MPs have passed, with 278 votes in favour and none against, a Labour motion calling on the government not to cut Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits after the Prime Minister ordered Conservatives to abstain.
65 northern Tory MPs, many representing ex-Labour ‘Red Wall’ seats, ahead of the debate publicly called on Downing Street to extend the increase in social security payments during the pandemic.
But only six Conservatives rebelled to vote with Labour. With no MPs opposing the motion tonight, Labour had to force a ‘division’ in the House of Commons to have the results of the vote properly recorded as 278-0.
The Conservative MPs who backed the motion and rebelled against the instruction handed down by the Prime Minister were Peter Aldous, Stephen Crabb, Robert Halfon, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris and Matthew Offord.
Commenting on the result of the vote, Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds said: “It is disappointing that the Conservative government refused to vote with Labour to provide families with certainty and secure our economy.
“They can still do the right thing and drop their plans to cut UC. Britain is facing the worst recession of any major economy because of the government’s incompetence and indecision. Families cannot be made to pay the price.”
Boris Johnson describing the non-binding vote as a “stunt”. Labour has repeatedly used opposition day votes to highlight difficult issues for the government – such as, in October, the extension of free school meals.
Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister’s response was “pretty pathetic”. “He’s saying: ‘I don’t want to say yes, and I don’t want to say no. So we’re going to abstain.’ He’s got no view on whether it should stay in place or not.”
Starmer added: “If he’s going to call it a stunt, he should probably come with me to the food distribution centre to see these families this morning, and explain to them why he thinks that what is a lifeline to them is a stunt.
“I actually think, in their heart of hearts, quite a lot of Tory MPs know that cutting this money to people who desperately need it, in the middle of a pandemic, is the wrong thing to do. They know that.”
Labour’s motion called for the extension of a £20-per-week boost to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits introduced last year. It took the standard rate for a single claimant over 25 from £317.82 to £409.89 a month.
Opening the debate for Labour today, Jonathan Reynolds told MPs: “I’m not here today to claim that Conservative MPs are heartless or lack compassions, or that somehow they have insufficient regard for the poorest people in this country.
“I know that after the vote on free school meals many Conservative MPs, mainly after comments made by Conservative MPs themselves, received a high degree of personal abuse and I want to make unequivocally clear that is wrong.”
Labour used an opposition day debate last year to demand that the government extend free school meals over the holidays. The Conservatives sparked public outrage when they voted against the proposal.
“What I am here to do is put forward a clear and I believe compelling case,” the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary said. “That reducing Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits this April would be fundamentally the wrong decision.”
On the Prime Minister’s comments ahead of the debate today, Reynolds said the “government cannot expect to preach parliamentary sovereignty one week and then run away from parliamentary scrutiny the next”.
The Labour frontbencher argued in his speech that Downing Street should not be considering slashing benefits during a recession and highlighted that “no government has done so since the Great Depression”.
The Chancellor is reportedly considering a £500 one-off payment to claimants to replace the increased level of support. The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary criticised the suggestion as a “terrible policy” on Sunday.
He said today: “Whilst six million families are affected by this now, that cohort will change in composition throughout the year. A one-off payment based on who is eligible now will fail to support some of the people who need that support the most.”
The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary used his contribution to make a “special appeal” before MPs voted to the 2019 intake of Tory MPs now representing parliamentary constituencies lost by Labour in the last election.
“Many of those people are the first Conservatives to have ever been elected in those places,” he said. “They’ve already made history and their success is a significant personal achievement. They’ll be remembered, but so will their votes.
“Most of all, when thinking about how to cast their vote today, I urge everyone to take a moment to reflect on what this cut will mean to the people who send us here. The uncertainty it will add in an already uncertain time.
“The loss it will bring when we have already lost so much. The fear it will cause when what people need is hope. So, for our constituents, for the economy and for the national interest, we need to cancel this cut.”
60 organisations brought together by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation issued a public statement last November expressing “deep concern” at government failure to guarantee the uplift in April and provide security for millions of households.
“How can it be right that people have to wait until March to find out whether Universal Credit will be cut by almost a quarter at the end of month?” Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions committee Stephen Timms asked in the debate.
Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that the withdrawal of the uplift to the benefits would drive up relative poverty from its current estimated level of 21% to 23% by 2024-25, while a further 820,000 children would fall into poverty.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that unemployment will peak in the second quarter of 2021, just as reduction to the level of the out-of-work support is made, at 7.5% with 2.6 million people out of work.
“We are in the midst of the worst recession ever,” Ilford South Labour MP and shadow minister Sam Tarry told MPs. “Millions of families, many of which are in work and rely on government support to supplement poverty wages are on the brink.”
The motion passed tonight by MPs is not binding on the government but Downing Street has hinted at a U-turn. Johnson’s spokesperson said today: “We haven’t made a decision. We will be coming forward in due course with our decision.”
Six Tory rebels: Peter Aldous, Stephen Crabb, Robert Halfon, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris, Matthew Offord.