May meets Tory welfare rebels to avoid showdown

17 Oct

The Prime Minister met with Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Johnny Mercer on Tuesday afternoon to listen to their concerns over the roll-out of Universal Credit, which was meant to simplify and streamline the benefits system but has been beset with problems.

The meeting comes ahead of two events that will put the troubled roll-out into the spotlight on Wednesday.

Labour is trying to stoke Tory division with an opposition day debate on Universal Credit, while Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke is due to give evidence to a select committee inquiry.

Downing Street refused to comment on Tuesday’s meeting.

But the audience with leading rebels on the eve of the opposition day debate has stoked speculation the Prime Minister might use Wednesday’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions or the later Universal Credit debate to announce concessions.

Heidi Allen at the Save The Children evening reception at the Conservative Party conference
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Cambridgeshire South MP Heidi Allen was among those at a meeting in Downing Street

Damian Hinds, the employment minister, also dealt with MPs’ questions at a “very well attended” meeting on Tuesday evening.

One MP who attended said the “mood was positive” as MPs asked a number of technical questions about the roll-out of the scheme.

Rebel MPs are not opposed to the principle of reforming the welfare system but are worried about its roll-out: claimants are having to wait up to six weeks for their benefits, leaving many unable to buy food and pushed into debt and rent arrears.

The dissatisfied MPs have presented ministers with a list of demands to improve the scheme.


Tory MPs Heidi Allen and Jonny Mercer in Downing Street

Video:
Universal Credit rebels gather in Downing Street

Suggestions include scrapping any wait period and giving claimants money immediately; stopping phone-line charges – it costs 55p a minute to call the helpline; and changing the system so that money is paid out fortnightly rather than monthly to help claimants budget.

Ms Allen, the Tory MP for Cambridgeshire South, claims she has 25 Conservatives prepared to rebel on the matter.

One would-be rebel told Sky News on Tuesday they expect the number to rise as the roll-out extends across the country and other MPs’ postbags fill up with complaints from constituents.

The programme combines six means-tested benefits into a single payment and is designed to help more people back into work.

The system pays benefits in arrears to mirror the way wages are paid.

But it is not just Conservative MPs giving the Government a headache over Universal Credit; the work and pensions committee inquiry was launched last month in response to the concerns over the roll-out.

David Gauke is appointed Works and Pensions Secretary
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Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke is also trying to head off rebel Tory MPs

Frank Field, the committee’s Labour chair, has accused ministers of withholding bad news over the progress of the welfare scheme.

And he complains that the Department for Work and Pensions has so far refused to answer four formal letters requesting statistics and clarifications of the policy in recent weeks.

The Prime Minister and Mr Gauke have sought to assuage MPs’ concerns over the roll-out but have also signalled they will not apply the brakes as its implementation accelerates to 50 new job centres a month.


Food

Video:
Is new benefit forcing people into foodbanks?

Ms May said at party conference earlier this month that the move to Universal Credit was “an important change to the benefits system”.

“I think it’s important that we do roll it out,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

Mr Gauke, who has met with MPs in recent weeks to listen to their concerns, has insisted he is not taking a “reckless or risky approach” to the roll-out of the scheme.

“If I looked at it and thought this was a mistake I would be agitating to do something to stop it,” he said, adding: “But I don’t.”

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