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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.