PROTESTERS gathered outside Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Northallerton office to express their anger over the axing of the £20 Universal Credit uplift.

The action, organised by Unite, saw members and constituents of the MP’s Richmondshire ward deliver a letter calling on the government to reverse the decision.

They say the removal of the £20 per week uplift will hit the poorest in society and is in stark constraint to the Chancellor currently planning to build a swimming pool, tennis courts and gym at his home near Northallerton.

One protestor, who lives in Rishi Sunak’s constituency but did not want to be named, attended the protest dressed in a swimming costume as a cheeky nod to the Chancellor’s pool plans.

Kerry Wilks, a 39-year-old widow with three children aged 8, 13 and 15, branded the government’s decision to claw back £80 per month from Universal Credit claimants as 'morally wrong'.

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The Middlesbrough mum said she has a feeling of 'dread' knowing her benefit will be cut and believes that rhetoric around claimants being lazy or unwilling to work has created a toxic environment.

She said: "The government are treating them (claimants) as if they don't want to work but many of them do.

The Northern Echo:

Gail Ward from the Hand to Mouth charity

"The abuse I have had is unbelievable, people telling me to get a job, or 'don't breed if you can't feed', well, I'm a widow so I haven't had any choice in that, and I’m also a carer for my disabled son.

"The government is putting it as if a lot of people on Universal Credit are unemployed, but it's not always the case; they can be carers, working part-time, on zero hours contracts - Universal Credit doesn't let you sit at home doing nothing."

Gail Ward from Hexham runs the Hands to Mouth charity which helps people on benefits navigate the complicated welfare system.

She says she knows of nurses, pensioners and single mothers who are already relying on food banks and can’t possibly afford a cut of around £80 per month to their benefits.

She said: “My experience is that a £20 (per week) cut means whether they can put their electric or gas on or buy a meal.

“I know plenty of people that are already eating cold food out of tins or sitting in the dark every night because they can’t afford to put the electric on because they need to buy food.”

She added: “This £20 cut is going to put so many people into poverty and I mean abject poverty, destitution even.”

Former North West Durham Labour MP Laura Pidcock spoke passionately to the campaigners, saying: "This is about working class solidarity; knowing that in this system any one of us are a few decisions away from poverty."

She said it is a ‘false argument’ to claim that the government has make the benefit cut to claw money back due to the economic impact of the Covid pandemic.

 “This is a political decision that they have made about what kind of social care system they want,” she said.

“They don’t believe in using the state as a means to support people.

“We have seen that they can use the Treasury to support big business and the infrastructure that serves wealthy people, but they are very much prepared to inflict harm on working class people.”

Ruth Greenwood, 58, from Saltburn runs a clothing bank in Middlesbrough and said that before the pandemic lockdown, they would see 60 people through the door within one hour of opening.

The Northern Echo:

Kerry Wilks delivers the letter to Rishi Sunak's office

She said she was 'at the coalface' of people's financial struggles, adding: "I am here today because a lot of our members in our Teesside and Durham Unite Community branch are in receipt of Universal Credit and I have seen what it does to them.

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"It makes the difference between getting the food in or paying gas and electric bills."

Unite Community organiser for Yorkshire and the North-East, Heather Blakey, said the fact that Mr Sunak is planning to make lavish improvements to his home ‘adds insult to injury’ to the scores of vulnerable people who will suffer from the benefits cut.

She added: “I would say to him and the members of this ridiculous government; Could you live on £70 per week?

“Nearly 50 per cent of Universal Credit claimants are working and of the people not working, 75 per cent are on it for less than a year – it really is a stop-gap.”

A government spokesperson from Rishi Sunak's parliamentary team said: “We’ve always been clear that the uplift to Universal Credit was temporary and designed to help people through the toughest stages of the pandemic.

"Now as the economy recovers it is right to focus on getting people into work and the economy back on track.

“Our £400bn Plan for Jobs, which has already supported 36,000 jobs in York and 12 million across the UK, is giving people the skills and opportunities they need to get back into work, progress their careers and earn more.”

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