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Theresa May left red-faced after Commons defeat over Universal Credit rollout

Emilio Casalicchio

3 min read

The Government was left red-faced tonight after a proposal to pause the rollout of its flagship Universal Credit benefit system passed unanimously in the House of Commons.

Almost all Conservative MPs abstained on the symbolic vote, but a single rebel - Totnes MP Dr Sarah Wollaston - broke ranks to protest at what she argued were failings in the system.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams branded the astonishing result - which saw 299 votes in favour and zero against - a “major defeat” for the Government.

The opposition-tabled motion is not binding on ministers but is an embarrassment for Theresa May and highlights her weakness in the Commons after losing her majority in June.

It comes after the Government was forced into a major climbdown over the phone charges for its Universal Credit assistance hotline. 

Labour forced the vote after the Government tried to dodge one by abstaining at the end of a marathon five-hour debate on whether the Universal Credit system was fit for purpose.

In a sign of how worried they were about a major rebellion the Conservatives imposed a three-line whip on MPs.

Concerns have been raised at some Universal Credit claimants having to wait six weeks for their first payment - with others struggling to manage cash as they adapt to the new system.

Health Select Committee chair Dr Wollaston noted the six-week wait as she vowed to vote against the Government.

“Why are we undermining a policy with the potential to change lives for the better by not addressing a fundamental flaw at its heart?” she asked during the debate.

“Our constituents who are living on the edge are going to start this process in debt and in arrears.

“I want to hear from the frontbench in summing up that they recognise this and that they are going to address the six-week wait.”

Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee Frank Field warned that his local foodbank would need an extra 15 tons of food over Christmas to cover the rollout of Universal Credit.


But defiant Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke had said: “What we are hearing today is not constructive opposition, not a plan to reform Universal Credit, but an attempt to wreck it.

“An attempt to paralyse a policy that will help 250,000 more people get into work, an attempt to block a reform that will increase opportunity, an attempt to play politics but no attempt to set out a real alternative.”

He added: “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.”

Commons Speaker John Bercow told the Government after the vote: “If you choose not to take part and vote you can’t say, ‘well we didn’t lose’.”

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