The work and pensions secretary has signalled that the government will press ahead with controversial welfare changes, insisting the system of universal credit is “making work pay and transforming lives”.
Responding to a letter signed by 30 Labour MPs and the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas, expressing concerns about UC and calling for its implementation to be paused, David Gauke underlined his commitment to the policy.
“Getting UC right is a priority for me,” he said. “UC is revolutionising the welfare system by making work pay and transforming lives. Those on UC are moving into work significantly faster and working longer than under the old system. Only through this balanced approach can we as a country provide effective and holistic support for families and individuals to enter the world of work while ensuring fairness for the taxpayer.”
The two-page letter – one of Gauke’s first actions since he was handed the work and pensions role in Theresa May’s post-election reshuffle – suggests there is little appetite in government for softening planned changes to the welfare system in the wake of the election campaign, which saw Labour focus on the impact of austerity.
However, he does acknowledge the concerns of claimants struggling to navigate the new system, saying: “I know change of any kind can be difficult, especially for families struggling to get by.”
He offers to meet Laura Pidcock, the lead signatory on the letter, and her colleagues when parliament returns from the summer recess next month to discuss their concerns.
The introduction of UC, which rolls six benefits into a single monthly payment, is due to be extended to about 50 new areas.
New UC claimants are set to receive significantly less than they would have done under the current system of tax credits, as a result of changes aimed at cutting £12bn a year off the welfare bill.
Gauke, who was previously a Treasury minister, has a reputation at Westminster as a safe pair of hands, even with complex policy challenges. George Osborne, his former boss, used to say he would “uncork the Gauke” when he needed extra political firepower.
In his reply to the opposition MPs, who were concerned that plans to switch over to UC in some areas in November and December would create hardship in the run-up to Christmas, Gauke claims long payment delays are rare.
“You mention that sometimes the initial payment can take longer than the intended five- to six-week period. While there are cases that can take longer than five to six weeks, this should be put into context. Our latest internal data suggests some 80% of cases were paid in full at the end of the first assessment period,” he says, adding that the other 20% are often those who have not yet signed up to their “claimant commitment” or provided all the necessary paperwork.
Gauke is the Conservatives’ fourth welfare secretary in less than two years. Iain Duncan Smith, who championed UC, resigned in 2016 after a row with Osborne over benefits cuts.
Labour did not promise to cancel all of the government’s welfare cuts during the election campaign, but some of the prime minister’s most awkward moments were when she was challenged publicly over the plight of the low-paid – including, for example, nurses forced to use food banks.
Pidcock, the MP for North West Durham since the June election, made waves at Westminster in the short time parliament sat before breaking for the summer, with a passionate maiden speech promising to fight for her constituents.
Other signatories to the letter included the shadow cabinet minister Kate Osamor, Stella Creasy, Alison McGovern, John Mann, Jon Cruddas and John Cryer.
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