Tom Richmond: Dodging urgent questions on Universal Credit '“ Esther McVey and Tories now need urgent answers

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey arrives in Downing Street.Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey arrives in Downing Street.
Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey arrives in Downing Street.
EVEN though Esther McVey is one of just two Cabinet Ministers to represent Northern constituencies, I'm afraid she's indicative of everything that is wrong with this Government.

She’s one of a triumvirate of Ministers – the others being Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt – reportedly on the brink of resigning over Theresa May’s approach to Brexit. So much for Cabinet collective responsibility.

Yet all this plotting over pizzas has come at the expense of Ms McVey’s day job as Work and Pensions Secretary which, frankly, is going as badly as the PM’s negotiations with Brussels.

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Cartoonist Graeme Bandeira's latest depiction of Brexit.Cartoonist Graeme Bandeira's latest depiction of Brexit.
Cartoonist Graeme Bandeira's latest depiction of Brexit.

Far from fronting up about the difficulties facing Universal Credit after letting slip that this key welfare reform, and driver of social mobility, could make many recipients worse off, she’s done the precise opposite.

She’s declined to do interviews on a number of current affairs shows, notably Radio 4’s Today programme, and was not present in the Commons on Tuesday to answer an urgent question on delays to the rollout of this flagship policy which will, in theory, simplify the welfare system and incentivise the long-term unemployed to find work.

Ms McVey will, in fairness, argue that she fronted up in Parliament 24 hours later when Labour held a backbench debate on Universal Credit – and that many of the problems can be traced back to George Osborne’s decision, when Chancellor, to withdraw £2bn of funding which would have helped to smooth the policy’s implementation.

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Of course, there’s the irony that Ms McVey succeeded Mr Osborne as MP for Tatton. But the decision of Cabinet Ministers to dodge Urgent Questions in Parliament does them no favours whatsoever. A trend started by Gordon Brown when Chancellor, and then followed by Mr Osborne, it has accelerated under this Government with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling being one of the worst offenders.

Racing legends Michael, Tom and Peter Scudamore feature in a new book called Three of a Kind which charts the sport of horse racing.Racing legends Michael, Tom and Peter Scudamore feature in a new book called Three of a Kind which charts the sport of horse racing.
Racing legends Michael, Tom and Peter Scudamore feature in a new book called Three of a Kind which charts the sport of horse racing.

The clue is in the word ‘urgent’. When something goes awry, it is a Cabinet Minister’s duty to set out the Government’s position. Yet, while Ms McVey was in Westminster on Tuesday, Alok Sharma, the Minister of Employment, was totally out of his depth as he fended off questions from the veteran MP Frank Field, who heads the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and others.

Perhaps, if Ms McVey focused on the day job, and answered questions about the policy and problems she inherited when appointed earlier this year, people might have more time for her.

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Not doing so simply plays into the hands of those who believe that the Conservatives are simply interested in cutting benefits – and not reforming it to give more opportunities to the most disadvantaged. And that view is likely to do far more damage to the Tories in the North at the next election, when it comes, than Brexit.

EVEN though Brexit is supposed to be about Parliamentary sovereignty, Britain now has a part-time House of Commons because of the paralysis at Westminster.

It meant the Commons adjourned at 7.23pm on Monday, less than five hours after the session began, when Ministers withdrew the Offensive Weapons Bill because they feared a rebellion by Brexiteers if the measures were put to a vote. This is a piece of legislation that would ban the possession of some corrosive substances in a public place and their sale to under 18s; the delivery of knives and corrosives bought online to residential addresses; and the possession of zombie knives, knuckle-dusters and rapid firing rifles. What hope is there when public safety can’t be debated because Brexit has become so toxic? After all, violent crime is on the rise.

JUDGING by the response to last week’s column, it appears readers are divided over whether Boris Johnson or Jose Mourinho is the more tedious. Yet many also have no time for Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster and David Davis over Brexit.

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It was Mr Davis who urged Theresa May to call last year’s snap election that left the Tories at the mercy of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. Now he’s urging Cabinet Ministers to rebel against the PM. And still some think the Haltemprice and Howden MP would make a better leader. I don’t think so.

TRANSPORT Focus – one of the industry’s watchdogs – is due to host a major event in Manchester next month to give passengers a chance to challenge rail chiefs about this year’s disruption.

However I see the advertised speakers do not include TransPennine Express managing director Leo Goodwin or his representative. It’s either an oversight – or they can’t guarantee getting there on time.

Or they don’t want to face residents of Slaithwaite where six out of 12 trains from the station were cancelled at one point on Monday. Given how services on the trans-Pennine line remain a lottery, MPs from all affected constituencies now need to come together – and force a Commons debate – so Ministers are forced to intervene. No ifs, no buts.

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WHEN former champion jump jockey Peter Scudamore says his proudest possession of any family member is a letter commending his grandfather Geoffrey’s bravery after a doomed mission from RAF Lissett in the Second World War saw him captured, and held prisoner by the Nazis, it’s why the new book on this racing dynasty, The Scudamores: Three of a Kind, and featured in The Yorkshire Post earlier this week, is so heart-warming inspirational.

GEOGRAPHY is not the strongest point of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who sent a missive this week about a forthcoming event at ‘Yorkshire Racecourse’. They were taken aback to learn that there are, in fact, nine tracks here.