What does the end of the £20 Universal Credit uplift tell us about collective wellbeing?
by Hannah Ormston
At the Conservative Party Conference last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson remarked that ‘wages are going up faster than before the pandemic began’. These comments were made against the backdrop of the news that the £20 Universal Credit uplift – brought in to support low-income households during the pandemic – is to be withdrawn this month. This withdrawal represents the largest ever overnight cut in social security, and is predicted to place half a million more people in poverty, many of whom are unable to work because of disability, illness, or caring for others. These groups will not benefit from the reported increase in wages, and nor will those who are out of work due to the rising unemployment rate.
This is a very real and tangible example of why social progress cannot be understood or measured in one dimension. Even for those who have benefited from a wage increase in recent months, this is offset by rising household costs across a range of living essentials, like food and fuel. Economic wellbeing is not about some people in society having more money in their pockets, rather it is about us all having a decent minimum living standard. This includes income, but also covers the cost and quality of our food, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing and other essential needs.
As an organisation with a mission to improve collective wellbeing, we are following with interest the responses from the Governments of the devolved administrations, each of which is supposedly guided in its policy decisions by a holistic, outcomes-led approach to progress.
Having recently published the final report of our Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland programme, we were particularly attentive to the response of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Initially, the Executive made common cause with the leaders of the governments in Scotland and Wales to call on the UK Government to reverse the cut. But when that was unsuccessful, Northern Ireland Ministers were required to examine what could be done within their own powers and responsibilities.
The First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill united last week to urge a reversal of the decision to end the uplift and Belfast’s City Hall dimmed its lights in opposition to the news of the withdrawal. Meanwhile, Stormont’s Department for Communities has made an ambitious bid for additional funding, seeking £55M from the Executive’s Department for Finance to mitigate the negative impact that ending the £20 weekly uplift will have on those living there.
Local government in Northern Ireland has shown a continued commitment to learning about collective wellbeing, striving to put the needs of citizens at the centre of their approach. The Executive’s response to the Department for Communities’ bid for funding provides them with a practical opportunity to embody the values and goals set out within the current Programme for Government.
Northern Ireland’s response also provides useful pointers for others who are actively seeking to embed a wellbeing approach to government.
In Scotland, the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment and Bridging Payments has been described by some as the most ambitious anti-poverty measures currently being undertaken in the UK, while others argue that the measures simply do not go far enough given the scale of the challenge. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation Poverty in Scotland 2021 report, for example, calls for a far greater scale and pace of activity to support those most at risk.
In Wales, the new Discretionary Assistance Fund will be used to help individuals experiencing financial hardship with winter fuel support and earlier this year, Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe urged the Welsh Government to trial paying individuals a Universal Basic Income.
Since the announcement last week confirming the withdrawal of the UC uplift, neither of these governments has made a public statement about how they intend to provide additional support to those most affected by this policy decision. Decisions taken in this regard will be an interesting test of the ability and willingness of governments to align budgeting decisions to outcomes, using existing wellbeing frameworks as a guide to prioritisation.
At Carnegie UK, we know that wellbeing cannot flourish when there is inequality between people and within communities. Though it is clear that there is still a long way to go to ensure that everyone has what they need to live well now and in the future, we commend those working in Northern Ireland for acting quickly to protect the wellbeing of their citizens. We hope to see an early positive response from the Executive to the requested funding, so that it can flow directly to those who are most in need.
Hannah Ormston is Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK.
This was originally posted on the Carnegie UK blog on 12th October 2021.
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