How far is the government going to row back on Universal Credit? This afternoon an emergency debate has been granted on the matter in the Commons tomorrow. Two of the pilot councils in the roll-out of the new benefit have warned that the new system could be a catastrophe once implemented fully, predicting rent arrears in ‘many hundreds of millions of pounds’ and reporting a huge surge in referrals to food banks. Southwark and Croydon Councils warned of ‘major flaws’ in UC, and urged the government to fix the policy immediately.
The pressure, which grew last week with Labour’s Opposition Day debate on the roll-out, hasn’t diminished since ministers said they would make the helpline for claimants a free number, rather than one that charged 55p a minute. MPs have been pushing Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke to change the amount of time that people must wait for their first payment of the benefit, saying that they simply cannot argue in favour of the current six week period when pressed by their constituents.
I understand that at the meeting last week between Theresa May and concerned Tory backbenchers about the problem with the reform, the point was made that this was not the sort of thing that the ‘compassionate Conservative’ party should be doing. Not only did all the MPs present agree, but Gauke and May also appeared to concede the point, according to those present.
If the Prime Minister has recognised that failure to fix the flaws could seriously damage the Conservative Party, then perhaps the government can avoid a disaster which could seriously wreck the lives of very vulnerable people. And if that is the case, then the government will be doing something that previous administrations have so frequently failed to do, which is to notice the big looming crisis with one of its big reforms. The poll tax, tax credits, and so many other policies introduced by optimistic ministers over the years all ran into significant, and sometimes terminal, difficulties because those promoting the reforms were too ready to dismiss critics as being churlish, rather than annoyingly right. Universal Credit was supposed to buck this trend with its slow implementation and gradual roll-out. We have now reached the point where we will see whether it does do this, or merely conforms to type.