Government ministers have been urged to drastically raise the basic level of Universal Credit for the duration of the Coronavirus outbreak, or risk thousands more people falling into the poverty trap.
The Trade Union Congress (TUC) says an “emergency” boost to Universal Credit payments is vital to support the growing numbers of people who have lost their jobs and/or struggling to make ends-meet during this difficult time.
TUC says that without an urgent increase to the value of social security payments, the level of financial support offered by Government will be lower in real-terms during the COVID-19 pandemic than during the mass unemployment levels seen in the1980s and 1990s.
The Universal Credit basic rate was recently increase by £20 a week, while strict conditionality requirements were also softened, but union leaders say this is insufficient.
The TUC is calling for the weekly standard rate to be increased to £260 a week, compared to the current average payment of just £94 for a single adult.
They cite examples in other European countries, such as Germany where workers can expect to receive up to 80% of wages while they are unable to continue working.
However, union leaders say boosting Universal Credit payments should only be a stop-gap measure and strongly express support to see a mandatory introduction of the ‘Real Living Wage’.
According to the Living Wage Foundation, who calculations are based on the amount in earnings a households needs to cover everyday living costs, the real living wage currently stands at £10.75 per hour in London and £9.30 across the rest of the UK.
Despite last week’s increase to the so-called ‘National Living Wage’, which is not the same as the ‘Real Living Wage’, the amount employers are legally required to pay workers falls far short at just £8.72 an hour for those aged 25 and over.
The TUC is also calling on the Government to end the minimum five-week-wait for an initial Universal Payment, although advances are available but must be repaid.
They also argue that the claims process needs to speeded up but not requiring claimants to have a telephone interview, whilst also raising Child Benefit payments and ending the controversial Benefit Cap.
Around 14 million people were already living below the breadline before COVID-19 struck the UK and unions fear this number will rise dramatically in coming weeks and months.
Ministers are also encouraged to look again at the sick-pay system and increase statutory payments from £94 a week to the equivalent of a week’s full-time pay at the Real Living Wage – around £320 a week.
The Government should also scrap the minimum earnings threshold for sick pay that is currently preventing two million workers from qualifying for it, says the TUC.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Unions have worked closely with government during this crisis to protect livelihoods. But there is still more to do.
“People who lose their jobs must get the support they need to make ends meet and to get back on their feet.
“If we don’t urgently boost Universal Credit many risk being plunged into poverty. That is not right.
“We need a social security system that can deal with the current pandemic and beyond.
“It’s time to start a national conversation about how we repair Britain’s safety net and help those who fall on hard times to bounce back.”