Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke has refused to “guarantee” that no family will go hungry this Christmas due to benefit delays caused by the new Universal Credit system.
Coming under fire from both Labour and Tory MPs in the Commons, Gauke was challenged by former minister Frank Field to promise that no claimant would be left without cash over the festive period - but he failed to do so.
Universal Credit, which replaces six separate benefits with one monthly payment made after a six-week claim period, is being rolled out across the country and is the Tories’ flagship welfare reform.
But MPs, councils, housing campaigners and charities have all warned about rising levels of debt, rent arrears and foodbank use among those already moved onto the new system.
In the Commons, Field asked Gauke directly: “Can he give the House a guarantee that none of our constituents will be faced by hunger or near-destitution for the lack of money over the Christmas period?”
Gauke refused to give such a pledge, replying instead: “What Universal Credit is about is ensuring that our constituents are in a stronger finance position and that’s what we are trying to deliver.
“Currently if you look at where we are going to get to by 2022, 8% of the of claimants are already on Universal credit. By January it will be 10%. This is gradual, this is measured.”
But a growing number of Tory MPs have joined Labour in warning that a “pause” is needed before Universal Credit spreads to more areas across the country.
Former Tory Prime Minister Sir John Major this weekend joined calls to pause the wider rollout of Universal Credit.
Gauke faced a barrage of questions over the benefit, with Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams pointing out that housing associations are reporting a big increase in rent arrears, while Greater Manchester Mayor warned homelessness could double.
Gauke last week unveiled new moves to promote “advance payments” for those left without funds during the six-week application process for the new benefit.
Labour’s John Mann also pointed out that the benefit changes would hit his Derbyshire constituency before Christmas.
“Universal Credit is to be introduced on the 14th of December in my constituency. In my view that is indecent and should be delayed. It will be a catastrophe at Christmas for many children.
“As the Secretary of State believes the opposite, will he accept my offer now to join me the week after, in the run up to Christmas, to visit my constitutents and see whether I’m right or he’s right on what the impact is going to be?”
Gauke replied that he visited Job Centres “all the time” and they were telling him that Universal Credit was getting more people into work. The Government estimates that 250,000 more people will get a job thanks to the new system, once it has been adopted nationwide.
Former Labour minister Stephen Timms revealed one of his constituents had nearly taken her own life due to the benefit delays.
“That delay is causing immense hardship up and down the country. I met last week with Maria Amos who came within an inch of suicide because she had to live literally on water for six weeks. Her health was irreparably harmed,” he said.
Tory backbencher Philip Hollobone pointed out that those with “zero savings” could be kicked out of their rented accommodation and urged the Government to write “supportive letters” to tell landlords payment was coming. Gauke said tenants expecting Universal Credit “should not face any risk of eviction”.
But Hollobone was one of six Conservative MPs who raised concerns. Stephen McPartland pointed out the punitive “taper” rate that disincentivised people from taking more work.
Andrew Selous, former Parliamentary aide to Iain Duncan Smith, requested more help for claimants who lacked computer skills needed to navigate the new system.
And Heidi Allen, who has led the Tory rebellion on the issue, said that advance payments were treating “the symptoms rather than the cause” of the problems. She demanded more help for those waiting for payments for several weeks.
Although Labour supports Universal Credit in principle, its MPs lined up to condemn the way the policy was working in practice.
Bedford MP Mohammad Yasin revealed that a recently bereaved single parent had told him her income had been cut by £300 a month following the switch.
He urged Gauke to urgently review the link bereavement payments and the new system, but the minister simply replied that “the evidence” shows that people are more likely to go into work once on Universal Credit.
In an interview with HuffPost UK last week, Gauke said that the roll-out would not be “risky” or “reckless”.