The problem with Universal Credit? It has marched to a political drum

In working to deliver to an arbitrary timetable, Duncan Smith ignored sound programme management principles.

Whenever we talk to low-income families about welfare reform, they always ask the same question: when will I be moved on to Universal Credit? The National Audit Office’s report on the new benefit published today suggests the answer could be like picking petals off a flower: this year, next year, some time, never…

The report provides a forensic exposition of Universal Credit to date. It documents how the government had to 'reset' UC earlier this year because of the Major Project Authority’s concerns about the programme implementation, how DWP has had to scale back its ambitions with respect to the pilots launched in April and how the vital IT systems that underpin UC are woefully under-developed, forcing the department to abandon the planned national roll-out this October. 

It’s a controlled but withering assessment, which contrasts sharply with the rosy picture the Secretary of State and his officials gave to the work and pensions committee only a few weeks ago.

Why so many problems? Reading between the lines, the report suggests that many of UC’s difficulties stem from the fact that the project has marched to the beat of the political drum, rather than the more sober tempo of sound programme management principles. As the NAO tactfully puts it, "The Department was not able to explain to us how it originally decided on October 2013 or evaluated the feasibility of roll-out by this date". Traditional management approaches would have indicated an April 2015 launch instead.

In the scrabble to honour ministerial commitments, the DWP has had to cut many corners. The report shows that time and again, the UC team has departed from the original brief in order to deliver to deadline. The pilots were radically reduced in scope and size, for example, and the national roll-out has been scaled back to just six new pathfinder sites. 

But these short-cuts have profound implications for the future progress of UC. The IT that supports the 1,000 or so claimants currently trialling the new benefit has cost the department £303m to date, yet is so primitive that the NAO questions whether it can form the basis of the national system. DWP has already had to write off £34m of new IT assets as not fit for purpose, with the report suggesting that other UC investments could prove equally redundant in the longer term.

In working to deliver to an arbitrary timetable, then, DWP has hunkered down and developed a fortress mentality. But in the meantime, those low-income families set to gain under Universal Credit are left waiting. Let’s hope that for their sake, the NAO report, with its robust suggestions for remedial action, can penetrate the departmental defences.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

Photo: Getty
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Mark Sampson's exit leaves the FA still trying to convince itself of its own infallibility

Football's governing body won't be able to repair the damage to its reputation in silence.

By the end, it appeared as if Mark Sampson was weathering the storm.

Despite personal reflections that the uproar and scandal that has surrounded his recent tenure as England women's football manger was taking a toll, he seemed, as of Tuesday night, firmly ensconced in the post he had held since 2013.

Player Eniola Aluko’s claims of bullying and racism against the coach – given little backing from teammates and, on balance, disregarded by consecutive enquiries – remained a persistent story, yet talk of a fresh investigation were trumped in importance by Sampson’s continued presence at training and in the dugout.

The BBC’s occasionally rabid attachment to proceedings gave the saga prolonged oxygen, but when Sampson seemed to retain the FA’s support – taking charge of the Lionesses’ 6-0 win over Russia on Tuesday night – the worst appeared to be over.

With hindsight, the vultures were simply sharpening their talons.

Sampson’s sacking – less than 24 hours after that Russia game – came after a report was unearthed detailing a historic complaint against him from his time coaching Bristol Academy – a job he left to take up the England post.

In what has long become customary, the FA received these claims nearly four years ago yet failed to act definitively – initially concluding that their new coach was “not a safeguarding risk”. However as the recent crisis depended, the full details of these initial accusations were allegedly not revealed to senior leadership.

Confirming Sampson's departure on Wednesday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn carried a pained expression reminiscent of former incumbent Mark Palios, who, in another entry in the annals of great FA crises, resigned in 2004 as a result of an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam.

Glenn will hope that his own head is not sought in the weeks ahead as his conduct throughout the Sampson saga is probed.

It also marks yet another turbulent 12 months for the beleaguered governing body, who almost exactly a year ago to the day, parted company with England men’s coach Sam Allardyce after just a single game in charge – the former Bolton and Sunderland coach getting the bullet as a result of transfer advice offered to undercover journalists.

The Allardyce departure was handled with uncharacteristic efficiency – a symptom, perhaps, of the initial scepticism behind his appointment rather than any particular reflection on his crimes.

With clear-eyed judgement, it is difficult not to have a portion of sympathy for Sampson – who, cleared by those investigations, maintained the very visible backing of his squad – right up until Wednesday’s bitter denouement.

That he’s been paid in full for the three-year contract signed last summer speaks for how soft a line the FA took on the events that forced the sacking – hoping, perhaps, for as quiet an ending as possible for both parties.

Regrettably, for the FA at least, considerable damage to their reputation will not be something they can repair in silence – not in an era where women’s football enjoys such a high profile in the national consciousness and the body continues to mark itself an easy target for criticism. 

The exact contents of those 2014 allegations and that report are sure to be known down the line – non-disclosure agreements willing – but are as of now only conjecture and innuendo.

Without details, it’s difficult to know how hard to judge Sampson. The facts of his performance on the pitch mark him out as having been an accomplished coach. That is no longer the exclusive measure of success.

Detractors will murmur darkly about there being no smoke without fire, while his supporters will point to the unique nature of the job and the often confrontational elements of its duties.

Sampson, at 34, is still a relatively young man and may be able to coach again once the rancour has subsided – although with a reputation severely bloodied, will look on the two-year salary windfall with some gratitude.

Despite Glenn’s insistence that his former manager is “clear to work” in the sport, it’s hard to envisage his career ever resuming in the women’s game.

The FA itself is again left rudderless as it tries to convince itself of its own infallibility. Flabby management structures and the perception of being an antiquated country club – valid or not – will be revisited with relish.

Perhaps positively, it could herald a more honest conversation behind what success looks like for the national game as a whole. Inclusiveness and development of a robust culture are often the first words to disappear from the vocabulary once on field results start to falter.  

For once, the identity of the next coach is not the urgent dilemma facing the FA.

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