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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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