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Highlands MP angered by 'cruel' Tory laughter over universal credit

By Emma Crichton

SNP MP Drew Hendry who has been angered by Tory laughter after Universal Credit question
SNP MP Drew Hendry who has been angered by Tory laughter after Universal Credit question

Badenoch and Strathspey MP Drew Hendry has launched a scathing attack on Conservatives who laughed while he discussed terminally ill people at Westminster.

The SNP MP branded his Tory counterparts "cruel" for their behaviour while he explained that people in the north are dying while waiting for their benefits to be paid.

The laughter can be clearly heard during Prime Minister’s Questions but during a universal credit debate the following day when challenged by the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP, the Conservatives denied it.

Mr Hendry said: "I tried to relate harrowing stories yesterday, instead when I raised the question there was laughter from the benches opposite.

"It was recorded - Listen to the question and you will hear it loudly.

"I would ask what is funny? That it is harrowing?

"That I was talking about cancer patients who are dying before their universal credit came in?

"The fact that I was talking about people who have to declare that they are terminally ill even when they have told doctors that they do not want to know their fate?

"How cruel is that? And yet there was laughter."

This came as MPs debated a report by Westminster’s work and pensions committee, calling on the government to reduce the initial six-week wait for payments when a new application is made or a change of circumstances is reported under the controversial new benefits system.

Universal credit was trialled in Inverness in 2013 and was rolled out across the Highlands in July.

As it is extended across the UK, expected to take five years, hundreds of MPs, including some backbench Conservatives, are calling for the government to pause the roll out until problems are addressed.

During the debate Mr Hendry said: "I’m always astounded by the lengths that people who haven’t received universal credit [in their constituencies] will go to defend the system when they haven’t actually seen what has happened.

"Universal credit in its current form, without being halted and fixed, is a disaster.

"It’s only going to get worse as it goes to more people and the services that support it become more stretched."

So far the government has insisted universal credit is working but it is expected to bow to pressure and reduce the wait to four weeks when the Autumn budget is announced on Wednesday .

Since universal credit was introduced there has been a huge rise in people relying on food banks and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau but Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone pointed out that many people in the north find it difficult to access these services.

"This situation is worsened when you have constituents in Caithness and Sutherland, remote parts of Scotland, who are way out by themselves, not near a food bank or friends and relations who may be able to tide them over the gap," he said.

"There is a rurality and sparsity issue to this which worries me greatly."

As the festive season approaches concerns about the wait are growing and one MP pointed out that people switching from the old benefits such as housing benefits or child tax credits, in the coming weeks will not receive any money until after Christmas.

But work and pensions minister Damian Hinds insisted that the single monthly payment under universal credit is better than the old system, which saw up to six different benefits paid, often at different times.

"Universal Credit simplifies the system, merging six benefits into one and asking people to deal with only one part of the government, not three," he said.

"Universal credit is a vital reform that changes how we support people out of work, in work, and how we help them progress from one to the other.

"Yes that brings with it some challenges but we will continue to work with claimants, stake holders, partners and members across the house to resolve these challenges as they arise and improve universal credit as it is rolled out across the country."

It will boost employment by an estimated quarter of a million when it is fully rolled out.

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