Amber Rudd needs a miracle if Universal Credit is ever to be fully implemented

The Work and Pensions Secretary still faces deep concern about the roll-out of the flagship welfare scheme from Tory MPs. 

NS

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The government is no closer to a solution to its woes on Universal Credit. Under questioning from MPs this afternoon, Amber Rudd all but confirmed she would delay a Commons vote on transferring three million existing welfare claimants to the much-criticised new benefit. 

Instead of voting early this month as expected, MPs will be asked to approve a limited trial of the process — known as managed migration — for just 10,000 recipients. This “test and learn” approach will see an impact assessment of the pilot published before Rudd asks MPs to approve moving all claimants onto Universal Credit at an unspecified date in the future. 

Though the Work and Pensions Secretary and her allies deny it, there’s a clear political motive for doing so: the depth of concern among Tory MPs means there is no Commons majority for moving all three million claimants onto the new system. That much has been clear from her appearances at the dispatch box since her appointment in November, and today was no exception. There was no shortage of softball questions from members of the government payroll, but those that came from Conservative backbenchers will give Rudd scant comfort. 

A striking intervention came from Iain Duncan Smith, who devised the scheme that is causing Rudd, and more pertinently millions of benefits claimants, such hardship. He commended his successor for delaying the vote. Even Eddie Hughes, a junior parliamentary private secretary who is considered one of the stars of the 2017 intake, used his slot on the order paper to ask a sticky question about the reaction of housing associations in his constituency to the roll-out. Other backbenchers not known for rebelliousness, like Kevin Hollinrake, chose to needle Rudd on technical points rather than use the opportunity to invite her to praise the staff in their local job centre. 

The continuing prevalence of questions such as these suggests ministers are still some way from securing approval from enough of their own MPs to plough on with introducing Universal Credit, to say nothing of the DUP — who in 2017 said they would not facilitate a “headline-grabbing defeat” of the government’s flagship welfare policy, but would in the very best case scenario only abstain (and have every incentive to inflict such a humiliating defeat as long as Theresa May’s Brexit deal is still in play). So for the foreseeable future, there is a majority against rolling out Universal Credit further baked into this parliament. Barring a miraculous turnaround in fortunes, the interminable delay in its introduction looks set to continue indefinitely. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.