Universal Credit condemned in cross-party symbolic vote

Caitlin Logan

Labour motion to suspend the policy passed 299 to 0 amidst Tory boycott

A MOTION PUT FORWARD by the Labour Party to pause the rollout of Universal Credit passed in the House of Commons by 299 votes to 0 on Wednesday night.

As the motion was brought by the opposition, it is not legally binding on the Government. The Tories were ordered with a three-line whip to abstain on the vote, while Labour MPs were forced to act as tellers for the opposition to the motion in order to prevent the vote being blocked entirely by the Government’s boycott.

The motion followed criticism of the policy by a number of anti-poverty charities and from across the political spectrum, including within the Conservative Party, with opponents arguing that the new benefit scheme is leading to rising debt, poverty, and evictions.

“Instead of coming through your front door they are coming after your mental health, your physical wellbeing, your stability, your sense of security.” Mhairi Black MP

More than 75 MPs contributed to the debate which lasted over five hours and heard impassioned speeches against the policy by SNP and Labour MPs.

Mhairi Black MP described the roll out of Universal Credit as “callous”, and said the UK Government was behaving like a “pious loan shark, except that instead of coming through your front door they are coming after your mental health, your physical wellbeing, your stability, your sense of security – that is what the experience is for all of our constituents”.

Debbie Abrahams, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said following the vote: “This is a major defeat for the Government on their flagship social security programme.

“Conservative whips and the Prime Minister have spent today 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 that the 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.”

READ MORE: Universal Credit ‘telephone tax’ scrapped following pressure from SNP and Labour

Only one Tory MP, Sarah Wollaston, broke the party whip to vote for the motion, citing the in-built six week waiting period to receive first-time claims as her reason.

She said: “If there is no way for me to express my view, on behalf of my constituents, that I think this fundamental flaw must be addressed before it is rolled out to the Totnes constituency next year, I’m afraid I will have to vote against the government.”

Other Conservative MPs expressed concerns but abstained nonetheless, while the DUP also abstained, in keeping with their agreed support of the Conservative Government.

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke dismissed the criticisms made in the debate and expressed the government’s intention to push forward. He said: “What we are hearing today is not constructive opposition, not a plan to reform Universal Credit, but an attempt to wreck it.

READ MORE: “A string of failures”: Theresa May under fire over Universal Credit and Brexit at PMQs

“We will proceed, we will address the historic failures of our benefit system, we will increase opportunity, and we will deliver a welfare system that puts work at the heart of it.” 

Speaker of the House John Bercow explained that “it is for ministers in the government to decide how to respond to the clearly expressed view of the House”. However, he said: “If you choose not to take part and vote, you can’t say, ‘well, we didn’t lose’.

“A minister from the government should come to the House and show respect to the institution and say what it intends to do. This institution is bigger than any one party and is bigger than any government.”

Picture courtesy of Saeima 

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