UK prime minister Theresa May refused to pause the roll-out of the government’s new universal credit benefit on Wednesday, despite a growing backlash from Tory MPs who say the policy change is leading to hardship.

Up to two dozen Conservative MPs have threatened to rebel in votes called by Labour on the benefits changes. But Mrs May told Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday that universal credit was working and that it would be wrong to halt the roll-out of the new policy.

Universal credit replaces six previous benefits that were given to people looking for work or on low incomes. The single payment is intended to improve the incentives for people claiming benefits to find work, with ministers projecting that the policy change will lead to an extra 250,000 people finding jobs.

Universal credit has only been introduced at 8 per cent of Job Centres across the UK so far. But there are already widespread concerns about the system, namely because claimants have to wait at least six weeks after making their first claim before receiving their first payment.

Mr Corbyn said on Wednesday that the “fundamental problems of universal credit remain”, citing “the six-week wait, rising indebtedness, rent arrears and evictions”.

But Mrs May told Mr Corbyn that universal credit was a simpler system, and that it was working because more people were getting into work where it had been introduced.

“Pausing universal credit will not help those people who would be helped by moving to universal credit, getting into the workplace and bringing home more pay for their families,” Mrs May said.

Earlier on Wednesday, David Gauke, UK work and pensions secretary, announced the government would convert the telephone helpline for claimants from a premium-rate line to a freephone number. Claimants had previously been charged up to 55p per minute for using the line.

But the change did little to appease members of the Commons work and pensions committee.

In an evidence session on Wednesday, Neil Couling, the civil servant in charge of the programme, came under criticism for being unable to give exact information about how long claimants were waiting to receive money. Mr Gauke eventually revealed that 4 per cent of claimants were still waiting to receive payments 10 weeks after their first claim.

Mr Gauke told the committee that the government had been advising benefits staff that they should inform claimants of their right to ask for an advance on payments.

“What we will be looking at very closely is, over the months ahead, what the impact of greater uptake of advances is on people as they join universal credit,” Mr Gauke added.

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