In another sign of the weakness of Theresa May’s government, Tory MPs on Wednesday were ordered by party leaders not to take part in a parliamentary vote on a Labour motion. It was to postpone the wider introduction of the harsh new Universal Credit (UC) benefit regime.
The motion to "pause and fix" the system was passed 299 to zero, but has no immediate effect.
Tory leaders knew they could not have defeated the motion. Some of their own MPs had said they would vote with Labour or abstain, and even the bigots of the DUP said they would abstain.
UC brings evictions, increased poverty, debt and despair.
Debbie Abrahams, moving Labour’s motion said, “Half those in rent arrears under UC report that they entered into arrears after they made their claim.”
She highlighted the fact that claimants must wait six weeks before they get any money, meaning many fall behind on rent or are forced into debt.
“What is worse,” said Abrahams “is that many claimants do not even receive support within the government’s lengthy six week deadline. One in four are waiting for longer than six weeks and one in ten are waiting for more than ten weeks.”
MPs detailed the shattering results of the system.
Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black accused the government of acting like a “pious loan shark, except that instead of coming through your front door they are coming after your mental health, your physical well-being, your stability, your sense of security”.
Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh said, "My mum was 94 yesterday. When she came to London in 1947, the cards in the windows said, 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' There are no cards in the windows in London any longer, but there is an understanding among landlords that they do not take people on universal credit, and they are beginning to evict their tenants who are on housing benefit"
Earlier in the day Work and Pensions secretary David Gauke had announced that the 55p a minute charge on the UC hotline was to be scrapped.
That change could have been made at any time in the last four years. Gauke was open about only changing it now because it has become controversial.
“It’s important to maintain confidence in the system and in recent days there has been criticism of the telephone charges that exist for UC,” he said.
Gauke refused to guarantee that the UC rollout will not lead to a “surge” in foodbank use.
For four years UC’s rollout has been mired in delays, and May’s gamble of accelerating it in the next few months could blow up in her face.
May’s acceleration of Universal Credit’s rollout has and brought its horrors to wider public attention.
Labour’s motion called for a six month pause to allow UC to be re-examined and modified. Getting rid of the six week delay before payment would be an important victory.
But it’s only the start of what’s wrong with UC.
UC combines and replaces six other benefits. The switch is monstrously complex, and when errors occur claimants are presented with the bill, sometimes of thousands of pounds.
It’s supposedly about simplifying the system.
But it’s really about deepening the regime of monitoring, sanctioning and controlling benefit claimants—and extending it from unemployed and sick people to low paid workers.
This complex, coercive system doesn’t save money and it doesn’t “help” people find work.
It is designed to create a terror at being unemployed or underemployed, which bosses can use to discipline workers into accepting worse conditions.
That is why it was wrong for some Labour MPs to say they opposed details of the UC system but accepted the principle.
May’s acceleration of UC’s rollout has and brought its horrors to wider public attention.
Socialists, trade unions and the Labour Party must seize the opportunity, fight to scrap it and replace it with a genuine welfare system.