Boris Johnson is under pressure to increase benefit payments, after MPs backed plans to make the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit permanent.
Labour’s plan, backed in a non-binding Commons vote on Monday night, would see the benefit uplift – worth £1,000 a year to low-income families – extended beyond its current March 31 cut-off.
Work and pensions minister Will Quince said more clarity on the national economic picture is needed before the government can commit to additional support.
He said: “I hear the calls from the party opposite for a decision now on whether universal credit and the uplift is continued post-April.
“I have sympathy with the argument that it would give claimants certainty. However, one of the evident features of a pandemic is uncertainty.
“The reality is, we simply do not know what the landscape will look like and that is why it’s right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic and social picture before assessing the best way to support low-income families moving forward.”
The prime minister ordered Tory MPs to abstain on Labour’s motion, something the SNP were quick to seize upon.
The party’s shadow welfare minister, Neil Gray, said: “It is shameful that the Scottish Tories are voting against Scotland’s interests, yet again, by abstaining on Boris Johnson’s plan to cut universal credit for six million people.
“This proves that the Tories cannot be trusted to stand up for families in Scotland.
“By slashing social security payments by £1,000 a year, in the middle of an economic crisis, the Tories will push millions of families further into hardship and poverty.”
The Scottish Tories pointed out that they have argued for the uplift to continue for months.
Party leader Douglas Ross said: “The Scottish Conservatives have argued for months that the universal credit uplift, which has helped nearly half a million people across Scotland alone, should continue.
“The Labour Party business will not achieve that, and we can see this is already being used as a political stunt, which helps no one.
“We will continue to engage constructively with the UK Government and we hope the upcoming budget will see a positive outcome from our lobbying.
“We have also urged the SNP to bring forward free school meals for all primary pupils in Scotland this year. In December the Scottish Parliament backed our motion to deliver that policy and only the SNP refused to support it.”
Defining decision for parliament
The Resolution Foundation has warned that scrapping the £20-a-week uplift will lead to a particularly tough 2021 for low-income households, whose incomes could fall by 4%.
The think tank estimated that the withdrawal of the benefit increase would drive up relative poverty from 21% to 23% by 2024-25, pushing a further 730,000 children into poverty.
Karl Handscomb, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Deciding if the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit should be extended will determine whether millions of households are able to enjoy any sort of living standards recovery next year.
“And looking further ahead, the decision on whether to keep the UC boost will help define whether this is to be a parliament of ‘levelling up’ living standards, or pushing up poverty.”