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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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