The Bishops of Selby and Doncaster are among those to have signed a letter to the Prime Minister, which has been jointly organised by Church Action on Poverty and the Bradford-based Christians Against Poverty organisations.
The £20 weekly boost to Universal Credit introduced at the outset of the pandemic is due to be axed from October 6 but there is growing pressure on the Government to maintain the support which will hit millions of households.
In the letter to Boris Johnson, the church leaders say: “If the Government persists with this cut, it would be the single biggest overnight reduction in the basic rate of social security since the welfare state was established in the 1940s. “Millions of low income households will be swept further into poverty as a result.
“We urge the Government to choose to build a just and compassionate social security system that our whole society can have confidence in.”
The Bishop of Doncaster, Rt Revd Sophie Jelley, said: “I fully support the plea to retain Universal Credit at the current level at the present time. With the increase in food and energy prices together with the impact of the pandemic on household income I am extremely concerned about families and households already struggling to make ends meet.
“There is no doubt that recent months have placed additional burdens on the poorest in our communities and this feels like the least we can do to show practical compassion and care at this tremendously difficult time.”
The Bishop of Selby, Rt Revd Dr John B Thomson, said: “I signed this open letter because this proposed cut comes at a time when the future of the pandemic remains uncertain and at the very point when the furlough scheme ends.
“It will also coincide with significant increased costs for electricity and gas just when the weather begins to turn and is a concern which has been expressed widely by all organisations who work with the poorest, and those who monitor the impact of such policies on them. I accept that this is a major cost to the nation as a whole but believe that those in most need must be protected by the nation.”
Christians Against Poverty’s UK Chief Executive Paula Stringer adeed: “This cut will lead to thousands more people falling into problem debt. If it goes ahead many will be forced to make impossible choices. They’ll be faced with the very real prospect of falling into arrears, and having to choose whether to eat or put the heating on to stay warm. No one should ever have to choose between food or heating, it’s simply not right, but that will be the heartbreaking reality if this cut goes ahead.
“That is why we’re backing the Keep The Lifeline campaign and we’re standing with the church community in continuing to urge the Government to show compassion and make a last minute u-turn.
“Our message is clear - stop this before it cripples millions of households. We will continue to stand together with those affected by this cut, churches and other charities, calling for this vital lifeline to be kept.”
Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty, said, “Cutting £1,040 a year from low-income households would cut hundreds of thousands of families adrift. It’s simply not right.
“With food and fuel costs rising sharply, we know millions of families are struggling to stay afloat, and this £20 a week cut will make a difficult situation disastrous. We should be pulling together to get the economy back on course, but instead people are having to watch the threadbare lifelines being cut.
“The breadth of support for this letter reflects the wider public’s desire for a just and compassionate economy. We need to redesign the social security system so it brings stability and opens up opportunities, rather than sweeping families into deeper poverty.”
On Sunday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the uplift is “going to end” despite footballer Marcus Rashford joining those campaigning for it to remain.
Rashford was instrumental previously in forcing Boris Johnson to U-turn on withdrawing free school meals during the holidays. He told the Sunday People: “Instead of removing vital support, we should be focusing on developing a long-term roadmap out of this child hunger pandemic. On October 6, millions lose a lifeline.”
But Mr Shapps repeated the Prime Minister’s assertion that keeping the additional weekly £20 as part of the benefits package would require tax rises.
Mr Shapps told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I think most people recognise that if it’s brought in for the pandemic, it’s going to end as we move back to people going back to work and more normal times – we can’t keep all these things in place otherwise you’d have to put several pennies on income tax to pay for the policy to run.”
The Treasury provided the additional £20 per week to benefit recipients at the outset of the pandemic, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak has so far been adamant it must end by October.
The uplift was meant to last a year but was extended by six months in the March Budget.
Citizens Advice has predicted that withdrawing the extra financial support next month could force 1.5 million working people into hardship, with 600,000 of those left struggling to afford food.
Ministers were also told by the Resolution Foundation think tank that maintaining the uplift would “go a long way towards easing the coming cost-of-living squeeze for millions of families”, with growing inflation and rising energy prices set to pile on the financial pressures for low income households.
The Transport Secretary, who called the uplift a “temporary assistance”, said salary inflation could help make-up for the loss in household income.
He also said other Covid-related support, such as local housing allowance, would be staying in place.
“What we’re going to do is look at how the whole package of measures, everything that we do, reacts,” Mr Shapps told the BBC when asked whether there could be a shift in policy.
“You mentioned some costs will be going up – that’s undoubtedly true – but fortunately I can also report that salaries are going up faster than that.
“I think we’ve seen a 4.2 per cent increase in salaries this year.
“We’ve got more people in work than even before the pandemic. A lot of people on Universal Credit are working, so it’s not unconnected.”
Figures from the Citizens Advice said that around 2.3 million Universal Credit claimants are already in work, with a further 1.7 million unable to supplement any income loss through employment due to health or caring responsibilities.
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