Coalition meets just 0.2% of Universal Credit target

New figures show just 2,150 are claiming the payment, leaving the government 997,850 short of its original target of one million.

Three and a half years after Iain Duncan Smith took the reins at the Department for Work and Pensions, how many people are claiming Universal Credit? The answer, as revealed by the DWP today, is just 2,150. That leaves Duncan Smith 997,850 claimants short of meeting his original April 2014 target of one million (since downgraded to 184,000, a target that will also not be met). 

Universal Credit which was initially due apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits from October 2013, is currently only available in seven 'pathfinder' sites: Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham, Warrington, Wigan, Hammersmith, Rugby and Inverness (the stats refer to the first four). Shadow work and pensions minister Chris Bryant said: "Today’s figures show there are just 2,000 people receiving Universal Credit despite the Department for Work and Pensions once claiming a million people would be on it by next April. It’s clear to everyone but this out-of-touch Government that Universal Credit is in chaos. It’s time for David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith to come clean and tell us how they’re going to fix this problem. Families facing a cost-of-living crisis deserve better than this." Although, of course, Labour is still committed to Universal Credit in principle. 

Ministers are trumpeting the finding that 90% of people claimed their benefits online after earlier warnings that the system would prove too complicated. But it's worth noting that the only group of claimants currently included are single, non-home owning, non-disabled, childless 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?"

It was in September, in an an excoriating report, that the National Audit Office warned 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.

Duncan Smith recenty told the work and pensions select committee that he was merely following advice from MPs "not to go too fast" but as Labour chair Anne Begg replied, "There's rushing it and there's a snail pace". Having once promised a welfare revolution, it is clear that the government's priority is now damage limitation.

Update: Here's a statement I've been sent by the DWP.

"The early rollout of Universal Credit was always designed to start with small volumes of claimants in line with our determination to bring in the new benefit safely and responsibly.
 
"This figure only includes claimants to the end of September. Since then three other areas – Hammersmith, Rugby and Inverness – have gone live, nearly doubling the size of the Universal Credit roll out and we expect claimant numbers to increase as a result."
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Birmingham in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.