A CONSERVATIVE council has been accused of undermining efforts to protect children during the pandemic after seeing off calls to pressure the government to lift controversial limits on benefits.

Following a lengthy debate over Universal Credit, 27 of the 50 members of Darlington Borough Council voted in favour of a motion to highlight to vulnerable residents of Darlington that they should apply to the Hardship Fund, the Crisis Fund and the recently funded Food Poverty provision.

The council also approved writing to the Secretary of State for work and Pensions to request that families who find themselves in need of Universal Credit received their first payment straightaway rather than going deeper into debt.

The decision followed an original motion on the issue by Labour councillor Cyndi Hughes, which featured calls to suspend the two-child limit on Universal Credit and tax credits, the benefit cap for all families and increase child benefit by £10 a week, being voted down.

Cllr Hughes said child poverty had been a growing issue in the borough before the pandemic, with an estimated 1,200 Darlington families and 3,900 Darlington children being hit by the two-child limit, and there was strong evidence the situation had got much worse recently.

Supporting her motion, Green Party group leader Councillor Matthew Snedker said: “Over the last four months we have seen a level of state intervention with no parallel in peacetime history of this country and now is the perfect time to raise our ambition, not to cut off this support. We can’t worry that people might get addicted to support.”

However, the authority’s leader, Councillor Heather Scott, told the meeting she wanted to do something immediate to alleviate poverty for Darlington residents, and she would use the money given to it through government funds.

Cllr Scott said some of the proposals in the motion were national issues, rather than ones, and were long-term concerns for parliament to examine rather than ones in which the council should become involved.

She said: “I would suggest that the Labour group lobby with your local MPs. I realise you have fewer now, but the former Darlington MP and I understand one of your councillors works with your party leader. They should use those positions in parliament to good effect.”

Cllr Scott said the best way to deal with child poverty would be to support the authority in its economic development plans to attract new businesses and jobs to the town.

Members of the Labour group voiced their dismay, saying Cllr Hughes’ motion had been “neutered” by the Tories’ changes and “let down families in Darlington that were doing their best to provide for their children”.

Councillor Nick Wallis said the Conservatives had “turned a hard, flinty face to some of the most disadvantaged people in our community”.