Ending universal credit boost will hit sickest areas the hardest, study shows
Scrapping the £1,000-a-year boost to universal credit next month will trigger mental illness and poorer health for thousands of people, and hit the sickest areas of the UK hardest, new research suggests.
Boris Johnson’s commitment to “levelling up” is thrown into doubt by the Health Foundation study, which comes as ministers are already facing criticism for a national insurance hike that will leave low-paid workers hundreds of pounds out of pocket. The ditching of the universal credit (UC) uplift, 19 months after it was brought in amid the pandemic, will be significantly worse for the poorest households.
The analysis comes as a government minister conceded there has been no formal impact assessment of the dropping of the £20-a-week UC increase because it represents a return to “business as usual”.
The work and pensions minister, Baroness Stedman-Scott, told the House of Lords on Thursday that her department had carried out no formal assessment of the impact of returning UC to its pre-pandemic level.
“The department has not completed an impact assessment of the ending of the temporary uplift, as it was introduced as a temporary measure,” she said. “This is because we have no obligation to conduct an impact assessment as we’re returning to business as usual, as the temporary Covid uplift is expiring as it was always intended to do.”
The Health Foundation charity said areas such as Blackpool, Hartlepool, Wolverhampton, Peterborough and parts of east London – already suffering some of the worst health outcomes – would be most affected by the income cut.
It said the removal of such a vital chunk of income would contribute to rising mental ill health at a time when many families are already dealing with the stress of debts, and face the prospect of soaring energy and food prices.
More than 50 Conservative MPs, six former work and pensions secretaries and an army of charities and anti-poverty campaigners have urged Downing Street to think again about the policy, which will cost about 6 million hard-pressed families £1,502 a year. Marcus Rashford, the footballer and anti-poverty campaigner, has also called for the cut to be scrapped.
Privately, ministers say the government’s tough stance on the measure underlines the power of the Treasury, with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, determined to be tough elsewhere after reluctantly signing off the national insurance rise to pay for the prime minister’s NHS and social care plan.
There is widespread nervousness among Tory backbenchers that the UC cut will be unpopular among constituents already struggling with a cost of living crisis, especially but not exclusively in “red wall” areas in the north of England and the Midlands, which have higher than average rates of UC take=up.
The 50-strong Northern Research Group has urged the prime minister not to reverse the cut. Many of its members represent seats that were won by the Conservatives in 2019, handing Johnson his majority.
Labour is expected to force a symbolic vote on the issue in parliament next week, though when it last did so in the spring just six Conservative MPs joined their Labour counterparts in the lobbies.
Polling by the Health Foundation carried out in the last week of August found strong public support for making the £20-a-week UC increase permanent, with 51% in favour and 22% against. Among Conservative voters, 40% want to see the uplift retained, with 33% against.
The foundation said areas with a high proportion of UC recipients were already likely to have significantly worse health. In Blackpool for example, where average healthy life expectancy for men and women is just 55.2 years, the average UC cut per head is £283.
This contrasts with the home counties authority of Wokingham in Berkshire, where average healthy life expectancy for men and women is 71.2 years, and the average loss per head as a result of the UC cut would be £76.
Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation, said: “A cut to universal credit would be a step backwards and an indication that the government has not learned from mistakes of the recovery from the financial crisis. The pandemic is not yet over and if we are to avoid long-term scars, it is vital that we maintain this support on which so many families rely.”
The link between mental ill-health and UC has been established in a number of academic studies. A Liverpool University study published in the Lancet in 2020 found that “stressors” such as the built-in five-week wait for a first payment led to an increase in “psychological stress”.
A 2018 study by researchers at Newcastle and Teesside universities found that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected claimants’ mental health that some considered suicide, leading experts to suggest the benefit be regarded as a serious threat to public health.
More than 700,000 people will be pushed into poverty by the removal of the uplift, research by Fabian Society thinktank found earlier this year. Worst hit would be working families, many with children, which would account for nearly two-thirds of those falling below the breadline.
A government spokesperson said: “As announced by the chancellor at the budget, the uplift to universal credit was always 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. In addition, the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will lead national efforts to improve and level up the health of the nation by tackling obesity, improving mental health and promoting physical activity.”