Minister defends Universal Credit after rollout labelled ‘rolling disaster area’

Universal Credit was labelled a “rolling disaster area” which is “causing real distress” as the Government faced a grilling over the slowdown of its rollout.

Labour’s Angela Eagle asked Employment Minister Alok Sharma, who was answering an Urgent Question in the Commons on the subject, if he would admit the controversial benefit change was going badly.

The former minister (pictured) said: “In my area in Wallasey, there has been a 39% increase in food banks after the rollout of Univeral Credit (UC). It’s causing real distress and there are still £4.7 billion of benefit cuts between now and 2020 to be administered.

“Will he now admit this is a rolling disaster area and commit at that despatch box to have a proper review and do the right thing.”

In response, Mr Sharma said: “Perhaps the Honourable Lady wasn’t listening – I already set out the extra funding that we have been bringing forward, and I wish she would actually support this.”

He admitted that as the flagship welfare programme is slowly brought in, “we learn and we make changes as appropriate” – but he defended it as a “much simpler” system than the current benefits set-up.

Mr Sharma was called to answer the Urgent Question after Labour’s Margaret Greenwood asked the Government to explain reports over the weekend that a vote on the managed migration of three million claimants onto UC had been postponed.

And instead Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd will ask Parliament to agree to transferring just 10,000 people in a pilot scheme.

Ms Greenwood, shadow work and pensions secretary, called on the Government to “stop the rollout of Universal Credit” altogether.

She said the so-called “managed migration” of people onto the new benefit has created “very real fears vulnerable people will fall out of the social security system altogether”.

The MP for Wirral West also criticised Ms Rudd for not announcing the policy change in the House of Commons, and accused the Government of “shifting the burden of what should be the Government’s responsibility to ensure continuity, onto claimants”.

In response, Mr Sharma said his department would “meet our commitment to severe disability premium recipients” and would make sure protections are in place for the vulnerable.

And he added: “Every time the Honourable Lady gets up she talks about stopping Universal Credit rollout. Can I be clear, we have now rolled this out across the country.

“And can I just also be clear, if she wants to support people she should vote with us when we bring forward support for the most vulnerable.”

But Labour MP Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) said his approach had already pushed more children into poverty and risked discriminating against disabled people without transitional protections.

She said: “For the record, tax credits lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty whereas these policies have the effect of increasing poverty for children by one million.

“We know that disabled people who are out of work will be worse off, even after the Budget – the High Court decision last summer said there needed to be transitional protections and the Government was acting unlawfully and discriminating against disabled people.

“The Minster has been asked three times now, when will these transitional protections be put in place?”

Mr Sharma rebutted her claim Conservative policies had made children poorer, but did not give a date for when transitional payments would be introduced.

“She talks about poverty,” he said. “Could I just point out to her respectfully that since 2010 a million fewer people living in absolute poverty and that figure includes 300,000 children.

“She may not like the answer, but she can’t argue against the facts.

“When it comes to the regulations we’ve been very, very clear on that as was the Secretary of State yesterday.”

But Laura Pidcock asked whether it was acceptable to continue testing the system on people and called for a halt to the migration.

The Labour MP for North West Durham said: “The Government always try to individualise our constituent problems – these are systemic flaws with the system.

“People every single day are made deliberately worse off under this scheme which makes them wait five weeks and has deep design and administrative flaws listed exhaustively in numerous reports.

“Is it acceptable to continuously test and learn on people?”

Mr Sharma said Ms Pidcock was “right that we need to make sure we get this right and that is why we have a test phase”, but added that the migration would continue.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Jonathan Brady / PA Wire.