Boris Johnson is facing rising pressure not to remove support for millions of families in the midst of a pandemic as several of his MPs backed a Labour motion demanding the government abandons a cut in universal credit.
The Commons voted 278-0 in favour of the non-binding motion on Monday evening, after the prime minister instructed Conservatives to abstain on the issue.
It comes amid a major row over whether to extend the £20-per-week increase in benefits that is due to expire at the end of March. The £6 billion measure was introduced at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis in an attempt to alleviate pressures on low-paid families.
A final decision is not expected until Rishi Sunak unveils the Budget in March, and the prime minister has repeatedly refused to guarantee the uplift will continue beyond the spring. Reports have also suggested the chancellor is mulling a one-off £500 payment to claimants in order to avoid the uplift in payments becoming permanent.
Bruised by a similar motion on free schools meals last year, which had the high-profile backing of footballer Marcus Rashford, Mr Johnson told Tories at the weekend to abstain rather than vote down Labour’s Opposition Day debate in an attempt to avoid a potentially embarrassing defeat.
Labour’s motion stated: “This House believes that the government should stop the planned cut in universal credit and working tax credit in April and give certainty today to the six million families it is worth an extra £1,000 a year.”
Despite a series of government ministers describing the motion as a “political stunt”, six Conservatives voted with the opposition including Stephen Crabb, the former work and pensions secretary, Robert Halfon, the chair of the Commons Education Committee, and backbench MPs Peter Aldous, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris and Matthew Offord.
During the debate Mr Crabb urged Mr Sunak to increase the uplift for another 12 months and provide certainty to low-paid families.
“The question for us right now is whether at the end of March this year, just 10 weeks away, it's the right time to begin unwinding this support - specifically to remove the extra support for Universal Credit claimants - and I don't believe it is the right moment," he told MPs.
The Conservative MP Simon Fell echoed Mr Crabb’s comments, saying “now is not the time” to cut the benefit, adding: "This uplift was brought in to help people through the extreme challenges of the pandemic and those challenges haven't passed. Indeed, as furlough ends we may be entering even more challenging times.”
However, alongside several Tories, he argued it was “absolutely right” that decisions are taken at the Budget in March, rather than through Labour’s Opposition Day motion.
A report by the Resolution Foundation warned on Monday that Britain’s poorest households would be pushed further into poverty if the government cut the increase, worth £1,040 a year, with millions facing the sharpest drop in living standards in a generation in 2021.
The think-tank estimated that withdrawal of the benefit increase this spring would drive up relative poverty from 21 to 23 per cent by 2024-25, pushing a further 730,000 children into poverty.
“Deciding if the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit should be extended will determine whether millions of households are able to enjoy any sort of living standards recovery next year,” said the Resolution Foundation’s senior economist Karl Handscomb.
“And looking further ahead, the decision on whether to keep the UC boost will help define whether this is to be a parliament of ‘levelling up’ living standards, or pushing up poverty.”
Responding to the vote Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “The pandemic and its economic fallout are far from over and families are looking to the government to provide some security of income and some certainty so that they can plan for the future.”
“In dodging a decision on the universal credit uplift the government today failed to provide that security and certainty,” she aded.
“The £20 uplift has acted as a stabiliser for millions of families forced on to universal credit by coronavirus. If it is not retained and extended to all legacy benefit claimants, struggle will turn to real hardship for many more families – at the bleakest point - and more children will show up in the poverty statistics. “