Government humiliated as Commons votes overwhelmingly to pause Universal Credit

Tom Peck, Ashley Cowburn

The government has suffered a humiliating defeat as the House of Commons passed a vote to pause the rollout of universal credit, its new flagship benefit scheme.

The motion was brought by the Labour Party and was passed despite attempts by the Conservatives to prevent the vote taking place.

The vote was passed by 299 to zero, with one Conservative MP voting against the Government.

In a highly unusual move, Labour MPs served as tellers for the Government, preventing the Government from blocking the vote from happening through abstaining. Last month, the Conservatives tried to effectively nullify all votes and debates brought by Labour by abstaining from them, in an attempt to limit the damage caused by their DUP partners siding with Labour in a debate over NHS pay.

This risky tactic had always threatened to backfire. The SNP’s Pete Wishart demanded the Speaker take action to compel the Conservatives to “respect the democratic processes” in Westminster.

Having been brought by the opposition, the vote is purely symbolic, but in a measure of how serious the Government took the vote, it is understood to have issued a three-line whip ordering Conservative MPs to abstain.

The defeat came hours after David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, told MPs his department would scrap a controversial 55p-a-minute helpline following intense criticism from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It was also welcomed by Conservative MPs nervous about the rollout of the party’s flagship reform, which will be accelerated later this month to 60 new areas despite widespread concerns about delays in payments to claimants.

Following the vote, Mr Corbyn seized on Speaker John Bercow’s insistence that the Government must respond to the “clearly expressed view’’ of the Commons. The Labour leader tweeted: “Labour’s motion on Universal Credit passed unanimously. “The Tories must now act on clearly expressed will of Parliament & pause its roll out’’.

Prominent Conservative backbencher Sarah Wollaston voted against the Government, having threatened to do so before the vote. She had said she would vote against her party unless ministers recognised the need to address the “fundamental flaw” in the system of late payments.

Heidi Allen, another Tory MP, who has been a leading critic of the planned roll-out of universal credit, warned her party: “To pull ourselves out of debt we should not be forcing working families into it.”

Before the vote Ms Allen told The Independent: “I’ll be abstaining because I and colleagues have had personal reassurances from the Government that they will work with us to address our areas of concerns. Having only met the PM yesterday afternoon, it is only right that I give them the opportunity to do this. There is a one month pause in the roll-out in January so we have a tight time window in which to achieve this. This will focus our minds.”

The Democratic Unionist Party – responsible for propping up Ms May’s fragile Government – also abstained on the Labour motion. Sammy Wilson, the party’s welfare spokesperson, said the DUP will no be used for “headline grabbing” defeats of flagship government policies.

Opening the debate on the non-binding motion in the Commons, Debbie Abrahams, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said the Prime Minister must halt the planned accelerated roll-out of Universal Credit later this month if her administration is sincere about tackling injustice.

Raising the issue of delays for claimants when they transfer from the legacy benefit system to universal credit, which merges six benefits into one monthly payment, Ms Abrahams said that one in four are waiting longer than six weeks while a further one in 10 are waiting 10 weeks.

Ms Abrahams said the Government was now at a turning point with their flagship welfare reform ahead of its wider roll-out, adding: “I think this a real test for the Government.”

“If there is genuine desire to make life better for everybody across the country, universal credit is a key way that we can actually respond to that,” she said.

Raising a point of order after the vote, Ms Abrahams said: “This is a major defeat for the Government on their flagship social security programme.

“Conservative whips and the Prime Minister have spent today strong-arming Conservative MPs to vote against a pause of the roll-out of universal credit.

“While the Secretary of State has retreated on various aspects of his universal credit policy, in a panicked attempt to appease Tory MPs who know that the policy is not fit for purpose.

“Yet again, the Prime Minister and the Tories cannot command a majority in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is in office, but not in power.”

Mr Bercow said: “A resolution of the House of Commons is just that, an expression of the view of the nation’s elected representatives in the House of Commons.

“Constitutionally, and this is important ... The House cannot direct ministers, and it is for ministers in the Government to decide how to respond to the clearly expressed view of the House.”

Mr Bercow added that he felt confident ministers would do so, having granted an urgent debate on the Government’s response to opposition day debates just two weeks ago.

Tory MP Peter Bone (Wellingborough) said it would be helpful where a substantive motion was passed that the Government came to the House to explain what they intended to do about it.

Mr Bercow responded it was “a statement of fact” Labour’s motion was passed, adding: “I think it highly desirable that the Government, in the light of the result, should come to the House and show respect for the institution by indicating what it intends to do.”

Senior Labour MP Angela Eagle claimed the way the system was being administered was leaving “people penniless and possibly destitute” because of the delays in receiving the first payment.

SNP MP Mhairi Black also described the policy as “callous at worst and arrogantly idiotic at best” and 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 – that is what the experience is for all of our constituents”.

But the Work and Pensions Secretary claimed his department’s measures are “already improving lives”, and criticised Labour, adding: “What we are hearing today is not constructive opposition, not a plan to reform universal credit, but an attempt to wreck it.”

He continued: “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.”

During the debate Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary and one of the architects of the policy, insisted his colleagues on the Tory benches to resist temptation to rebel and instead continue suggesting modifications to universal credit to Mr Gauke.

“I do think [Mr Gauke] made a very good point when he said we look constantly at what needs changing and the issue around waiting days is absolutely critical,” Mr Duncan Smith added as he accused Labour MPs of “scaremongering” over the policy.