The footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford is to turn his focus to the social security safety net and will hold talks with the welfare secretary to discuss a £6bn-a-year boost to universal credit payments, the Guardian has learned.
The meeting with Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, due to take place in a formal phone call in the next fortnight, is to discuss the possibility of making the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit permanent from April.
It reflects Rashford’s increasing interest in the underlying drivers of food poverty and his appreciation of the role of adequate welfare benefits in protecting and feeding struggling families over the longer term.
A £20 top-up to universal credit and tax credits was introduced by the government as a temporary 12-month Covid measure last April. However, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has repeatedly refused to confirm whether the £6bn-a-year measure will be retained, despite cross-party support.
Campaigners have estimated that as many as 700,000 people, including 300,000 children, will be pushed into poverty if the universal credit top-up is abandoned. This would mean a £1,050 a year drop in income for claimants at a time of rising unemployment, falling living standards and growing destitution.
“It [the £20-a-week top-up] is certainly something he has shown strong interest in as he has spent time with families who have benefited from the uplift,” said a source close to the Manchester United striker. “Thérèse has stated the uplift will be reviewed. Marcus is keen to discuss this in their call.”
His interest in universal credit will pile pressure on the government to make the £20-a-week uplift permanent. He has forced the government into two major U-turns already this year over school holiday food support for low-income families.
Rashford has not commented publicly on the universal credit issue, aside from asking Sunak in a tweet at the time of the spending review last month whether it was going to be “taken away”. But he is understood to be keen to get a greater understanding of the government’s long-term intentions in this area.
Although it will potentially open Rashford to criticism from some quarters that he is moving into more overtly political territory, there is strong public and cross-party support for retaining the uplift, as well as explicit backing from many of the charities involved in his End Child Food Poverty alliance.
One leading charity campaigner told the Guardian: “We’d welcome Marcus throwing his weight behind campaigning on universal credit. We’ve seen an outpouring of compassion and calls for justice responding to the light Marcus has thrown on hunger. Throughout the year he has talked about the need for long-term solutions and we couldn’t agree more.”
The 23-year-old’s own experience of poverty as a child growing in Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, has underpinned his campaigning, which has won widespread admiration for its authenticity and raised huge sums for food aid charities. Rashford also wants to see the free school meals system expanded to allow 1.5 million more children from low-income families to access it.
A majority of the public support a permanent rise for universal credit, according to a Health Foundation survey of 2,000 people carried out by Ipsos Mori in November. It found 59% supported making the increase permanent beyond April 2021. Among Conservative voters, 46% were in favour and 36% against.
A number of Conservative backbenchers and peers have joined Labour in calling publicly for the £20 top-up to be retained including former welfare secretaries Stephen Crabb and Sir Iain Duncan Smith. The chair of the Lords economic committee, Tory ex-cabinet minister Lord Forsyth, and leading Conservative anti-poverty campaigner Baroness Stroud have also called for it be made permanent.
The all-party parliamentary group on Poverty, co-chaired by Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake and the SNP’s Neil Gray, is to hold a short inquiry in January into the likely effects of abolishing the universal credit increase and the impact on about 2 million claimants – many of them disabled – who did not receive a Covid top-up because they were on legacy benefits.
The Department for Work and Pensions is to internally review the uplift in the new year as part of a routine review of wider “economic and health conditions” faced by low-income families. Coffey is understood to be sympathetic to retaining it, although the Treasury is reported to be far from enthusiastic.
The work and pensions secretary recently has held a series of inter-departmental meetings in Whitehall to discuss the impact of the pandemic on issues such as fuel and food poverty. She is said to be unhappy that so many claimants have lost the benefit of the £20 uplift because they face monthly universal credit deductions for historic tax credit overpayments.
The Lords economic affairs committee has called for £6bn of tax credit debts to be written off for people who have moved on to universal credit, arguing that by seeking these deductions the government was jeopardising the financial security of claimants.
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families through the pandemic and beyond. That’s why we have raised the living wage, boosted welfare support by billions of pounds and introduced a £170m Covid winter grant scheme to help children and families stay warm and well-fed during the coldest months.”
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