Plenty happened in the Commons this week. Most of the debate centred on the rollout of the new welfare system, first proposed by Iain Duncan Smith in 2012, under the Welfare Reform Act. It goes by the name Universal Credit.
Universal Credit (UC) is essentially a simplification of the welfare system.
Under the UC system, people eligible receive a single payment each month, instead of the plethora of payments they previously received as Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income-related Employment and Support Allowance.
A couple who both claim Universal Credit will also receive a single payment between them.
Though there is little disagreement over the theoretical upside of a simpler and easier to administer system, there has been serious scepticism, from both opposition parties and the public, regarding its implementation.
The secretary for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), David Gauke, underwent tough questioning from the Work and Pensions select committee on Wednesday, regarding some troubling figures:
- Late payments (1 in 5 receive their credit late);
- Food parcels (demand up 16% in areas with UC rollout);
- Rent arrears (Southwark MP Neil Coyle claimed that £5m was owed in arrears by those awaiting UC in his constituency alone).
Gauke largely stood firm on his decision to accelerate the rollout of UC, pointing out that UC pays claimants just as regularly as 69% of jobs, and that 96% of claimants have been paid in full. He did offer one concession; that the UC helpline, previously charging claimants 55p a minute, would become free, as would all other DWP helplines.
Universal Credit is also a matter that will disproportionately affect the young. 13% of 16-24-year-olds are unemployed – compared with 4.3% of the general population – and as such they are more likely to be dependent on income-based job seeker’s allowance.
Yesterday’s vote on a pause of the UC rollout resulted in 299 ‘ayes’ to 0 ‘nos’. However, all Conservative MPs were ordered by a three-line-whip (threat of sacking) to abstain from the vote, and all but one did so. In any event the vote is not legally binding because it was a debate proposed by the opposition and thus symbolic only.
The Conservatives’ abstention earned a sharp rebuke from Speaker of the House John Bercow, calling for the government to “show respect to the institution.”
The Conservatives have some difficult times ahead should they choose to press on with the UC rollout, a headache they may want to avoid, with Brexit talks stalling. For the moment though, Prime Minister Theresa May seems to be standing firm.
Labour MP Jon Healey asked an urgent question about Grenfell Tower. Urgent questions are inquiries submitted in advance to the Speaker, which, if approved, compel the relevant government minister to attend and answer, in this case, Sajid Javid.
The Boundary Commission (the people who suggest the division of the country into constituencies) published their revised plans for reducing the number of seats by 50. It is not expected to pass in the Commons.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took the Prime Minister to task regarding wage growth.
(PMQs will be a footnote in this article, but will usually feature far more prominently. This week was especially eventful).
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