Duncan Smith's master plan is under ever-greater attack

Universal Credit will leave claimants "trapped in poverty", warns the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The objections to Iain Duncan Smith's master plan to transform welfare - the Universal Credit (UC) - are rapidly mounting up. Earlier this month, a commission led by Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson warned that 450,000 disabled people would receive less under the scheme, despite Duncan Smith's promise that there would be "no losers". Now, a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests that it could leave claimants "trapped in poverty" by failing to fulfil the coalition's pledge to "make work pay". The foundation warns that while the scheme will incentivise people to take mini-jobs of fewer than 16 hours week, it will not "encourage" recipients to go on to search for full-time work. "Marginal increases in earnings alone are unlikely to be sufficient incentive to move into full-time work, with small financial gains likely to be wiped out by costs such as childcare and travel," the report says.

The JRF, which has long supported the scheme in principle, also warns that UC, ostensibly a simplification of the welfare system, will leave claimants facing "a more complex benefits system than before". The shift from fortnightly to monthly payments could result in low-income families running out of money before the end of each month.  The report suggets that "Recipients may have to borrow money to bridge the gap, leaving them to start their universal credit claim in debt … it may create an unfair bias against women, with child-related support not necessarily reaching the children it is intended for."

And then, of course, there's the question of whether the computer system on which UC is based will actually work. In theory, benefit payments will be automatically adjusted as earnings vary, ensuring that claimants are always better off in employment than out of work. But that relies on real-time data transfers between HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, something many fear will prove impossible. As Rafael noted earlier this month, "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?" The JRF urges the government to provide details about stand-by arrangements if systems crash and to consider creating an ombudsman to deal with complaints.

With the UC "pathfinders" due to launch next April and the national launch set for October of the same year, time is short for Duncan Smith to convince the sceptics. In the words of public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge, an ever-greater number of people believe that the project is "a train crash waiting to happen; there is too much going on".

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.