The universal credit is the government's next big train wreck

Welfare reform could go so massively wrong, even the intelligence services are worried.

Even if the process for awarding the West Coast rail franchise was bungled by civil servants, it is politically disastrous for the government for a number of reasons. First, voters don’t want to hear politicians blaming their officials, even when the blame is deserved. Second, if ministers seize on the episode as an opportunity to accelerate civil service reform – as they surely will – the long-standing Cold War between Whitehall and the government will heat up, with inevitable leaks, briefings and other mischief that can destabilise an administration.

Third, David Cameron’s governing philosophy is famously obscure and coalition with the Lib Dems curtails his room for policy manoeuvre, so demonstrating the ability to competently implement existing policy is vital for the Prime Minister’s prospects at the next election.

When asked about the plan for recovering public support, senior figures in both coalition parties these days talk about “delivery” – showing that the government is actually getting on with the business of repairing the national finances and sorting out “Labour’s mess”. It is all about rolling up the sleeves and looking like a professional administration, hired by the electorate to do a tough old job. (Check out how often Cameron is photographed with his sleeves literally rolled up.) Labour, by contrast, can then be depicted as deranged fantasists, avoiding tough choices and banging on about weird abstractions instead of talking practical sense, rolling up their sle… you get the idea.

So it looks bad when the “delivery phase” doesn’t deliver and the competence file gets corrupted. Right now, Downing Street should be thinking very hard about what the next part of the programme to unravel will be and taking some pre-emptive measures. There are two obvious candidates.

First, the election of police commissioners. Hardly anyone knows this is happening although the votes are due to be held in England and Wales on 15 November. Turnout will be dismal and, by all accounts, the calibre of candidates is low. This was supposed to be a flagship reform, a great democratisation, a ballot box incarnation of "the big society". It looks like being a bunch of single-issue council seat by-elections.

Second, the universal credit (UC). This is a big one – the epic reconfiguration of the benefits system with a view to making work more lucrative than claiming welfare is due to be rolled out from October next year. Hardly anyone in Whitehall thinks this will happen. It is a vast project that requires complex IT systems, the effective commissioning of which is not an area where the civil service has famously distinguished itself in the past. One particular cause of concern is a plan to introduce “real time” data transfer from employers to the department for work and pensions - via HMRC – so that changes in someone’s work and pay status can filter through automatically to their benefit payments.

This experiment in massive inter-departmental exchange  of highly sensitive private data combined with payments worth billions of pounds has the potential to go spectacularly wrong. I understand from a well-placed source that the intelligence services are taking a close interest in the administration of universal credit because they fear it will compromise national cyber-security. Well-organised criminal hackers (or indeed other foreign intelligence agencies) could break into the system to commit colossal fraud or otherwise sabotage government business.

Separately, those who witness  the administration of the welfare system on the ground – whether in job centres or through citizens’ advice bureaux – are reporting a steep rise in cases of misallocations, errors and general bungling that means some very vulnerable people aren’t getting the money they need. The question being asked with increasing urgency (but still mostly in private) by pretty much everyone involved in welfare policy is this: if the DWP can’t seem to administer the existing benefits system properly, how on earth are they going to manage the switch to UC?

It doesn’t help that Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State responsible for the whole thing, has a thin skin. Officials, charities and advisors from other departments report a culture of prickly denial at the top of the DWP. To hear the way “stakeholders” tell it, if you suggest there are problems with the UC implementation, it is inferred that you do not believe in IDS and, as an enemy of the project, are frozen out. If this is true there is serious trouble ahead.

One remarkable feature of both the police commissioners and universal credit policy accidents waiting to happen is that no-one seems to know who in Number 10 is supposed to be across these things. One of the most frequent complaints from Tories about the Downing Street operation is that there aren’t enough people with really sound political antennae keeping a strategic eye on other departments. Too much, it is said, is being done by civil servants who work on practical measures but don’t keep their ears to the ground for the sound of an incoming stampede of bad headlines.  

Maybe the current turmoil in the Department of Transport could never have been foreseen. Some storms do appear from nowhere. But some can be detected by radar long before they hit the shore. There is a hurricane gathering over the DWP and when the wind picks up and the bad news starts raining down, Cameron should be prepared.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith "has a thin skin". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The internet was supposed to liberate us - let’s claim our freedom

This week the Women's Equality Party launches an e-Quality campaign against online bullying and harassment in all of its forms.

Yesterday – a sunny, energetic day in our office - someone appeared on our website, wrote that he would like to “rape all the sluts” in the Women’s Equality Party, and signed off again.

Our team of female staff read his comment, deleted it and continued working.

If we paused at every message like this, we’d never get any work done. Facing up to daily abuse might not have been formally included in my job description – or in that of our administrative officer, or our digital officer, or any other member of WE staff. But it has swiftly become part of our daily duty, nevertheless.

The abuse has heightened as our party grows. Wearying perhaps, but also a reflection of the space we now occupy on the political scene. After the fantastic results of our first election in May – when the Women’s Equality Party won more than 300,000 votes in London alone – WE provoked as much rage in some quarters as jubilation in others.

Since May we have been pressed to say what we will do next. All of those questions focused on which election we would next fight.

Our next move in fact was to prepare our submission for the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. Evidence submitted to that inquiry showed the torrent of sexual abuse that young girls now face in school, including pressure to take and send sexual images that are sometimes shared widely without their consent.

Women’s rights offline have a long way to go. Women’s rights online are practically non-existent, and worse, there is an even more ingrained acceptance that this is just the way it is.

So this week WE launch our next fight for women’s rights: our e-Quality campaign against online bullying and harassment in all of its forms. We’re focusing on revenge porn because if we can get that faulty and ineffective one-year-old law rightly focused on consent and compensation, we can set a template for wider use.

Later this year we will be rolling out a national campaign for mandatory sex and relationships education in all schools; we refuse to accept the government’s opposition to this vital tool that can help end violence against women and girls.

No, it’s not the Tooting by-election that many people expected us to contest. But politics doesn’t just happen in Parliament. It happens in our communities and in our homes and in our schools.

And we want to do politics differently. We will always be looking to engage in electoral contests. But we are also looking for other ways to empower people to take action and build the broadest possible movements for change.

So with this in mind we are calling on all parties of all sizes to work on this with us - and we are optimistic as we initiate those conversations they will bear fruit.

Later this week Yvette Cooper and a group of politicians will re-launch their campaign to reclaim the Internet for women. WE are delighted to hear this and extend to them for inclusion in that campaign the specific policies that today we are unveiling:

  • To refocus UK law on revenge porn on whether the victim gave consent, rather than primarily on the perpetrator’s intention to cause distress
  • To give victims of revenge porn recourse to civil law in order to seek justice and compensation not just from the perpetrator but also from the website operators that repost non-consensual porn for profit
  • To construct digital legislation that adequately protects against online abuse and harassment in all its forms and particularly recognizes the double discrimination faced by BME women, disabled women and LGBT+ women.
  • To build equality into technology and the forces that police it by increasing the numbers of women in both fields.

The Women’s Equality Party was established with the aim of doing politics creatively. WE showed in May’s elections that we have earned the right to be heard. Now WE are asking all of the other parties to listen to our voters, set party politics aside and ensure urgently-needed protections for women and girls online.

You can read more about the campaign here. To support equal rights for women online, tweet your support with the hashtag #CtrlAltDelete so that women’s voices are no longer controlled, modified and deleted online.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.