Universal Credit: Duncan Smith's master plan is grinding to a halt

The new welfare system will now be piloted in just one area, rather than four, next month.

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.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outside Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.