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25 October 2017

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn exploits Theresa May’s Universal Credit woes

The Labour leader won again as the Prime Minister struggled to defend the troubled welfare system. 

By George Eaton

Jeremy Corbyn did not hesitate to punch a Conservative bruise at today’s PMQs: Universal Credit. As before, Theresa May defended the troubled welfare system, noting that “four out of five people are satisfied or very satisfied with the service they are receiving”. But as Corbyn retorted, since a mere 8 per cent of claimants are currently on UC (and “non-complex cases” at that), a dissatisfaction rate of 20 per cent is little to celebrate.

The Labour leader has got into the fine habit of citing Tories against May (it was John Major last week). Conservative Welsh AM Angela Burns, he noted, had described Universal Credit as “callous at best” and  “downright cruel” at worst (claimants are typically forced to wait a minimum of six weeks for their payments). 

May responded by denouncing the last Labour government, for “trapping” people on benefits. But Corbyn, who is often accused of only condemning New Labour’s works, responded with a robust defence of the Blair-Brown years. Labour, he recalled, lifted a million children out of poverty and introduced the minimum wage (in the face of Conservative opposition). 

Corbyn continued: “The welfare state was not created to subsidise low-paying employers and overcharging landlords.” May replied: “That’s exactly what Labour’s working tax credit system did!” But after more than seven years of Conservative-led government, this line has little purchase (Corbyn’s non-frontbench experience helps him in this instance). 

The Labour leader concluded with a panoramic attack on the goverment (another good habit): “They say they have full confidence in Universal Credit, but won’t vote for it. They say they will end the NHS pay cap but won’t allocate any money to pay for it. The Communities Secretary backs £50bn of borrowing on housing, but the Chancellor says it’s not policy. The Brexit Secretary says they’re planning for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the Chancellor says they’re not. Isn’t it the case, Mr Speaker, that this Government is weak, incapable, divided and unable to take the essential decisions necessary for the good of this country?”

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Though May has now been urged by John Major, 15 Tory MPs, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Trussell Trust to “pause” Universal Credit, she exhibits no desire to do so. In the absence of no new concessions, Universal Credit will remain a perpetual Tory headache. 

The most notable political exchanges, however, were on Brexit. After David Davis suggested during a select committee appearance that MPs may not get a vote on the government’s deal before the UK leaves (in March 2019), May told Labour’s Stephen Kinnock that she was “confident” it would take place in time (a notable contradiction of Davis). In respone to a Point of Order from Chuka Umunna, Speaker John Bercow subsequently hinted that he would allow MPs to vote on an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill stating the vote should take place before Brexit. ​