PM will not delay Universal Credit roll-out despite symbolic Commons defeat

Theresa May will not delay the roll-out of Universal Credit despite Labour winning a House of Commons vote calling for a pause in the introduction of the flagship benefit reform.

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The Prime Minister was facing a revolt by Tory MPs and a concession was made hours before the vote as ministers announced the scrapping of controversial charges of up to 55p a minute to call a UC helpline.

The move appeared to please potential rebels but Mrs May still ordered her MPs to abstain, as they did when facing probable defeat on similar non-binding Labour motions on NHS pay and university tuition fees in September.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

But Commons Speaker John Bercow said the Tories could not "suddenly say we didn't lose" after Labour's 299-0 victory just because they did not take part.

The result is a fresh sign of the minority Government's vulnerability to protests from a relatively small number of MPs and its tactics caused disquiet among so-called "constitutional Tories".

Sir Edward Leigh questioned the point of the Commons if it merely expresses opinions "for the sake of it".

He said he had trooped through the lobbies to vote on hundreds of divisions on Wednesdays over 34 years as an MP, and that he was "under the impression that it served some purpose".

"And what worries me is that surely there is some sort of precedent here," he told MPs after the vote.

"This is not and should not be a university debating society, what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it and surely when we vote it should have some effect?"

A senior Labour source had earlier described the tactic as "a sign of the paralysis and failure of the Government" after it emerged that Tory MP Douglas Ross would not even be present because he was due to run the line as assistant referee in a Champions League football match in Barcelona.

Several Tory MPs used the opposition day debate to highlight UC's problems such as claimants having to wait six weeks for payments, which has been linked to rent arrears and other debts.

But only the respected Commons Health Committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston voted with Labour after warning ministers they need to address the "fundamental flaw" of the six-week wait.

Heidi Allen, who was among a group of potential rebels invited to Downing Street for talks with the Prime Minister on Tuesday, suggested introducing fortnightly payments and sending housing payments straight to landlords.

The backbencher said she was disappointed the Government did not pause the roll-out while some of the issues were resolved but said it was "too ambitious to expect a response just yet".

He colleague Peter Aldous said ministers must be "pragmatic and not dogmatic" while Stephen Kerr suggested the Government should "reflect" on the six-week wait for first payments.

Earlier, Mrs May clashed with Jeremy Corbyn over the issue at Prime Minister's Questions.

The Labour leader, who highlighted the helpline charges in the Commons last week, called for a delay to the roll-out of UC telling the PM: "The fundamental problems of Universal Credit remain. The six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions."

But Mrs May replied: "It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace. It is a system that is working because more people are getting into work."

Their clash came after Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke said the 0345 number for the UC hotline would be free of charge by the end of the year.

The move was welcomed by charities although they warned the Government would need to go further to fully address problems with the system.

Appearing before the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Mr Gauke also said 81% of UC claimants were now receiving their benefits in full within six weeks and 96% within 10 weeks.

He was also "keen" for more claimants to apply for cash advances which are available to cover the waiting period.

But after hearing Mr Gauke's evidence, committee chairman Frank Field said the six-week wait "does not work" adding that the cash advances were a "sticking plaster".

"I remain bemused as to how the DWP can proceed with accelerating this mega-reform without basic data about long waits for payment or the effects of UC on rent arrears and food bank use, all while thinking up fixes for free school meals, the self-employed and renters on the fly," he said.