Published: 16:00, 15 September 2021
| Updated: 17:32, 15 September 2021
Tory MPs have warned Boris Johnson against “hastily” reducing Universal Credit (UC) for millions of families, as the House of Commons backed a motion to cancel the cut.
Former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb insisted the Conservatives should be “standing on the side” of supermarket workers, cleaners and carers and said it was unclear why the Government wanted to remove the £20 per week uplift to UC.
He told MPs the “sudden, abrupt withdrawal” of the £20 uplift “is not the right way of doing welfare policy”.
Conservative MP John Stevenson (Carlisle) argued retaining the benefit boost would “improve many people’s lives” and aid the Government’s levelling up agenda.
Peter Aldous, Conservative MP for Waveney, advised that keeping UC at its pandemic rate will help “prevent many people from falling into poverty and despair”, adding: “It would also provide the platform from which families can plan for better futures and can then realise their aspirations.
“As a society, and as an economy, we will all be better for that.”
Ministers have come under sustained pressure to reverse their decision to end the £20 uplift introduced to support families during the coronavirus pandemic.
The extra payments will be phased out from the end of September, with the Government arguing it would cost £6 billion to retain them.
Labour tabled a motion asking the Government to cancel the planned cut, amid concerns it will reduce support for families by up to £1,040 per year.
MPs supported it by 253 votes to zero, majority 253.
But the motion is non-binding and does not force the Government to act.
The division list showed four Conservative MPs rebelled to support Labour’s motion, including Mr Aldous, Mr Stevenson, Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border), and William Wragg (Hazel Grove).
Labour former minister Dame Angela Eagle, raising a point of order, said it was a “disgrace” the Government had abstained on the vote and claimed they “haven’t got the guts” to properly deal with such matters in the division lobbies.
During the debate, Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne suggested workers should be encouraged to secure better-paid jobs in response to the UC cut.
He said: ““I am inundated every week by employers who simply cannot get workers. Should we not be seeking to raise the sights of many working people to get another better-paid job? They’re out there.”
But shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds said he wanted to “knock down” that argument, before adding: “Of course we should get people back into jobs but it is simply false to say the choice is between keeping the uplift and doing that.
“Let me remind the House again: Universal Credit is an in-work benefit. Almost half of the incomes that MPs opposite wish to cut are of people in work.”
Mr Reynolds also said: “The human cost of taking this money away cannot be overstated.
“£20 might not seem like much to some people but it’s the difference between having food in the fridge and still being able to put the heating on, or being able to get their kids new school shoes without worrying how you’ll pay for it.”
Labour’s Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) warned low-paid workers were facing a “triple whammy with prices and bills going up, National Insurance contributions going up and now this £1,000 cut in Universal Credit”.
She added: “Ministers clapped them in the streets, now they are cutting their family income, it isn’t just a kick (in) the teeth, it’s a complete betrayal. Have some shame, cancel the cut.”
For the Government, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said opposition parties had “demonised” UC and said more people would be “better off” if they moved over to the system from legacy benefits, even without the £20 uplift.
She said: “It may be an inconvenient truth for the party opposite – or parties I should say – who constantly tried to demonise Universal Credit, but Universal Credit proved itself even more during the Covid pandemic, showing that it worked both by design and in delivery.”
Ms Coffey also said the Government timed the end of the UC uplift to match the end of the furlough scheme, and said more people would benefit from plans to boost “pay, prospects and prosperity” in work as the £20 uplift ends.
She went on: “As our economy continues to recover it is right that we are investing in jobs and skills to boost pay, prospects and prosperity for people right across the UK as part of our plan to level up and build back better.”