Duncan Smith can't avoid the blame for the Universal Credit disaster

The Work and Pensions Secretary tried to pass the buck to the civil service but the NAO report says he never explained how "Universal Credit is meant to work".

After the publication of the National Audit Office's excoriating report on Universal Credit, Iain Duncan Smith could hardly deny that the project hasn't gone to plan.

Of Universal Credit, which will replace six of the main benefits and tax credits with a single payment, the NAO states that "throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work", that the 2017 national roll-out date is in serious doubt, that the department "has not achieved value for money", with £34m of IT programmes written off, that the current IT system "lacks the ability to identify potentially fraudulent claims" and that the DWP repeatedly ignored warnings about the viability of the project.

But rather than accept responsbility for these failures, as Work and Pensions Secretary, Duncan Smith has sought to shift the blame onto the civil service. Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, he declared that "what went wrong was the Universal Credit team" and that "those charged with actually putting together the detail of the IT...did not make the correct decisions". At no point did he answer the damning charge from the NAO that "the source of many problems has been the absence of a detailed view of Universal Credit is meant to work", something which, as secretary of state, it was Duncan Smith's responsibility to provide. 

It's not as if he wasn't warned. Back in October 2010, the Chartered Institute of Taxation noted in its response to the government's consultation: 

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.

Even now, Duncan Smith remains in denial about the extent of his failure. He repeatedly claimed that Universal Credit would be delivered "in time" but the reality is that it has been dramatically scaled back. 

The programme was originally due to apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits from this October but in July the department quietly admitted that it would be introduced in just six "hub jobcentres" - Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton, alongside the existing four "pathfinders". 

This means that a project that has so far cost £420m will now apply to just ten job centres, less than 1.5 per cent of the total. In addition, the only group of claimants included will be single people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. As Labour MP Glenda Jackson noted at a recent work and pensions select committee hearing, "The people you are actually testing are a small number, the simplest of cases. How an earth are you going to achieve the evidence that you keep telling us you are going to learn from when the cohort is so narrow and so simple?" At present, just 1,000 claimants in Ashton-Under-Lyne have used the system. 

Duncan Smith's response today? "The numbers are not relevant". Any hope he once had of genuinely transforming the welfare system surely died with those words. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.