Two former Labour councillors won the support of a majority of their fellow councillors in calling for the government to keep the £20 boost to universal credit.
Independents Nikkie Brennan and Kate Knight secured the backing of Labour and Green members of Brighton and Hove City Council.
They called on council chief executive Geoff Raw to write to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to keep the £20 extra benefits payment.
It was brought in for low and middle-income families in the spring as part of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At a virtual meeting of the full council on Thursday (17 October), Councillor Brennan cited figures from the Trussell Trust.
They indicated that the number of people claiming benefits in Brighton and Hove had risen by 20,000 from April to November.
Councillor Brennan said that people in her East Brighton ward had told her that they were the using the money for things like extra fuel costs, face masks, hand sanitiser and vitamins.
She said: “This money is now included in people’s weekly budget in this time of mass employment and the price of food and other essentials rising because of Brexit.
“The government needs to be pressured not to take this money away. How, during this extreme time of poverty, how can the government justify taking away money from people who desperately need it?”
She and Councillor Knight also want the government to extend the payment to people who receive other benefits.
Councillor Knight, who represents Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, said that allowing the poorest to keep the £20 was the right thing financially and morally.
She said that a survey of families using the Moulsecoomb Community Market found that 80 per cent had less than £60 a week to spend on food.
Forty per cent had less than £20 a week, she added, averaging out at about £1.89 per person per day.
Councillor Knight said: “Yes, it’s above my pay grade, but the motion is my way of saying to the Chancellor, ‘We see you Mr Sunak, with your comfortable life and accrued fortunes and talk of levelling up and how we’re all in this together.’
“But more importantly, for me as a socialist, it says to those people in Brighton and Hove, struggling day in and day out to keep their heads above water, the key workers who cannot live on their wages, the elderly, the recently unemployed, the disabled and sick, ‘We see you. You’re not forgotten. And we stand alongside you and will do whatever we can to help you.’”
Green councillor David Gibson said that the issue was relevant because many people lived in hardship.
He said: “I want to draw people’s attention to ‘universal basic incomes’, which almost happened in America in the ’60s and has been successfully trialled. It would be brilliant to trial it here.
“I really believe it offers a much better approach to supporting people on low or small incomes. Spending money is community wealth building and good for the economy.
“Government should concentrate on tax evasion, on those who aren’t spending money.”
Labour councillor Amanda Evans said that the extra £20 added on to universal credit was an admission that the benefit had been too low.
She said: “With the extraordinary double whammy represented by the mishandling of the entire covid response – where we were going to ‘take it on the chin’ and consequently be ‘superheroes of capitalism’ but ended up with both the worst death rate and the most damaged economy in Europe – and the likely jump-off-a-cliff-Brexit that all the leading Leave campaigners swore would never happen because it would be so disastrous, we are likely to see hardship on a level that dwarfs the last decade, even perhaps a level not seen since the 1930s.
“I sincerely hope I’m proved wrong about all that, by the way, but the signs look pretty ominous.”
Rottingdean Coastal ward councillor Bridget Fishleigh said councillors should focus on what the council could do to meet people’s needs locally rather than grandstanding on national and international issues.
Before abstaining from the vote, she said: “During this, I’ve been organising our local food bank Christmas gifts from everyday food so I’m not talking any lectures from anybody about how much I care.
“The point I was making is that no one in government is interested in what Councillor Brennan and Councillor Knight have got to say.”
Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth said that his party would not join in the debate.
He said: “It is disappointing to many that rather than use this precious time in the chamber as it were to debate policy and subject matter over which the council has control, the coalition wishes to distract from its failings by dabbling in national matters that their MPs are paid to deal with.
“When the subject is about the administration and opposition running the city, we will join the debate.”
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