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£20 a week Universal Credit cut likely to mean half a million households struggling to meet daily expenses, says UN poverty envoy

17 September 2021

Cutting Universal Credit by £20 a week is an “unconscionable” move that breaches international human rights law and is likely to trigger an explosion of poverty, the United Nations’ envoy on extreme poverty has said.

In a letter to the UK Government the UN envoy, Olivier De Schutter, says that there are indications that the proposed October cut is likely to leave millions of Universal Credit claimants struggling to meet their daily expenses:

“According to a recent survey, almost half of Universal Credit recipients indicated that they would not be able to live on a budget with £20 less per week. 61 per cent of respondents said it
would be harder to afford food, while 48 per cent indicated that it would be harder to cover essential bills after the cut.

Many low- income families and individuals have described the uplift as “ a lifeline ” . One civil society organization has estimated that if the proposed cut is implemented, it would plunge half a million low- income households into poverty, including 200,000 children.”

Mr. Schutter says that without a detailed impact assessment showing otherwise, it is “prima facie doubtful” that removal of the £20 uplift conforms to international human rights law.

He highlights that the UK is a State Party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

This treaty requires that the introduction of measures that are  retrogressive, affecting the realization or implementation of the rights protected - including the right to an adequate standard of living -  be "fully justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant and in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources".

The UN envoy says that the UK Government may wish to reconsider the proposed cut, since it is prima facie doubtful whether the removal of the £20 uplift is a measure that conforms to ICESCR standards:

Whether or not it is in conformity would require a detailed impact assessment of the proposed cut. This would include, but not limited to:

  • carefully identifying who will be affected by the cut and how it will affect their standard of living;
  • examining whether affected families and individuals will be guaranteed of an adequate standard of living and social protection after the cut; and
  • exploring whether alternative and less restrictive measures could be implemented.

Mr Schutter adds that once such an impact assessment is made, he would encourage it being made to make it publicly available and consult with affected families and individuals and wider civil society in order to hear their views and duly take them into account in decision-making processes.

He concludes by asking the UK Government respond to him with the following:

  • any additional information and/or comment(s) you may
    have on the above- mentioned situation;
  • how the proposed removal of the uplift to Universal Credit is compatible under international human rights law, especially
    the rights to social security and an adequate standard of living, as well as the general prohibition against retrogressive measures; and
  • information on any impact assessment or analysis of the proposed cut the UK Government has carried out.

The UN's envoy's letter to the UK Government is available from ohchr.org.