Today, 12 Conservative MPs have finally broken their silence around the disastrous impacts of this government’s Universal Credit rollout. I am glad that they have publicly backed Labour’s call for a pause, which I restated in my speech to our party conference on Monday.
While Labour has long supported the original principles of Universal Credit – to make work pay and simplify the social security system – the government has introduced punitive reforms to the programme, sending it into chaos and pushing those who rely on it into poverty.
Most pernicious of these is the policy of making recipients wait six weeks before payment when they first make a claim. In the Department for Work and Pensions’ own analysis, this wait was identified by nearly half of all recipients in arrears as the reason for their mounting debt. It comes after research by Citizens Advice found 79 per cent of those in debt who were on Universal Credit owed “priority debts” to their landlord, council or energy company.
Though many would think six weeks was long enough to wait, the department has also admitted that one in ten recipients of Universal Credit are having to wait more than ten weeks, increasing the debt mountain faced by those already struggling to get by.
It is right then that these Conservative MPs are also pressuring their government into making change. But we need to go further.
Labour are setting the agenda on social security, and it’s time the Tories responded on other issues, not least the plight of women born in the 1950s who had their state pension age quietly pushed back by this government.
In my speech, I called on the government to take a step forward in support of these women, setting out proposals to give them the option to retire at 64, two years earlier than under the government’s plans.
Alongside our proposals to extend Pension Credit to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable, this would give the 2.6 million women who are yet to retire the opportunity to enjoy the security of a state pension.
For Labour, these are immediate options that the government could offer now. For us, this would start to right the real injustice these women have been dealt.
The government has so far refused to set aside any additional spending for 1950s-born women. They would not take up our proposal of Pension Credit despite its modest cost. That’s why we made this new option cost neutral over the long term, by suggesting that those who took it would see a slight reduction in their state pension of a few pounds a week. This gives the Government no excuse not to implement this now, offering another vital lifeline to those older women who are struggling. We will keep working with those affected to push for justice.
Ministers’ bickering over Brexit has led to complete inactivity on our social security system, showing Labour to be a true government-in-waiting, taking this agenda forward. But it is not enough for a few Conservative MPs to merely help their government avert crises. Labour wants to transform our social security system to one that is there for us all in our time of need, providing dignity and security to older people, to the sick and disabled and to anyone who has fallen on hard times.
Debbie Abrahams MP is shadow secretary of state for work and pensions