Universal credit: Tory ministers ordered to fix new welfare system after embarrassing defeat

The Independent - 16 Nov 2017

Ministers have been given four days to agree to cut long delays to universal credit payments, after an embarrassing defeat in the Commons.

MPs voted unanimously to slash the wait for a first payment from six weeks to four, after the Government refused to contest the controversy – knowing defeat was inevitable.

Conservative MPs joined with the opposition parties in pleading for an urgent rethink, one calling for tax cuts to be shelved in order to put the poor first.

Food bank organisers have ordered an extra 2,000 tonnes of food, to prepare for more people going hungry after moving onto universal credit, the Government was told.

There were also protests over cuts to the “work allowance” – the amount of earnings kept before claimants’ lose benefits – which has swiped more than £1,200 a year from many families.

But Damian Hinds, the benefits minister, refused to concede a climbdown, insisting the controversial benefit was working well and helping to improve lives. The vote itself is not binding.

An angry Frank Field, the Labour chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, immediately demanded that ministers explain, on Monday, how they intend to abide by the will of the Commons.

He said a cut to payments to four weeks was vital to give claimants a “slightly better Christmas” than they otherwise faced.

“The whole House has unanimously asked the Government to move. That’s what I want the Secretary of State to address on Monday,” Mr Field added.

A climbdown is widely expected before next Wednesday’s Budget, but only a cut to a five-week wait – which would not satisfy the motion passed.

During the debate, one Tory MP, Heidi Allen, called for cuts to the work allowance to be reversed by shelving income tax cuts from raising the personal allowance.

“Wouldn't it be better to focus that money on those that really need it,” she urged Mr Hinds.

Ms Allen suggested action was needed if the Government wanted to be seen as “compassionate Conservative”, adding: “Let's show we are listening. Please minister, let's do this.”

Fellow Tory Chris Green said: “I'm equally clear the initial wait must come down from six weeks to one month.”

And Mr Field added: “I have never more felt the inadequacies of the language that I have to try and tell the House what horror is happening now to a growing number of my constituents.”

The Government was also told to close a loophole that allowed a lettings agency to issue pre-emptive eviction notices to tenants ahead of the extension of universal credit.

A day earlier, Jeremy Corbyn showed a letter to the Prime Minister, revealing how the Lincolnshire agency was preparing to act, expecting the shake-up to trigger worse rent arrears.

It debate was staged by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which condemned the “acute financial difficulty” suffered by universal credit claimants in a damning report last month.

In response, Mr Hinds said the changes were the biggest modernisation of the benefits system in a generation and he was determined to get its rollout right

Rob Merrick, The Independent