Iain Duncan Smith can't avoid the blame for the Universal Credit failures

Hearing only what you want to hear.

The government's Universal Credit program is not launching smoothly. The first "pathfinder" scheme launched on Monday with just 300 people expected to start claiming, after the other three trials were delayed. As it was, not one claimant actually turned up in person on day one, leaving staff at the Citizens Advice Bureau "unable to say what the rest of the form was like because they had not seen the live version", according to the Guardian's Amelia Gentleman.

Faced with this teething trouble, the government's spin machine is whirring up. Not to make the service sound like it works – that's a task beyond even Malcom Tucker's ken – but to make the failure somebody else's fault. Rachel Sylvester in the Times quotes one government source shifting the blame on to the civil service:

“IDS has been an incredibly good minister and really determined to get this reform through, but he has been banging his head against official intransigence, lack of will and at times deception,” says a government source.

Conservative Home's Paul Goodman goes one step further:

Another has put it more bluntly to me: "They lied to him," I was told (about the progress of the scheme).

Did poor IDS really only find out about the (lack of) progress in implementing Universal Credit recently? That seems unlikely, given that we all knew far sooner. In October 2010, the Chartered Institute of Taxation submitted its response to the Government's consultation on Universal Credit:

The document suggests that the IT changes required would not constitute a major project, and this was repeated by the Secretary of State [Iain Duncan Smith] when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. We are sceptical about this.

By June 2011, those fears were becoming reality. The Observer's Daniel Boffey reported (presciently) that "Universal credit's 2013 delivery could be derailed by complex IT system":

A report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), details of which have been leaked to the Observer, reveals serious concerns among government IT suppliers over whether the deadlines for the new system can be met.

And by July 2012, the Telegraph's Christopher Williams was reporting that the technology underpinning the reforms had been "rushed through":

The All Party Group on Taxation found that the Universal Credit, a single payment intended to replace several different benefits, is reliant on a new HMRC up-to-date “real time” information to track earnings.

Officials admitted that a pilot begun in April was suffering from a “glitch” that meant it had processed fewer than one in 10 of the 1m PAYE submissions so far submitted by employers. Internal documents also said the original project budget of £108m has grown to £201m.

Iain Duncan Smith may have a terrible relationship with his civil servants, but he can't blame them for not knowing about the shambles he was heading for.

A screenshot from the gov.uk website for Universal Credit. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear