Theresa May has suffered fresh embarrassment over the expansion of the Government’s flagship benefit reform after Labour secured a symbolic victory in Parliament to underline the deep unease over the policy.
After Tory MPs abstained en masse from the vote, a Labour motion calling for the Government to pause the roll-out of Universal Credit passed with no opposition.
Some 299 MPs voted for the motion and none against it, with Labour MPs shouted “resign” as the result was read out.
The unusual move by Tory party enforcers to insist MPs sit out of the vote was condemned by one Conservative backbencher. The Tory MP told HuffPost UK:
“When I got the text saying this was a three-line whip on the Opposition Day, I thought Ok, that’s expected. Then I read ‘whip...to abstain’. I couldn’t believe it.
“We are so pathetic now, so incapacitated, so inadequate that we can’t even vote against an Opposition Day motion on a central plank of Government policy like continuing the roll out of Universal Credit.”
Following the vote, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams said the vote represented “major defeat for the Government on their flagship welfare reform programme”. She told the Commons:
“Conservative whips and the Prime Minister have spent the day strong-arming Conservative MPs to vote against a pause of the roll-out of Universal Credit, while the Secretary of State has retreated on various aspects of his Universal Credit Policy in a panicked attempt to appease Tory MPs who know this policy is not fit for purpose.
“Yet again the Prime Minister and the Tories cannot command a majority in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is in office but not in power.”
In the aftermath of the vote, senior Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh made plain his disquiet with the Government’s tactics: “This is not and should not be a university debating society. What is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? And surely when we vote it should have some effect.”
Speaker Bercow was scathing about the Government’s conduct. “It would be respectful to the House if a minister sooner rather than later were to come to the House, to give an indication of the Government’s thinking.
“This institution is bigger than any one party and frankly it is bigger than any one Government,” he told Parliament. “This place and what we do here matters.”
While not binding on the Government, the vote underlined the cross-party disquiet among MPs.
Universal Credit has faced widespread criticism over cuts to funding and delays to the benefit being paid, leaving hard-pressed families facing hardship.
The reform, which rolls a six benefits into a single payment, has led to claimants being forced to wait for up to six weeks without payments when they first apply, leaving some having to rely on food banks while they wait for the benefits to be paid. Others are being left with rent arrears as they struggle to cover housing costs.
The vote comes on the same day as ministers were forced to scrap fees for the Universal Credit helpline after it was revealed some claimants have been charged up to 55p a minute to access advice and support.
Last week, HuffPost UK confronted officials with detailed accounts of hardship caused by the fees, piling pressure in ministers to act.
May faced a small rebellion from her own ranks, with Tory MP Sarah Wollaston voting with Labour on the motion.
During the debate, Wollaston made plain her discomfort with how the policy was working in areas where it had been trialled. She said: “Why are we undermining a policy with potential to change lives for the better by not addressing a fundamental flaw at its heart? We have heard many compelling cases today and we cannot ignore them.”
She asked for assurances from the minister that flaws in the policy would be addressed.
On the Tory abstention, the Totnes MP said: “Personally I don’t agree with this. I think the House should have the opportunity to express its view. If there is no way for me to express my view on behalf of my constituents... I’m afraid I will have to vote against the government.”
HOW THEY VOTED ...
The vote was forced by the Labour Party during parliamentary time allotted to the Opposition, and it urged Tory rebels to get behind its bid to halt the implementation of universal credit until all problems were fixed.
Another Tory MP, Heidi Allen, said the Government should not be pushing working families into debt: “We risk undermining the success the system can be if we don’t get these basic things right. I am confident the PM will consider our proposals, because it is not only the smart thing to do, it’s the compassionate thing to do.”
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said: “Failing to turn up to today’s vote on Universal Credit would reveal a deep contempt for democracy from the Government. Ministers know that MPs from all sides are opposed to these changes which are pushing our constituents into hardship, destitution and debt. Yet the Tories are ploughing ahead anyway, and discarding our democracy in the process.
“Universal Credit threatens to force families in Brighton and Hove into poverty this Christmas - and I know that people in my city are living in fear of these changes.
“This system has cruelty hardwired into it - the poverty it causes is no accident. The Government should scrap the six week wait immediately and rethink this policy before it causes further pain for people already suffering the unjust benefits squeeze.”
SNP MP Mhairi Black said MPs on opposition benches aren’t making it up when they talk about constituents’ struggles, and said to continue the policy was “callous at worst and idiotic at best”.