The government does not expect the further rollout of universal credit to mean more people having to use food banks, a minister has said during a Commons debate on the new benefits system.
Speaking in response to a Labour motion passed unanimously last week calling for the gradual national extension of the system to be paused, Damian Hinds, the junior work and pensions minister, said ministers would “continue to listen to concerns”.
But he declined to say whether the government would reduce the six-week wait for claimants to receive initial payments. Labour has called, among other changes, for this to be reduced to four or five weeks, saying the system as it is pushes people into debt.
Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, told Hinds that the main food bank in his Birkenhead constituency was seeking 15 tonnes more supplies before the arrival of universal credit locally next month.
Asked whether the food bank was being prudent, Hinds replied: “I think we have to be careful to ascribing the reasons for the use of food banks to individual or simple causes. Of course we do not expect that to happen, we expect this system to work exactly as well as it can.”
Field intervened again to say this was “not the food bank thinking up ideas or targets. This is our food bank talking to other food banks in other areas that have already had the rollout. On that basis they suggest in the coming year, not just Christmas, they need to raise an additional 15 tonnes of food.”
He asked: “Are they scaremongering, and we should put them aside, or should we believe them that the government won’t be able to deliver universal credit without reducing people to hunger?”
Hinds said he did not want to suggest the food bank was being alarmist. “But my response to his substantive question is no, we do not expect these things to happen, because we want this system to work as well as it possibly can. It continues to improve in its performance and we continue to evolve and improve the system,” he said.
The Labour motion calling for a pause to the rollout of universal credit was passed by 299 votes to zero last Wednesday after government whips ordered Conservative MPs not to take part.
The new debate was granted by the Speaker, John Bercow, for the government to respond to the vote.
Beginning the debate for Labour, Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said she did not know why David Gauke, her government opposite number, was not appearing, and she had not received a “satisfactory response” from his office on this question.
Abrahams said ministers needed to give a proper response to worries after the vote about both the implementation of universal credit and what she said were serious design flaws.
“The government must take action or face serious constitutional questions,” she said. “This government has had three sitting days to respond to the legislature, keeping this house, keeping the country, along with the 7 million people expected to be using this programme, waiting.”
Although the Labour motion last week was advisory, Abrahams said the government should “respect the will of the house, this country’s elected representatives, and pause universal credit full service rollout”.
She added: “I stand ready to work with him [Gauke] in the national interest to address these issues and avert the disaster that is universal credit.”
Hinds did not engage with Abrahams’ questions, saying only that the system had been fully debated before it began to be implemented and that the government was listening to concerns.
“Yes, it is a fundamental reform, it is a lot of change. It’s a new benefit, it’s a new IT system, it’s a new operational system. It involves new ways of working with partners, and yes that does bring with it some challenges,” he said. “But its implementation is at a very measured pace, stretching over nine years, from 2013 to 2022.”
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, criticised Gauke for not attending the debate, saying her constituents on universal credit would be sanctioned for similar behaviour.