The government is edging closer to a major U-turn on the universal credit benefits system, it has been claimed, as Conservative backbench critics of the policy said that they had been assured the government was listening to their concerns.
In what would mark a significant climbdown, Tory MPs hinted that the six-week wait for the benefit to be first paid could be reduced to a month despite Theresa May’s insistence on Wednesday that “it is a system that is working”.
Johnny Mercer, one of the Conservative MPs who met May to discuss worries about the rollout of the system, said he believed changes were coming. “I’m confident that this government is listening,” he told Sky News’s Sunday with Niall Paterson show. “If they weren’t I would say something about it.”
Welcoming the decision to scrap telephone helpline charges for claimants, he added: “If the government wasn’t working hard to make these adjustments, to make this actually work, I would say something about it. But that’s not the case – they have moved on this.”
Many of the worries about the rollout of universal credit have focused on the six-week initial wait for payment, which critics and charities say has made many families build up rent arrears and other debts.
The Department for Work and Pensions says people can be helped with advance payments, but has faced sustained pressure for the wait to be reduced to four weeks, including from a series of Tory MPs.
Stephen McPartland, another of the Conservative critics, said he believed they were “very, very close to getting a resolution” on the issue, with David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, finding it “very difficult to justify inside the parliamentary party why they need to defend a six-week wait”.
“I think people accept you have to be paid in arrears,” McPartland told BBC Radio 4’s Week In Westminster. “A lot of these people on universal credit will be in work so they will get paid in arrears themselves, so we would like to see it set down to four weeks, which is what you would have when you went into work and got a salary.”
Further criticism came on Sunday from the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said many families feared universal credit “because it seems to assume that everyone has a nest egg that will tide them over as they wait a minimum of 42 days for payouts”.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Sentamu, the second most senior figure in the Church of England, said: “That assumption is grotesquely ignorant, because millions of people, especially those in need of support, are already in debt and have nothing to fall back on.
“If their rental payments lapse, they are at risk of eviction. That means, in the case of families with young children, an additional burden for their local council, which is obliged to house them and whose resources are already stretched to breaking point.”
Labour has helped lead the opposition to the way universal credit is being extended across the country and is seeking a pause to the rollout so problems can be fixed.
After Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue of claimants being charged 55p a minute when calling a helpline on a mobile phone, Gauke announced last week that this line would be made free.
Later that day Labour inflicted a symbolic Commons defeat on the government with the passing of an opposition day motion calling for a pause in the rollout. It was passed by 299 votes to zero after government whips ordered Tory MPs to abstain.
The shadow pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said on Sunday that Labour absolutely supported the general idea behind universal credit, which is intended to help people on benefits get into work. But Labour sought more change than simply a reduction in the waiting time, Abrahams told ITV’s Peston on Sunday show.
She said: “We asked for a number of things. Definitely, a reduction to four weeks would be a huge advantage. But I also asked for alternative pay arrangements which include, for example, that if somebody wanted to be paid fortnightly, if they want the housing element to be paid directly to the landlord, they could.”
A government spokeswoman said ministers were “determined to ensure that people joining universal credit don’t face hardship”, and had improved the advance payment system.
She said: “As repeated this week, we will continue to monitor and take any actions if necessary. But no decisions or announcements on any further actions are imminent.”
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