Prime Minister Theresa May was facing the very real prospect of a backbench rebellion from her own MPs last night, as news broke that a dozen Tory MPs have written to the Work and Pensions Secretary calling for a pause in the roll-out of Universal Credit.
The flagship welfare reform has so far only been rolled out in around five areas per month, but controversial Government plans will see the new benefit reach fifty areas per month from October this year.
Universal Credit merges six social security benefits and tax credits into one single monthly payment, but it’s roll-out has been beset with delays and other problems since its introduction by former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who resigned his position after the government proposed severe cuts to parts of the new scheme.
Now a backbench rebellion led by Tory MP Heidi Allen, supported by one of Mr Duncan Smith’s former aides, Andrew Selous, threatens the continued roll-out of the new system, which DWP ministers argue rewards those who move into work and has been more successful in delivering this outcome that the benefits it’s replacing.
It is believed that twelve Tory MPs have signed a letter sent to DWP boss, David Gauke MP, citing concerns over delays in Universal Credit payments, including a minimum six week wait before claimants receive an initial payment.
This could potentially lead to the Government being forced to rethink its plans if Labour, or another party, decide to force a vote on the issue in the House of Commons.
The call echos those made by numerous charities and a growing number of MPs from across the political spectrum, who warn that claimants are being pushed into poverty and debt and left at risk of becoming homeless.
Citizens Advice recently warned that plans to accelerate the roll-out of Universal Credit is “a disaster waiting to happen“, and evidence submitted by the housing charity Shelter to the Scottish Government said Universal Credit, together with other welfare reforms, “directly threaten tenancies and risk pushing more people into homelessness”.
Social housing organisations and local authorities have also expressed serious concerns, in the wake of strong evidence showing that Universal Credit is already leaving thousands of low-paid workers unable to pay their rent and at risk of homelessness.
Meanwhile, Labour says new data published by the DWP shows that Universal Credit is in “total disarray”, and even the Tories’ former allies in Government, the Liberal Democrats, who helped to bring in the new system, say the roll-out of Universal Credit has become a “train wreck” and must be halted.
Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “I am glad that Conservative MPs are waking up to the disastrous effects of Universal Credit, and backing Labour’s call for a pause to the programme.
“The rising debt and arrears under Universal Credit are a direct result of the six week wait for payment introduced by this Government. This policy can be changed.”
“Labour is again calling on the Government to halt the roll out of Universal Credit and remove the punitive elements of the programme which are pushing so many families into poverty.”
Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Frank Field MP, who earlier this month called for a “Christmas truce” on the Universal Credit roll-out, told the Telegraph: “The new secretary of state knows that the dribbling out Universal Credit has been beset by problems”.
However, the DWP continues to defend the plans, despite mounting opposition. A spokesperson said: “The vast majority of claimants are comfortable managing their money, and for anyone who needs extra help, we have budgeting advice and benefit advances.
“Continuing to roll-out Universal Credit in a safe and controlled way will mean many more will benefit from moving into employment.
“Universal Credit lies at the heart of our commitment to help people improve their lives and raise their incomes.
“It does that by providing additional, tailored support not available under the old benefit system, including more help for those in work so they can eventually stop claiming benefits altogether, and under Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system.”