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.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.