Coronavirus: a strong social security system is an essential public service now
We must design just policies and practices that unlock support, and provide security for every member of our society.
The coronavirus outbreak has hit us like a great storm. People are worried about losing their jobs or having their hours cut. They’re worried about how they’ll afford to feed their families while they’re forced to stay away from work because they’re sick, caring for loved ones and children who can’t go to school, or just trying to do the right thing to keep our country and communities safe. For many on low incomes, this storm risks pulling them deeper into poverty.
As a nation that believes in compassion and justice, it’s not right that anyone should be left to face these overwhelming forces alone.
We need strong responses from the Government across a range of policy areas. It has already taken some bold, just steps, notably its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help keep people in their jobs.
But it must be bolder in other areas. Huge numbers of people in and out of work will not be covered by the Job Retention Scheme but will be facing a sudden swirl of reduced income and higher costs.
Now is the time to ensure our social security system is a strong, valued and essential public service which we can all rely on when we’re at risk of being pulled under. The Government recently increased Universal Credit by £20 per week. It also suspended the ‘Minimum Income Floor’ for all self-employed people, allowing them to access support on the same basis as employees and those not in work.
But it must strengthen this lifeline further by speeding up access to cash and increasing the support available during this turbulent time.
- People turning to Universal Credit face a minimum five-week wait for their first payment. They can get upfront loans called ‘advances’ to help, but they have to start repaying these straightaway. This isn’t right. The Government should, at a minimum, suspend repayments of advances and other benefit deductions so that people can access social security quickly without money being taken away.
- Universal Credit, and the benefits it is replacing, should be increased further to ensure all of us are able to afford to do what’s necessary to keep the country safe and provide security for our families. The standard allowances should be increased over this period to £150 per week for a single person to keep people’s incomes above poverty levels.
- School closures are also putting extra cost pressures on families with children, particularly those who receive Free School Meals. The child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit should be increased by £12 per week to provide additional support to families in a way that is as fast and flexible as possible.
- Workers who are not employees should be protected in a similar way to those eligible for Statutory Sick Pay. The Government should remove the national insurance contribution criteria for eligibility to ‘New Style’ (contributory) Employment and Support Allowance for people sick or required to self-isolate. This would allow more self-employed people to access this sickness benefit.
History will recount how the UK responded to the coronavirus outbreak. We must ensure that the story demonstrates our commitment to protecting each other from harm, through our design of just policies and practices that unlock support and provide security for every member of our society.