claiming Universal Credit in Norfolk and Waveney has doubled since before the pandemic.
As of August 2021, 81,688 people were claiming Universal Credit, up from 40,608 in January 2020.
The figures show 12,437 households in Norwich, 11,565 in Great Yarmouth, 9,871 in Waveney, 8,892 in King's Lynn and west Norfolk, 7,773 households in Breckland, 6,051 in south Norfolk, 5,113 in north Norfolk, and 5,250 in Broadland, were all claiming Universal Credit.
New £500m fund announced
The Department for Work and Pensions has launched a new £500 million scheme to help vulnerable households over winter.
It will be made available to councils in England in October to assist the community through small grants to meet daily needs such as food, clothing and utilities.
The funding is intended to help families meet “essential costs as we push through the last stages of our recovery from the pandemic”, work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said.
As the Tory Party conference started, Mr Johnson said he is ready to take "big, bold decision" to rebuild the country after Covid.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, however, called the announcement of new funds an “11th hour attempt to save face as the Government presses ahead with an unprecedented overnight cut”, urging the PM and Chancellor to reverse the plans.
A spokesperson for the foundation added the Prime Minister was "abandoning millions" to hardship by pushing ahead with the cut.
Homelessness charity Shelter warned last week that one in four renters cannot afford to keep their homes warm this winter - 5.3 million people in England.
They added over a third of private renters now receive housing benefit to help pay their rent, an increase from 25pc before the pandemic to 36pc.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: "The triple whammy of the furlough scheme ending, cuts to Universal Credit and rocketing fuel prices may be the final straw for many renters barely hanging onto their homes.
"We are facing a perfect storm for homelessness to rise and the government must get a handle on the situation before winter arrives.
"No parent should have to choose between putting the heating on, food on the table or paying their rent, but that is the reality for so many families right now.
A number of national charities have also warned against the cut, including Macmillan Cancer Support which claimed some people living with cancer could be forced to turn to payday lenders.