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MP Drew Hendry joins Citizens Advice and Highland Foodbank in stark warning on how a cut to Universal Credit will plunge families into debt and poverty

By Alasdair Fraser

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Drew Hendry MP.
Drew Hendry MP.

Thousands of hard-pressed Highland families and workers face a ticking time bomb of debt and poverty as a cut to Universal Credit coincides with the end of furlough.

That is the stark warning from two welfare charity leaders and Inverness MP Drew Hendry amid growing anger over the UK government’s ending of the £20 uplift in income support introduced during the pandemic.

Across the UK, estimates suggest at least 2.3 million people will be plunged into extreme hardship when the reduction is imposed from the end of this month.

The decision, confirmed earlier this week by secretary of state for health and social care Sajid Javid, will cost the average claimant £1040 annually.

Recent research by the charity Action for Children showed that a sole-earner couple with two children would receive drastically lower social security compared to 2010, factoring in previous benefit squeezes.

The families of hairdressers would lose £1982 on average, shelf-stackers £1843, care workers £1773, nurses £1736 and primary school teachers £1734, according to the analysis.

Locally, there is strong evidence that the £20 cut will push people “over the precipice” into crisis with some support services at breaking point.

Citizens Advice warned of a triple whammy of benefit cuts, rising energy bills and further redundancies with the end of furlough – the UK government’s wage support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – at the end of September.

Alasdair Christie, manager of Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey Citizens Advice, expressed dismay at the UK government’s refusal to back down on the Universal Credit cut.

He predicted services, already swamped by desperate clients since before the start of the pandemic, would be unable to cope.

Mr Christie said: “This is going to thrust many people right over the precipice and into severe financial difficulty, whether that be not being able to buy food, pay rent, electricity or gas.

“It is also going to put people under such mental stress that it will impact their health.

“There will be more people coming to us for assistance and that puts pressure on our system, which is already creaking under the strain of so many vulnerable clients.

“It is unprecedented, and when the moratorium is lifted totally on evictions and mortgage repossessions we expect we simply won’t be able to cope with the number of people presenting to us.”

Alsadair Christie, manager of Inverness CAB, is calling for more volunteers amid a surge of inquiries about debt, employment rights...Picture: Callum Mackay..
Alsadair Christie, manager of Inverness CAB, is calling for more volunteers amid a surge of inquiries about debt, employment rights...Picture: Callum Mackay..

Mr Christie issued a fresh plea for new volunteers willing to be fully trained to help local people.

Lorna Dempster, co-ordinator of the Highland Foodbank based in Glebe Street and serving Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, said the blow to families came just as modest strides were being taken in reducing food bank use.

From April 2019 to March 2020, the charity fed 7808 people, which dropped by 2.5 per cent to 7612 the following year partly as a result of the £20 uplift.

She stressed: “The number of referrals we’ve seen during the pandemic has gone down slightly, meaning that people have been more able to afford food without the need to use a food bank.

“This was because of the £20 per week lifeline. For many, this has been the bridge between having to use a food bank and not.

“To some, £20 a week might seem like small change, but for others it’s been the difference between paying bills and putting food on the table, and not having to make that difficult choice.

“Taking this payment away will have a devastating effect on people’s lives.

Highland Foodbank manager Lorna Dempster...Picture: Gary Anthony. Image No..
Highland Foodbank manager Lorna Dempster...Picture: Gary Anthony. Image No..

“It will certainly be a backward step and I anticipate the numbers of referrals at our food banks across Highland will dramatically increase.”

Drew Hendry, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, has long campaigned against Universal Credit as an unfair system and raised serious concerns in Parliament last week about the £20 cut.

Mr Hendry said: “Even the UK government’s own analysis shows Tory plans to slash the incomes of six million families by £1040 a year will be catastrophic.

“People have already endured a decade of Tory austerity cuts and are at breaking point.

“For low-income families, £20 is the difference between putting food on the table or heating their home. With the colder weather fast approaching, many are worried about how they will make ends meet.

“Make no mistake, this is a story of choices. This Tory government found an eye-watering £200 million for a luxury yacht that no-one wanted and plans to spend billions more on obscene Trident renewal.

“They will continue to make these choices. The UK already has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north-west Europe, and the situation is only getting worse under Boris Johnson’s leadership.”

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