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.

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The SNP retains power as Scottish Labour faces being beaten into third

Ruth Davidson’s Conservative Party looks on track to become the official opposition in Holyrood.

As expected, the SNP have performed well in the Scottish elections, with an increased vote share and some key gains – particularly from Labour in Glasgow, where Nicola Sturgeon’s party took all eight constituency seats. As it stands, they could be on course for a second successive majority in Holyrood, once the list members are fully counted.

The story of the night, though, is the demise of Scottish Labour, which put in its worst ever performance in Scotland (my stalwart liveblogging colleague Stephen Bush points out that it’s the party’s worst result since universal suffrage was introduced in 1929). The party’s vote share was done across Scotland, and the results are sufficiently poor that they could see them fall behind the Conservatives to become the third biggest party north of the border.

Losses for Labour include seat of Eastwood in Glasgow, where Scottish Conservatives deputy leader Jackson Carlaw defeated Ken Macintosh. Labour had held the seat for 17 years, though it had been Conservative beforehand.

Other key losses for Scottish Labour include Dumfriesshire, where they were beaten into third; Renfrewshire South (which went to the SNP); Cowdenbeath, where Gordon Brown's old constituency manager and protégé Alex Rowley also lost to the SNP; Glasgow Pollok, where former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont lost to the SNP’s Humza Yousaf. There was a close call for Labour’s Jackie Baillie in Dumbarton, where she held on by just 109 votes.

Rare successes came in Edinburgh Southern, where Daniel Johnson took the seat from the SNP’s Jim Eadie (although since the seat is effectively a four-way marginal, it’s not a particularly indicative gain), and East Lothian, where former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray managed to increase a previously slender majority.

Speaking to the BBC, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said:

“A very bad night for the Labour party… There’s no doubt that the constitution has dominated this election.”

She also confirmed that “no matter what, 100 per cent, I will remain leader of the Scottish Labour party”.

In a great night for her party, Ruth Davison won her seat in Edinburgh Central, making her the first Scottish Conservative leader not to need the list system to enter the Scottish Parliament  since 2005. The Tories also gained Aberdeen West from the SNP as well as their success in Dumfriesshire.

The Liberal Democrats also had a better-than-expected night. Their leader, Willie Rennie, took the Fife North East seat from the SNP, and his party also had comfortable holds in Orkney and Shetland.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.