In a symbolic victory against the government’s cruel and botched rollout of Universal Credit (UC) – which has seen thousands of families fall through the cracks, facing eviction and hunger as their payments are delayed – MPs last night (October 18) voted in favour of a Labour motion calling for the UC rollout to be halted.
Prime minister Theresa May faced a rebellion from her own Tory MPs after as many as two dozen threatened to vote in favour of the Labour motion which called on the government to ‘pause and fix’ the welfare reform.
In the end, one Conservative MP, chair of the health select committee Sarah Wollaston, voted with Labour, while all other Tory MPs abstained. The Labour motion was passed with a resounding vote in favour – 299 to 0.
The unanimous approval came as the government offered a key concession on Universal Credit only hours before – after mounting pressure from Labour, work and pensions secretary David Gauke announced yesterday morning (October 18) that the government would stop charging people who phone the UC helpline.
Before the concession, claimants – many of whom were faced with eviction or forced to go to food banks – were being charged 55p a minute to call the helpline.
‘Smart thing to do’
Tory MP Heidi Alexander, a prominent critic of Universal Credit, said that halting the rollout of the welfare reform to fix its design flaws was both “the smart thing” to do as well as “the compassionate thing to do.”
“To pull ourselves out of debt, we should not be forcing working families into it,” she argued.
After the vote, shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams MP welcomed that the Commons supported Labour’s call for a pause to Universal Credit.
“The government must now act on the clear instruction of Parliament, by bringing forward plans to pause and fix Universal Credit Full Service, before millions are pushed closer to poverty,” she said.
“MPs from all parties recognised that, while it is positive that the government has listened to Labour on the high cost of its helplines, this doesn’t go far enough,” she added.
“There remain very serious issues with the government’s flagship programme, not least the six week wait for payment following a claim. These are driving debt, arrears and even evictions.”
Indeed – despite continued denial from the prime minister and Gauke – evidence is mounting that Universal Credit is failing on multiple counts.
It is estimated that one in five Universal Credit claimants do not receive their payments on time. That the work and pensions secretary says emergency payments can be made as people wait misses the point – these emergency funds are actually loans that must be repaid by the claimant, in effect pushing families deeper and deeper into debt.
Heidi Allen reported that Jobcentre staff have said the architecture for Universal Credit is “only 60 per cent built” – with major problems plaguing the various payments UC rolls into one such as childcare payments, eligibility for free school meals, and housing payments.
Labour MP Neil Coyle said that in his constituency alone, UC claimants in arrears owed £5m in rent in total, with more than 1,000 households facing eviction.
Beyond problems with the rollout of Universal Credit itself, some have said that the redesign of welfare into UC, which was meant to ensure people are always better off working than on benefits, has turned into a mere cost-cutting exercise.
The Resolution Foundation think tank estimated last year that 1.2m families now receiving tax credits will not be eligible for any help under UC, leaving them £41 a week worse off; another 1.3m families who do qualify for UC will be £46 a week worse off.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner praised Labour for fighting to put a stop to Universal Credit.
“When even a significant number of Tory MPs have strongly voiced criticism of Universal Credit, then you know that the roll out is much worse than the government lets on,” he said. “Widespread delays to payments are unfair and cruel – thousands are facing evictions, hunger and cold because of an arbitrary six-week wait period that, in many cases, ends up being much longer.
“It is an outrage when we hear stories of a child searching in bins for food as her family waits for their Universal Credit payment,” Turner added. “This is unacceptable in the sixth richest nation in the world. The prime minister should stop playing power games and admit that the government’s policies have failed – people lives are hanging in the balance.
“We at Unite welcome Labour’s spirited fight against the injustice of Universal Credit – we urge all MPs regardless of party to stand behind Labour and continue putting pressure on the government to back down. This isn’t a party political issue anymore. It’s a human issue – a matter of basic human decency.”