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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder