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Political news

DUP and Tories abstain from universal credit roll-out vote

Prime Minister Theresa May clashed with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over Universal Credit at Prime Minister's Questions. Picture by Press Association
Claire Simpson and Press Association

THE DUP last night abstained from a vote on pausing the roll-out of the government's flagship benefits reforms.

The north's biggest party - which has agreed a £1 billion confidence and supply arrangement to prop up Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative government - confirmed earlier yesterday that its MPs would abstain.

Tory MPs also abstained amid fears that several Conservatives would rebel and vote against the government.

The controversial change to benefits, which includes the introduction of a combined payment known as Universal Credit (UC), has been criticised following claims some families had to wait six weeks for money, leaving them at risk of eviction.

Ministers yesterday announced the scrapping of controversial charges of up to 55p a minute to call a UC helpline. However it was unclear whether claimants in the north would still have to pay the charges.

Although the Labour motion to pause the reforms passed by 299 votes to zero, it is not binding on the government.

Speaking in the House of Commons during yesterday's debate, DUP MP Sammy Wilson confirmed that his party would be abstaining from the vote.

"Not because we don't believe there are problems, but because we believe it is better to talk to the government to get solutions, rather than being used - and let me just say this to the Labour party - because they know there are differences between ourselves and the government," he said.

Commons Speaker John Bercow said the Tories could not "suddenly say we didn't lose" after Labour's victory just because they did not take part.

Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh questioned the point of the Commons if it merely expresses opinions "for the sake of it".

He said he had trooped through the lobbies to vote on hundreds of divisions on Wednesdays over 34 years as an MP, and that he was "under the impression that it served some purpose".

"And what worries me is that surely there is some sort of precedent here," he told MPs after the vote.

"This is not and should not be a university debating society, what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it and surely when we vote it should have some effect?"

A senior Labour source had earlier described the tactic as "a sign of the paralysis and failure of the Government" after it emerged that Tory MP Douglas Ross would not even be present because he was due to run the line as assistant referee in a Champions League football match in Barcelona.

Several Tory MPs used the opposition day debate to highlight UC's problems such as claimants having to wait for payments, which has been linked to rent arrears and other debts.

But only the respected Commons Health Committee chairwoman Sarah Wollaston voted with Labour after warning ministers they need to address the "fundamental flaw" of the six-week wait.

Heidi Allen, who was among a group of potential Tory rebels invited to Downing Street for talks with the Prime Minister on Tuesday, suggested introducing fortnightly payments and sending housing payments straight to landlords.

The backbencher said she was disappointed the Government did not pause the roll-out while some of the issues were resolved but said it was "too ambitious to expect a response just yet".

Earlier, Mrs May clashed with Jeremy Corbyn over the issue at Prime Minister's Questions.

The Labour leader, who highlighted the helpline charges in the Commons last week, called for a delay to the roll-out of UC telling the PM: "The fundamental problems of Universal Credit remain. The six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions."

But Mrs May replied: "It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace. It is a system that is working because more people are getting into work."

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