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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.