Work and pensions secretary David Gauke has vowed not to let the ‘hard left’ win arguments over Universal Credit on the social media ‘battlefield’.
The cabinet minister entered into a Twitter spat - with mixed results - after Labour MP and work and pensions select committee chair Frank Field claimed the roll-out of the controversial benefit system had left one woman with no income until after Christmas.
Gauke said the woman had in fact already been paid her advance and had not been specially sought out after Field raised the case, citing it as an example of the new system - which replaces the six current main benefits - “working properly”.
But the Labour MP hit back on Wednesday afternoon, claiming the woman in question was still in need of help.
“It’s great that you’ve found and helped someone in such desperate need,” he tweeted.
“But the mum to whom I referred still hasn’t had an appointment. The public has ensured she has money for food and heating today. She’s still seeking help from DWP and I hope you’ll ensure this happens.”
During a briefing on Universal Credit roll-out hosted by the Centre for Social Justice, alongside former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, Gauke told journalists: “I think it’s important that we don’t desert the battlefield. Social media can at the moment feel almost dominated by the hard left, and I think it’s important that we engage and make the points.
“I strongly believe that we have got a really good policy that has positively transformed lives, but - and I am not for a moment suggesting Frank is part of the hard left - there is almost a sort of knee-jerk criticism, and a temptation, I think in particular with Universal Credit, that you can almost say anything critical and it goes without challenge.”
He said reports of problems with the system from Labour MPs had led to claimants becoming anxious about the process, while Duncan Smith blamed “irresponsible” reporting of the issue in the media.
Gauke said: “We are definitely picking up within the Jobcentres that people are coming in to make their claim for universal credit more anxious than would have been the case three months ago. They are generally leaving the Jobcentre reassured.
“I do think there needs to be a responsible debate. Of course there is legitimate debate about any major reform, and looking at case studies is a legitimate part of that.
“But I am concerned that there are vulnerable people who are scared, not by actual cases, but by some ill-informed criticism, or cases which are not as they are first portrayed.
“We have seen that pretty consistently. There have been many incidences of that, and it’s my job to try to bring a bit of balance to this debate.”
He said Jobcentre staff across the country had praised the policy and its “transformative” impact on claimant’s lives.
“I have met so many work coaches up and down the country who are consistently enthusiastic about the policy, and consistently telling me about how they are shouting at the television or the radio when they see the policy they are working on being - in their eyes - misrepresented,” he added.
“Yes it is big, yes it is ambitious, but it’s something that on the ground is working well.”
Gauke said take-up of advance payments - which are available as loans repayable via deductions from future Universal Credit allowances - had risen from about 34% in the spring to 62%, according to latest figures.
He also pledged to keep the benefit’s ‘taper rate’ - the amount every pound of Universal Credit is reduced by if a claimant earns over their work allowance - under review after it was lowered from 65p initially to 63p.
“The point both Philip [Hammond] and I have made is that yes, it will be good if we could bring it down further, but clearly that is expensive and has to be viewed in light of public finances.
“But the aspiration to bring it down further is there.”
Duncan Smith, one of the driving forces behind the introduction of Universal Credit, said he believed both the media and opposition parties should deal with the issue more “responsibly”.
Labour has long called for the roll-out of the system to be paused while problems with its implementation are ironed out - with many MPs warning their constituents would be pushed into poverty as a result of delayed initial payments.
“They are dealing at the end of the day with people who are often in quite vulnerable situations, and to run these kind of stories as though this were a crisis I have to tell you I think is verging on the irresponsible,” the former cabinet minister said.
“These facts should be fully checked before stories are pushed out and that also goes for the opposition, who are at the moment playing a political game with this.
“Their aim is to make things look as bad as possible. But frankly it is pretty cynical to try and do that, and I would suggest that people behave a little more responsibly, because people’s lives matter in this regard.”