Frank Field: The universal credit debate will show who really runs this country
The government has so far avoided taking instructions from the Commons on the urgent need to reform universal credit. After Thursday, there will be nowhere for the government to run.
The universal credit innovation, rolling six means-tested benefits into one, is the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith. Introduced in 2013, it still has only 600,000 people claiming, with around 6.5m to go. It is beset with difficulties that knock claimants into hunger and occasionally to the brink of destitution.
The Tories haven’t been willing to support any move by Jeremy Corbyn to try to persuade the government to call a halt to this now speeded-up rollout to those 6.5m households, or to bring down the six-week wait that claimants must endure after registering before being paid their first universal credit instalment.
During those six weeks, claimants’ debts mount up as they have little — and soon no — money. The emergency loans offered by the government are inadequate in themselves, but that misses the point. These loans need to be paid back from the date claimants first get their universal credit payment, along with all the other debts they have acquired while waiting for that money. It is not uncommon for claimants to be waiting eight, ten or even twelve weeks for their first payment.
On Thursday, the government’s strategy of ignoring votes posed by the opposition by simply not turning up for them comes to an end. A cross-party group of MPs has tabled a motion demanding action and the debate will be focused on the work and pensions select committee’s first report on universal credit. The single recommendation calls for payments to be made no later than four weeks in the first instance.
With opposition MPs turning out, together with rebels on the Tory benches, the government will be heavily defeated. That’s why action is necessary in the budget to cut the six-week wait.
The budget statement also needs to commit the government to a process of continuous reform of a benefit that is now a main driver of destitution, creating situations where people have no food, no heating, no light, and risk losing their homes.
Payments for many of the low-paid will need to be offered fortnightly. Likewise, direct payment of housing costs to landlords must also be offered, particularly for the most vulnerable claimants.
In addition, claimants who are transferred from existing benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance, on to universal credit should be able to continue drawing their current benefits, including passported entitlements to free school meals for children and Healthy Start vouchers for babies, right up until their universal credit claim is paid.
Up to now, the government has resisted parliamentary control by running away from votes. The debate on the floor of the house on Thursday will be the first that begins to show how a minority government is directed by MPs of all parties.