The row over universal credit could not have come at a worse time for Theresa May. With most of Whitehall’s resources and almost all of Downing Street’s political capital focused on Brexit, No 10 is now also having to stave off growing backbench unrest about the government’s flagship welfare policy.
The introduction of the new system has been dogged by delays and warnings about the impact on struggling families. Ministers have already made a series of changes and no one doubts that more will be needed. Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, told the Commons yesterday that the government “will make sure we get this benefit right”. People may ask why, six years after the change was approved by parliament, it has not done so already.
Tory backbenchers are increasingly concerned about the policy and the impact it will have on their constituents. This is not a minor reform – the switch to universal credit will affect eight million working-age people. MPs are already being bombarded with tales of people forced into debt, destitution and, according to one Labour MP, prostitution as they are transferred to the new system.
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