The Tories lost the Universal Credit vote – why doesn’t it count?

MPs backed a pause in the roll-out of the flawed new welfare system.

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On Wednesday, the House of Commons backed pausing and fixing Universal Credit before rolling it out further by 299 votes to zero. The 299 votes in favour of putting the flawed new welfare system on hold included one rebel Tory MP.

So there we go. If not one of our elected representatives voted to keep going ahead with the roll-out – not even the government ministers in charge of it – then hooray, concerned claimants everywhere can celebrate and recover from punishing delays in their payments.

But no they can’t. Those who need benefits will continue to be plunged suddenly into pennilessness beyond their control, evicted or refused a home, unable to access the financial help they need, have their children go hungry, rely on food banks, face barriers when trying to work part-time and care for children, be forced into debt, and vulnerable to domestic abuse.

Why? Because the vote in parliament was “symbolic”. The motion – to pause and fix the roll-out of Universal Credit – was an Opposition Day Debate. There are 20 of these days per parliamentary session when the main business in the Commons is chosen by the parties in opposition.

These votes are not binding on the government, so they can only ever result in symbolic victories. But even so, why didn’t the Tories at least turn up to vote against the motion? Because they don’t have a majority, and with about 12 Tory MPs calling for the roll-out to be paused, Tory whips must have considered it less embarrassing simply not to engage with the vote, and for their MPs to abstain (which, apart from the one rebel Sarah Wollaston, they did).

But just because the government tried not to take part, it still lost, by a thumping 299 votes. Without having the guts to back its policy through a vote, it revealed both dismissiveness towards the people it’s supposed to help, and lack of confidence in its own reform.

The House of Commons Speaker John Bercow also accused the government of making a mockery of parliamentary procedure, following the vote’s result. “If you choose not to take part and vote you can’t say, ‘well, we didn’t lose’,” he told the House, sounding rattled. “A minister from the government should come to the House and show respect to the institution and say what it intends to do. This institution is bigger than any one party and is bigger than any government.”

The New Statesman has been reporting on Universal Credit since its inception. Read our coverage here

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.