Some 280,000 people in Wales could lose "lifeline" funding as the UK government prepares to axe a pandemic-inspired benefits boost.

Since March 2020, Universal Credit claimants have been receiving an extra £20 a week to help them mitigate the financial impact of Covid-19.

Despite calls to make the uplift permanent, chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed recently that it would be scrapped this autumn as it had always been intended as a temporary measure.

A Senedd committee has joined with its Holyrood, Stormont and Westminster equivalents to write to Sunak and UK pensions secretary Therese Coffey, urging them to “take seriously our view that the uplift should be extended”.

The £20 increase in the Universal Credit payments has been a “a lifeline for millions of families, saving them from being impoverished”, they argued.

Government figures show the number of people claiming Universal Credit has rocketed since the pandemic began.

Data from the Department of Work and Pensions shows that in May, there were more than 280,000 Universal Credit claimants in Wales.

That figure has more than doubled since February 2020 – shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit – when there were around 130,000 people in Wales claiming the benefit.

In some more rural regions, the number of people claiming has more than doubled during the pandemic. Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Gwynedd, Monmouthshire, Powys and Ynys Môn (Anglesey) have all seen Universal Credit claims increase two-fold since last February.

Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts told parliament this week the £20 uplift had been "a step in the right direction to bolster incomes from the effects of the pandemic" but had fallen short of protecting all families, with more than 26,000 Welsh households still unable to meet costs.

Modelling suggested that figure would rise to more than 47,000 Welsh households once the £20 uplift was removed, she told MPs during a debate on child poverty in Wales.

"Not only is the removal of the uplift utterly damaging to children, it makes little economic sense. Rather than pulling the rug out from under people midway through the year, retaining the uplift permanently would help secure the UK’s family safety net and boost consumer spending in Wales, aiding the long-term economic recovery," she added.

Pensions minister Will Quince countered that nation, saying it was "right that we (the UK government) now focus on our multibillion pound plan for jobs, which will support people in the long term by helping them learn new skills and increase their hours or find more work". 

Opposition politicians, union leaders and anti-poverty campaigners have all been urging ministers to make the increase to the benefit payment permanent, and their calls have been echoed by some in Boris Johnson's own party.

Six former Conservative work and pensions secretaries have written to the UK government to urge ministers to rethink the contentious cut, which is likely to impact nearly six million people across the four nations.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, one of the signatories, said failure to retain the uplift could damage living standards, health and opportunities for struggling families.

And charities say permanently boosting the benefit, worth up to around £1,000 a year, would help to provide financial security and prevent households being plunged into poverty.

Anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation described the impending end of the uplift as a "terrible mistake" that would push half a million people below the breadline.

Iain Porter, of the JRF, said: “Social security should be a strong lifeline to protect families from harm and open up options when they hit hard times.

"It’s not too late for ministers to do the right thing by keeping the £20 increase to Universal Credit and extending it to legacy benefits.

"This would enable low-income families in and out of work to live with dignity rather than intensifying their hardship.”

Paul Spencer, from mental health charity Mind, said the cuts, coupled with the "mental health consequences of the pandemic", could have a significant and long-term impact, adding: "The benefits system should protect us when our mental or physical health prevents us from earning enough to live on.

"Too many people are already struggling to stay afloat with the current rate, so it’s appalling that the UK government is planning to cut it at this time.

"We must keep the lifeline."

The introduction of Universal Credit in 2012 followed a radical overhaul of the UK's welfare system that saw six benefits axed in favour of a single payment model designed to help those looking for work or on a low income.

A UK government spokesperson said: “Universal Credit has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the pandemic, and we announced the temporary uplift as part of a £400 billion package of measures put in place that will last well beyond the end of the roadmap.

“Our focus now is on our multi-billion pound Plan for Jobs, which will support people in the long-term by helping them learn new skills and increase their hours or find new work.”

Additional reporting by Joanna Morris, data reporter for the Radar news service.

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