It is only right that governments should do all they can to support people through this next period.
The coronavirus storm is still raging, with further lockdowns across the UK’s four nations. As with the initial lockdowns last year, people on low incomes are worried about jobs, about how they will afford their rent and, in these cold winter months, how to heat their homes. They are worried about their children, how they will be able to access education, and about the digital divide that many experience. Back in March, the UK and devolved administrations introduced a series of bold and compassionate measures to help low-income families stay afloat. It is with a sense of urgency that they must do so again.
Unlike last year, however, we are not starting from scratch. There are several interventions – such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – that have already been extended through to the Spring. But governments across the UK need to go further and ensure that people aren’t pulled into deeper poverty.
In March, we were uncertain how long the pandemic would be with us. But now, with vaccines already being rolled out, the end is in sight. It is only right that governments should therefore be willing to do all they can to support people through this next period to protect jobs, incomes and the health of our communities, and put in place the foundations to rebuild a just and inclusive post-pandemic economy.
Here are 10 urgent actions that governments across the UK must take in the coming days and weeks to help keep people in poverty afloat during this third lockdown:
1. Keep the Lifeline
By committing to make permanent the £20 uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits and extending it to legacy benefits rather than going ahead with the planned cut in April. This would stop over 6 million of our worst-off families having their annual household budgets slashed by £1,040 overnight.
2. Ensure Universal Credit rules reflect the challenges of a national lockdown
By suspending repayments of advances and other benefit deductions. Work search and availability requirements should also once again be suspended. These measures would help to maximise household budgets and reduce the stresses and strains on people told to look for work when many firms have closed their doors.
3. Ensure renters can remain in their homes
By extending the ban on evictions and protections for renters, due to end on 11 January in England and 22 January in Scotland, for the duration of any lockdown measures. An extension until the end of March has already been granted in Scotland. This will help to prevent a wave of homelessness this winter and hold renters who have fallen into arrears steady. The Government should also introduce a targeted package of support to address rent arrears. JRF research found that around 2.5 million households are worried about how they will pay their rent over the winter months and 700,000 households are already in rental arrears. Direct immediate support could be delivered by boosting funding for Discretionary Housing Payments in England.
4. Provide emergency accommodation for rough sleepers
By restarting the ‘Everyone In’ scheme in England, and an equivalent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Governments should reinstate the same level of protection given to homeless people during the first national lockdown when councils were directed and funded to find emergency accommodation for all rough sleepers.
5. Reform support for struggling mortgage holders
Mortgage Holiday comes to an end on 31 January under current rules, this should be extended for the duration of any lockdown measures. The UK Government should also use the time available to make changes to the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) loan by relaxing the zero-earnings rule under Universal Credit and reducing the wait time for SMI payments from nine months to three months. This will help to ensure that the balance of risk between government, individuals, and lenders is fair, and interest arrears on mortgages can be better managed.
6. Rapidly increase access to online learning for disadvantaged children
The move to home learning will widen educational inequality, particularly given the lack of access to devices and the internet for children living in poverty. Despite several schemes being in place across the UK, the Children’s Commissioner estimated they targeted only between a third and a half of children without access to appropriate devices. Governments should urgently seek to address this by making cash or vouchers available to schools to purchase devices for the children that need them most.
But access to devices is only part of this issue. Households on low incomes are less likely to have an internet connection in the home. In England, schools can apply for 4G wireless routers for pupils, and the UK Government has worked with mobile phone networks to enable temporary increases to data allowances to households without fixed broadband access. Government should urgently mobilise, in partnership with local authorities and schools, to ensure those that need this support have access to it as quickly as possible.
7. Convert Free School Meal provision for pupils learning from home in England into cash payments
As has happened in Northern Ireland, most of Wales and some parts of Scotland. Whilst it is welcome that children eligible for Free School Meals will still be able to access them whilst working from home, the quality of provision in the first lockdown was inconsistent and voucher schemes are inflexible, stigmatising and not always easily accessible by families. Cash payments will help to ensure schemes are delivered with dignity and respect.
8. Extend the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme in England
Due to end on 31 January, it should be extended for at least another six months whilst the vaccine roll out continues. The England scheme should follow Scotland’s example, and extend eligibility to parents on low incomes whose children have been instructed to self-isolate and those who may be eligible for Universal Credit, but have not yet applied. Additional funding to local authorities to make discretionary payments to those not eligible for the Test and Trace Support Payment should be re-provided. This will help to ensure that people can afford to self-isolate when they are instructed to.
9. Expand eligibility to Statutory Sick Pay
By removing the £120 per week earnings requirement. Government should also remove the national insurance contribution criteria for eligibility to ‘New Style’ (contributory) Employment and Support Allowance for people sick or those required to self-isolate. This would allow more self-employed people to access this sickness benefit.
10. Extend the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme
The third round of the Self Employment Income Support Scheme will cover the period between 1 November 2020 to the 29 January 2021, but a fourth round, covering the period to the end of April should be implemented to cover this new lockdown period. Government should ensure that the fourth round gets to those on low incomes who most need it. This would mean it comes into line with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme available to employees.