Thousands of Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde families could be affected by Universal Credit cut

The £20-weekly cut to Universal Credit (UC) will impact thousands of Fylde coast children when it happens this week, as families battle the loss of the benefit alongside rising energy, fuel and food costs.

By Rebecca Beardmore
Monday, 4th October 2021, 12:32 pm

There were more than 1.8 million households containing around 3.4 million children claiming UC as of May 2021, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

In Blackpool alone, there are up to 9,000 families claiming the benefit - equating to 10 per cent of the working population and the third highest number of claimants in England and Wales.

More than 16,000 people in Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre applied for Universal Credit between March and May 2020, amid a nationwide surge in demand for financial support as the Covid crisis struck.

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Aimee Leahy with her daughters Ezmarae, eight months, and Astarlah, two. Pic: Daniel Martino/JPI Media

But the temporary £20-a-week uplift, introduced to help claimants weather the storm of the pandemic and described as a “lifeline," is to be phased out from October 6.

Despite the uplift having always been touted as temporary, the cut will force thousands of families in the resort into worsening financial situations.

An increase in prices for other expenses paired with the cut will throw many households into turmoil, as they are forced to fork out more money - but have less coming in.

The so-called fuel and gas crises have seen petrol, diesel and energy prices soar in recent weeks.

Aimee said the upcoming cut to Universal Credit will cause more financial difficulties for her family, despite her partner working full-time. Pic: Daniel Martino/JPI Media

Food prices could also be set to rise later this year, as a result of the shortage of lorry drivers and imported food checks, experts warned.

Retail analysts Verdict Research also found food price rises of meat and fish rocketed by almost 23 per cent, and fruit and vegetables increased by 14,7 per cent.

Rising bills and falling income could prove to have severe consequences for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Aimee Leahy, 38, of Crescent Avenue in Anchorsholme, is a mum of four children aged six and under, and is unable to work due to health issues.

Volunteers at food bank The Pantry in Fleetwood are expecting an increase in the number of residents using the service after Universal Credit is cut by £20 a week. Pic: Daniel Martino/JPI Media

Her youngest child is just eight months old, and despite her partner working full-time at a waste management service in South Shore, Aimee relies on a top-up of Universal Credit each month.

"My partner works full time but he doesn't earn enough, so we get UC as a top-up. He loves his job which is what really matters, I suppose," Aimee said.

"But after this £20 a week is cut again from UC we will be left with £294 a month. We need that to buy food and anything for the children.

"My youngest children aren't eligible for any of the childcare element of it, so we get nothing for them. My eldest child who is six wants to go to a football club, but we can't afford to let him go.

Allan MacFarlane, volunteer at The Pantry. Pic: Daniel Martino/JPI Media

"It's £33 a month - and we can't afford it. With that money, I have to pay for nursery for my two-year-old, because she isn't entitled to any free childcare. She needs to go, it's not good for her mental health to be at home all day. But we have to choose where to spend that money.

"Children don't stop growing - they need feeding. Now that it's coming to winter, they're going to want to be at home more which means they eat more and the heating will be on more. But our energy bills rose by over £100 a month a few weeks ago. Luckily we managed to get it swapped to somewhere a bit cheaper, but everything is going up and we're getting less money towards it all.

"I had to use a food bank at the kids' school not long ago, and even though I was getting ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) for my health before UC, I've had to look for night jobs.

"But we've worked out that even with me working, we'd be almost £50 a month worse off. It's just so unfair."

Other Fylde coast parents also voiced concerns about how the removal of the benefit uplift will affect them.

Trish Bridges said: "I'm relying on food banks a lot to see us through. Can't work with four kids, I'm a single parent. I hate relying on benefits but unfortunately working won't work for me as I'd be paying more in childcare."

Volunteer at The Pantry, Julie Simkiss. Pic: Daniel Martino/JPI Media

Susan Skidmore, who hoped to be able to afford to move to Blackpool one day, said: "[It] means I will be losing £85 a month, I am trying my hardest to find a job and applying for everything and anything, but will probably have to sell my car."

As the cut threatens to plunge families deeper into hardship, rising numbers of food bank users are of concern in one of Wyre's most deprived towns.

Many Fleetwood residents are sadly no stranger to The Pantry, home of Fleetwood Food Bank and The Mustard Seed, delivered by the town’s Church of England and Catholic parishes under the banner of Faith in the Community.

Father John Hall, from St Peter's Church, said he was concerned that more people would need to turn to the Pantry's resources after the £20-weekly amount is banished.

"We serve around 200 people weekly at the moment, and at the start of the pandemic we were feeding 1,600 people a week. We're more than capable of dealing with the demand for the food bank, but I do think there will be more people coming to us again.

"The thing is, if I'm being honest, when you're poor, you don't get poorer. You're just poor. But we are certainly getting ready for numbers increasing because of the reduction in UC.

"We have single people in Fleetwood on UC who will be living on just £50 or less a week after this."

Catherine Farley, a teacher at Boundary Primary School in Grange Park, said the school was already working with underprivileged families, so the support and resources families may need to cope with ailing finances were already in place.

"Working in Grange Park, we're of course going to see the effects of a cut to UC," Ms Farley said.

"It's a deprived area, but these families are deprived anyway whether they've got the extra £20 or not. They are used to dealing with deprivation and we already have the support in place to help.

"Schools everywhere are also already working on catch-up programmes for children after lockdown, and teachers are so busy but it's what we do, it's what we deal with every day."

Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, said the Government needed to "see sense" and scrap plans to take away the uplift ahead of a planned protest against the cut in Lancaster. She said: "I will be running the London Marathon on October 2 in support of Morecambe Bay Foodbank so won’t be able to join the protest, but I will be there in spirit.

"I fear the removal of the £20 uplift will drive many more people to the foodbank as it forces them to make impossible choices – either feeding their kids or heating their homes this winter.

"This cruel decision by the Tory government will be devastating for so many families in the district."

However, Tory MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys Paul Maynard agreed with Miss Smith, and said the uplift should remain in place.

He said: “I understand the challenges many individuals and families in Blackpool North and Cleveleys face and how important the Universal Credit uplift has been to them. I have previously made clear to Ministers my view the uplift should remain to support families impacted by the pandemic.

“At the same time, however, I realise the uplift does not work for everyone, particularly those on legacy benefits which is why I have encouraged the Government to explore alternative mechanisms to support the financial resilience of local people.

“This includes the broader use of Local Welfare Assistance Schemes, on which I put forward a 10 Minute Rule Bill and long-term funding for the hugely important holiday activity and food programme."