The Government has “really been trying to do everything it can” to help people who struggled throughout the pandemic, Grant Shapps has insisted, as ministers came under fire for scrapping the Universal Credit uplift.
Footballer Marcus Rashford warned on Friday that families on the breadline will have to choose between heating and eating this winter, two days after the temporary £20-a-week increase in the welfare payment was stopped.
Mr Rashford, who has emerged as a campaigner against poverty, said: “The cost of living has definitely increased.
“You know, people in households are having to decide – it reminds me of my situation when I was younger, to be fair – you’ve got to decide between are you going to eat or are you going to be warm in the house?
“And these are decisions that you don’t want people to go through, never mind children, and, you know, there’s other stuff – there’s the price of fuel and electricity.”
But the Transport Secretary said there are a number of schemes in place to help people.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mr Shapps praised Mr Rashford as a “fantastic advocate” but said: “The first thing I want to say is, through this coronavirus, the Government has put in all manner of different furlough schemes and the loans and grants, and one of those was a temporary uplift in Universal Credit to help get people through the coronavirus.
“Now we’re through the vast majority of it and people are going back to work – in fact, job vacancies are at an all-time high – we want to help people back into the jobs. The Chancellor actually has announced a £500 million support package for people, so everything isn’t dropping away.
“And there’s other support as well available – things like the Warm Homes Discount and winter fuel allowances and many other packages… local housing allowances – I won’t go through them all, there to support people, some of which – like the uplift in local housing allowance – again wasn’t available before coronavirus.
“So the Government’s really been trying to do everything it can to help people, both during coronavirus and now through the transition out of it.”
But England and Manchester United footballer Mr Rashford, who forced a Government U-turn on the provision of free school meals during the pandemic, said families are not in a “stable situation”.
“I don’t think that the right point for it to end is when families aren’t in a stable situation,” he said.
“Otherwise, it makes no sense doing the work that we’ve done in the past only to stop doing it in possibly one of the most vital stages, which we don’t know, because the situation of the pandemic, with Covid, could change at any moment as we’ve experienced when Covid first came on the scene.
“And the fact that we weren’t prepared for it then, we should definitely be prepared for it now.”
Mr Rashford said he has not heard anything from contacts in the Government, despite the Conservative Party conference being held in his home city, Manchester, recently.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I think if there was a time for us to be in tandem then now is probably the time.”
However Mr Shapps said: “I know the Prime Minister has spoken to him, I think I’m right in saying more than once, as well, in the past.”
He added: “Governments have to make decisions, and I know that, for example, with Universal Credit it made the decision proactively without any prompting to add in the £20 a week to give people additional support during coronavirus.
“It was for a limited period for coronavirus. Coronavirus has come to an end.”
Mr Shapps went on: “If you wanted to carry on with that uplift, you need to find £6 billion a year from somewhere. Inevitably that means taxing people on their PAYE, maybe putting the cost of fuel up even more, even though it’s at record levels, or something else.
“So nothing is free when you’re making these decisions. And of course, governments have to make all of these judgments to try to make things stack up.”
Sir Keir Starmer said Labour would do away with Universal Credit altogether – but if he was in No 10 he would keep the £20 uplift until the system was overhauled, and would pay for it by eliminating “waste”.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, the Labour leader said: “What we would do in the long term is actually replace Universal Credit, because one of the problems with the system we’ve got at the moment is that it traps people in poverty.”
Pushed on whether that meant the uplift would stay under Labour until the system was replaced, he said: “It would stay, we wouldn’t make the cut, we would then replace it with something better.”
He accused the Government of “effectively turning on the poorest in our society” over the scrapping of the Universal Credit uplift and said families “desperately need that uplift in Universal Credit to make ends meet”.
“And it comes, this cut, at the worst possible time because prices are going up,” he said.
“Whether that’s fuel or food, or energy prices, and this is going to drive families and children into poverty, and for the Government to turn on the poorest as we come out of the pandemic is just so wrong.”