Esther McVey has resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary because she couldn’t support Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But for many people across the UK, it isn’t her stance on the EU that she will be remembered for.
After she told the PM the deal didn’t “honour the result of the referendum”, many commentators were quick to reflect on McVey’s complicated – and controversial – tenure at the Department for Work and Pensions, where she oversaw the beleaguered roll-out of Universal Credit.
Almost immediately after she submitted her resignation, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, wrote on Twitter: “I just hope that Esther McVey takes the travesty that is Universal Credit out the door with her.”
Universal Credit has proved controversial from its very inception, and has been beset by IT issues, overspends and administrative errors. It is currently being rolled out across the UK in stages, amid warnings it will actually leave many families worse off.
Campaigners have complained the new welfare system, which unifies all previous different benefits into one payment, was sold as a simplification of the previous system has actually made it harder to claim.
Transferring to the new system has proved to be particularly difficult and intense criticism recently forced McVey to cut the gap between payments from the old system to the new – from five weeks to three.
Labour MP Lisa Cameron said: “After the devastating impact of Universal Credit on people with disabilities, resignation of Esther McVey won’t be mourned at all.”
Richard Burgon, Shadow Justice Secretary, said: “So Esther McVey has now resigned too over the Government’s botched Brexit plan. She should have resigned long ago over the way she has treated disabled people and people on Universal Credit. But good riddance anyway.
Former leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, echoed Burgon, and said: “Esther McVey resigning º slightly sad, as she should have been forced out for her actions as Work and Pension Secretary.”
The mental health charity Mind, which has consistently criticised Universal Credit and its impact on vulnerable people, said in a statement following her departure: “The top priority for whoever replaces Esther McVey needs to be ensuring people are moved over smoothly from older benefits onto Universal Credit. The current regulations will force three million people, including hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems, to make a new claim. In so doing, many people risk losing their income and even their homes.”
The charity said the “entire benefits system is broken”, and called for the new minister to “listen to the concerns of disabled people and those with mental health problems, and use this information to create a system that really works for them.”
Esther McVey’s political career
McVey’s relationship with welfare campaigners, opposition politicians and people within her own party has been particularly sour.
She was originally the Employment minister within the department, during the coalition with the Liberal Democrats in October 2013, until she lost her seat in the 2015 general election.
She was re-elected in the 2017 general election as the MP for Tatton and was appointed to the top job in January 2018 after a reshuffle triggered by the resignation of Michael Fallon.
At the time Dan Carden, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, said McVey’s appointment: “Will put fear in the hearts of the vulnerable and disabled. The last time McVey was at DWP she was rightly ejected from parliament by the voters of Wirral West, not least for her callous attitude to claimants.”
She received a public dressing down in July when she made inaccurate claims in the House of Commons after claiming a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) recommended speeding up the implementation of Universal Credit, when in reality it said it should be paused.
NAO chief Sir Amyas Morse took the unusual step of writing an open letter to McVey to set the record straight, saying her statements were not correct and her behaviour was “odd”.
In October she again received heavy criticism after the Times reported 22 charities had been forced to sign gagging agreements restricting them from being able to criticise her or the department.
They were told they must “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” to her, damage her reputation, or harm the public’s confidence in her, the paper said.