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Defiant Newry, Mourne and Down councillors have demanded that Westminster abandon plans to end the Universal Credit uplift.

Slieve Gullion Councillor Pete Byrne, who brought the motion forward, warned current proposals would be “devastating” for people in the council area and would “push more people into poverty, increase reliance on food banks, and increase homelessness.”

Cllr Pete Byrne.
Cllr Pete Byrne.

The boost, which was put in place in response to the coronavirus crisis, is set to end this week leaving many facing a £1,000 annual benefit cut.

The motion from Cllr Byrne which was unanimously backed said:  “The Council calls on the Communities Minister, in the absence of any action from the Westminster government, to liaise with her colleague, the Finance Minister, to uphold this uplift for the remainder of the financial year and commit to expediting a long-term strategy to tackle the shameful levels of poverty and social deprivation across Newry, Mourne and Down.”

Councillor Aoife Finnegan lodged an amendment calling for the NI Executive, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to “continue to press the British government to retain this uplift.”

She added: “This uplift may not be much to people in Westminster who make decisions but it can be the difference between eating and paying for heating for some people.

“In Slieve Gullion where poverty levels are among the highest in [Northern Ireland], this will impact not just individual families but also on the local economy which is struggling to get back on its feet.”

Councillor Glyn Hanna said he was concerned that more people would have to turn to food banks if the “absolutely essential” uplift wasn’t retained.

He said: “It’s a cruel cut and it will be the low paid, single-parent families and vulnerable who will suffer as a result and that’s why I’m happy to support the motion.”

Meanwhile, Councillor Andrew McMurray said the cut would plunge 1,100 children into poverty overnight.

“It should be unacceptable that any child grows up in poverty,” Cllr McMurray said.

“This cut is wrong and will lead to hardship for households and will impact key workers and single parents. It will also have a knock-on effect on businesses as families reduce spending to manage the cut.”

Councillor David Taylor said it was “regrettable” that the government had made their decision.

He said: “We have seen over the last couple of months the increase in the cost of food, fuel and energy and there is a fear that is only going to continue in the months ahead.

“This decision will result in many households making unacceptable choices between heating and eating.

“People need support now and not at the end of a review and as a consequence of that I hope the Communities Minister can look at this with urgency.”

In a statement on the matter Newry and Armagh MLA Justin McNulty said that Ministers Deirdre Hargey & Conor Murphy must act to protect communities across the North from the imminent £20 weekly cut to Universal Credit. 

Mr. McNulty called on Finance Minister Conor Murphy to commit to funding the £20 a week for the rest of the financial year, the cost of which would be £55m, less than 0.5% of the Executive’s budget.   

The Newry & Armagh representative said “The Assembly spoke with one voice today in rejecting the callous cut to Universal Credit introduced by the Tory Government. Families across the North will be impacted by this cut of £1040 that was introduced to help families struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  

“The situation for many is now much worse than when this extra £20 a week was introduced. The economic fall-out from the pandemic is still ongoing, the cost of groceries and other essential products is only rising while utility prices have sky-rocketed in recent months. The amount it takes for people to get by has risen by much more than £20 a week. Many families will now be left with difficult decisions to make, particularly with added costs in the run-up to Christmas. 

“We have repeatedly called on the Tory Government to reverse their cruel decision to take this money away from the people that need it most, but unsurprisingly they have refused. The onus now falls on our local politicians to protect people here. Sinn Féin Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has the power to stop this cut. The SDLP fought hard to ensure that the Executive retained control of welfare powers when Sinn Féin MLAs were voting to hand them off to the Tories.  

"Minister Hargey needs to work with her Executive colleagues, particularly the Finance Minister, to secure the £55m needed to retain this money for the rest of the financial year. We must also see a long-term strategy from Minister Hargey to address the shameful levels of poverty across the North, which remain among the worst in Europe.”  

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