When a government department sneaks out a press release the night before the start of the Easter weekend, it's a sure sign that it's trying to bury bad news. The news, in this instance, is that Universal Credit, Iain Duncan Smith's master plan to reform welfare, has all but ground to a halt. After previously planning to trial the scheme - which will replace six of the main benefits with a single payment - in four areas this April, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that it now would do so in just one. A single jobcentre, Ashton-under-Lyne, will accept claims for Universal Credit from 29 April, with the other three pilot areas, Wigan, Warrington and Oldham, not doing so until July. The national rollout is finally due to begin in October but ministers have yet to say when existing claimants will be moved over.
This transparent attempt to narrow the scope for failure is unsurprising. In recent months it has become almost impossible to find anyone in Whitehall who believes Universal Credit will work. This is principally due to the fantastically complex computer system on which the reform depends. 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, a system that few place their faith in. Earlier this year, ministers were forced to admit that it was failing 25 per cent of the time in private testing. With Universal Credit payments based on incomplete or incorrect salary information, the danger is that claimants will not receive the benefits they are entitled to.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said: "The truth is the IT for Universal Credit appears to be nowhere near ready. Universal Credit calculations depend on salary data from HMRC's new PAYE Real Time Information system. Obligations for small firms to provide PAYE data on or before each employee payment have recently been delayed from April until October. And DWP are so worried they are now barring access to their five main contractors.
“This scheme is now on the edge of disaster. ministers must admit this project is in crisis and start to fix it now – before millions of families tax credits are put at risk."
It was concerns over Universal Credit that prompted David Cameron to try and move Duncan Smith during last year's cabinet reshuffle. A replacement, it was hoped, might be more amenable to changes. But the Work and Pensions Secretary would not budge. Having devoted years in opposition and in government to the programme, he had no intention of being absent at the birth. Reluctantly, then, Cameron allowed him to remain in place. But with the government's reputation, as well that of Duncan Smith's, now staked on the reforms, he may yet come to regret his pusillanimity.