But cruel May won’t budge on pausing controversial scheme
HEARTLESS Theresa May rejected calls from Labour yesterday to pause the roll-out of the universal credit scheme so that its problems that lead to claimants facing financial hardship could be fixed.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, she insisted that the system was working and dismissed the suggestion by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to delay the expansion of the benefit changes.
This came after Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke announced that the 55p-per-minute benefit helpline would be changed to a freephone number — one week after Mr Corbyn flagged up the issue in the Commons of claimants having to pay for calls.
Universal credit is a single monthly payment which merges different working-age benefits, such as housing benefit and tax credits.
However, government figures revealed that at least 23 per cent of new claimants do not receive their first full payment within six weeks.
The Labour leader welcomed the change, but told the PM: “The fundamental problems of universal credit remain. The six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions.”
Ms May claimed that it was a “simpler system that encourages people to get into the workplace.”
The exchange came before an opposition debate on universal credit to halt the roll-out of the controversial new system, with a non-binding vote.
Opening the debate, shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams said: “If the government and this Prime Minister is sincere about tackling injustice in this country and making sure that work pays, then they must act.”
The Labour frontbencher said the six-week wait for first payments was causing serious problems for new claimants, with some threatened with eviction, while one in 10 people have been waiting as long as 10 weeks for payment.
Ms May said that claimants were being given advance payments, but Ms Abrahams pointed out that these were in fact loans that had to be paid back.
Labour wants alternative forms of payment to be offered to all claimants, such as fortnightly payments or for rent costs to go directly to landlords.
Mr Gauke said the government had adopted a “responsible approach” and criticised Labour by saying: “What we are hearing today is not constructive opposition, not a plan to reform universal credit, but an attempt to wreck it.”
A senior Downing Street source signalled that Conservatives were likely to abstain from the universal credit vote — which took place after the Star went to press — as they did when facing defeat on non-binding Labour motions on NHS pay and university tuition fees in September.
Child Poverty Action Group head Alison Garnham welcomed the decision to scrap helpline fees but said the government needs to go “much further” to address “deep-seated problems” with universal credit.
She suggested that the waiting period before first payments be reduced to two weeks.
And disability charity Scope chief executive Mark Atkinson said that disabled people could be left short of £400 a month if they were switched to universal credit.