Politics

MPs vote to scrap universal credit cut as Tories abstain

The government has maintained its position that it will cut the annual £1k benefit boost introduced at the start of the pandemic, but a growing number of Tory MPs are threatening revolt.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and DWP Secretary Therese Coffey arrive at a Jobs Centre in Barking in July 2020. Image: HM Treasury/Flickr

MPs have voted to scrap the universal credit cut with a majority of 253 to 0, after Conservatives abstained.

But the opposition day vote is not legally binding and cannot force policy change, meaning the government is expected to go ahead with the £20-per-week cut on October 6.

Opposition to the decision is “truly universal”, the shadow work and pensions secretary said.

The government introduced an £80-per-month increase on universal credit and working tax credit payments at the start of the pandemic to support people through the financial shock of the crisis.

But it will cut payments back to pre-Covid levels on October 6, which Citizens Advice researchers warned will push nearly 40 per cent of claimants into debt after just paying their essential bills.

“As a general rule we don’t vote on opposition day debates”, the prime minister’s spokesperson said.

“I want to knock down the fiction that there is somehow a choice between cancelling this cut versus getting people back into work,” Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said in the House of Commons as he challenged the government to stop “hiding behind straw men”.

Around 5.5 million people will lose £1,040 from their annual income, nearly two million of whom cannot work due to disability, illness or caring responsibilities, Reynolds told MPs.

“I haven’t heard a single mention of them from the government or the offer of any help coming their way to mitigate this cut.”

The cut will push half a million people into poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, including 200,000 children.

The number of working people claiming universal credit is at an all-time high, Labour said ahead of its Commons bid to overturn the cut. Around 40 per cent of all people relying on the benefit have jobs.

Six former Tory welfare secretaries have publicly opposed the universal credit cut, as well as the Northern Research Group and One Nation Group, both made up of Conservative of MPs.

All devolved governments have condemned Westminster’s decision to decrease payments alongside an army of charities and campaign groups.

“The human cost of taking this money away cannot be overstated,” Reynolds said during the debate. “£20 may not seem like much to some people but it is the difference between having food in the fridge and still being able to put the heating on, or being able to get the kids new school shoes without worrying how you’re going to pay for it.”

Addressing parliament, Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey said a record number of job vacancies and “more people getting back into work” showed the government’s jobs plan was working, meaning fewer people should have to rely on universal credit.

“Our comprehensive and unprecedented support has worked,” she said. “Britain is rebounding.”

Coffey criticised the old benefits system developed under a Labour government, claiming the people “would have been queuing round the block to get into job centres” even during the pandemic.

“It may be an inconvenient truth for parties who have constantly tried to demonise universal credit, but it proved itself even more during the pandemic, showing that it worked,” she said.

Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest West, said he was “inundated” by employers in his constituency who “simply cannot get workers”.

“Should we not be seeking to raise the sights of many people to get a better, well-paid job?” he asked fellow MPs.

Rachael Maskell, Labour Co-op MP for York, said the people in her area set to be affected by the cut generally already work but still cannot afford the rising cost of living.

Other Labour politicians told parliament about the families in their constituencies whose children would grow up in poverty because of the universal credit cut and unaffordable UK childcare costs.

But Tory backbenchers accused Labour of “spreading scare stories” and “terrifying the poorest and most vulnerable in the country” by telling them universal credit would not work during the pandemic.

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