Boris Johnson faces the prospect of a Commons vote on a planned cut universal credit immediately after MPs return from the summer recess, The Independent understands.
It comes amid growing controversy over the decision to remove the £20-per-week universal credit uplift – introduced at the onset of the Covid pandemic – despite anti-poverty campaigners repeatedly raising the alarm.
Just last week it was warned that most constituencies across Britain will see one in three families and their children hit with the “biggest overnight cut in benefits since the Second World War”.
According to the provisional business papers for the Commons, the government has earmarked time after prime minister’s questions on 8 September — two days after MPs return — for an Opposition Day Debate.
Labour has not officially confirmed they will use the opportunity to push for a division on universal credit, but a source told The Independent the party was “likely” to force a vote on the issue.
Another source added: “If the government won’t backtrack, we’ve said we’ll look at any route we can to give Conservative MPs the choice to either stand up for the constituents or help Boris Johnson inflict this devastating cut on millions of families”.
The shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, has previously suggested Labour would use “every parliamentary mechanism available” in order to prevent the uplift being scrapped.
While an Opposition Day Debate motion would be non-binding on the government, it will force ministers and Tory MPs to vote on the issue — just weeks before the £20-per-week uplift is set to be scrapped.
The scale of any possible rebellion is unclear, but disquiet in the Conservative ranks has been growing over the summer months: in July, the Northern Research Group, representing around 50 Tory MPs, told The Independent they opposed the cut and described the emergency payments as “life-saver” for claimants.
In an extraordinary move, six former Conservative work and pensions secretaries, including former leader Iain Duncan Smith, also wrote to the government describing the uplift, which was introduced as a temporary measure, to be put a “permanent footing”.
And just last week, two Tory MPs – Peter Aldous and John Stevenson – wrote to the prime minister urging him to cancel plans to cut the universal credit payments, saying they had “very serious concerns”.
Instead they argued, in a letter first seen by the BBC, that the uplift was one of the Conservatives’ “best legacies from the pandemic” and should be made permanent by the Treasury.
Publishing a report last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation claimed 413 parliamentary constituencies across the country will have at least a third of working-age families with children impacted by the cut in the autumn.
“MPs from across the political spectrum are already expressing their deep concerns about this planned cut,” said deputy director of policy Katie Schmuecker. “Now is the time for all MPs to step up and oppose this cut to their constituents’ living standards.”
However, defending the cuts, Mr Johnson told reporters on Thursday: “They key focus for this government is on making sure that we come out of Covid strongly, with a jobs-led recovery, and I’m very pleased to see the way the unemployment rate has been falling, employment has been rising, but also wages have been rising. That’s a crucial thing.”
The prime minister added: “My preference, my strong, strong preference, and I believe this is the instinct of most people in this country, my strong preference is for people to see their wages rise through their efforts, rather than through taxation of other people put into their pay packets, rather than welfare. And that’s the approach we support.”
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