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Labour calls for urgent reform of benefits system to keep workers affected by Covid-19 lockdown afloat

LABOUR has set out five urgent demands for changes to the benefits system to help families stay afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told the Star that many families will “risk being plunged into poverty” if benefits aren’t boosted.

Labour’s demands come after recent studies suggest that millions of workers, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries, will have been furloughed or made redundant.

The government has said that furloughed workers, the self-employed and those who have lost jobs due to lockdown measures imposed on March 23 would be “eligible for support through the welfare system, including universal credit (UC).”

Last week, Work & Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey announced that 1.4 million claims for UC have been made since mid-March — seven times the usual rate — along with another 200,000 for jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) or employment support allowance (ESA).

At the time of her announcement, just 360,000 of the UC claimants had received cash after applying for advance loans and others were still waiting due to the system’s inbuilt five-week wait for first payment.

Labour’s demands include converting the advances into grants and ending the five-week wait to stop people falling into debt.

It is also calling on the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) to remove the £16,000 savings limit that disqualifies individuals and couples who have saved at least that sum between them from claiming UC.

The party is also demanding that the two-child limit for families claiming UC and tax credits be abolished.

And people claiming legacy benefits such as JSA and ESA should get the same increases in payment as those on UC, Labour said.

On Sunday, a new study by the Institute for Social & Economic Research at the University of Essex suggested that a fifth of jobs — about 6.5 million — could be put on ice if the lockdown restrictions are further extended for months.

Researchers estimated that almost two million jobs in the wholesale and retail industry, 1.3 million jobs in hotels, pubs, restaurants and cafes, and a million more in the service sector are being lost.

They also suggested that 800,000 jobs in non-compulsory education such as those in nurseries have also gone.

A study by the Resolution Foundation suggests that almost half of the 3.3m-strong retail and hospitality workforce have been or will be furloughed.

Labour’s shadow work & pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds said: “The Covid-19 crisis is causing serious financial suffering for people and their families.

“At this stage, with no clear end to the lockdown, we must urgently find ways to strengthen the safety net so our society can emerge from the crisis with the least damage possible.

“While we welcome the government’s emergency measures so far, we do not believe they go far enough.

“By taking these additional steps immediately, we can prevent families and individuals from sliding further into hardship from which it will be extremely difficult to recover.”

Anita Bellows, researcher and member of Disabled People Against Cuts, said that Labour’s five demands would “go some way to alleviate hardship,” but that another big issue for disabled people is access to food and medication due to very high demand for home deliveries.

She added that the “too restrictive” definition of “extremely vulnerable,” which gives people priority access to supermarkets, should be extended to include disabled people unable to go out or who are more vulnerable to infections.

Ms O’Grady said: “It’s time to start a national conversation about how we repair Britain’s safety net and help those who fall on hard times to bounce back.”

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