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.

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What are the consequences of Brexit for the refugee crisis?

Politicians neglected the refugee crisis whilst campaigning – but they shouldn't now concede to the darker undertones of the debate.

In the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the refugee crisis seems like a distant memory. Yet not even a year has passed since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, shocking the world.

When campaigning for the EU referendum began, politicians neglected the crisis. Not because the situation had ameliorated, but because the issue had become strategically toxic. Nigel Farage's infamous poster aside, the Leave side preferred scare stories about economic migrants rather than refugees; the Remain side because the refugee crisis, more than anything else since its inception, highlighted the fragility of the ideals that underpin the European Union.

Many of the main issues aired in the course of the referendum debate were related to the refugee crisis, regardless of how little it impacted on them in reality; immigration, strain on public services, national identity. The refugee crisis became a proxy issue; implied, but not addressed, for fear of detrimental impact in the polls.

However, in his repugnant posters (it should be stressed, nothing to do with Leave campaign itself), Nigel Farage made explicit what he thought posed the greatest threat to the UK. Rightly, the posters have been condemned by both sides of the referendum debate, but the underlying suspicion of refugees it reflects has concerned many organisations.Their concern has only been exacerbated by the result of the referendum. The spike in hate crime compounds their fears.

Paul Dillane, head of UKLGIG, a charity that supports LGBTI asylum seekers to the UK, expressed unease at the reaction of his clients: “The asylum seekers I work with do not understand the decision that has been made – they feel vulnerable, they feel unwelcome. Yes the law hasn’t changed, and if they’re at risk of persecution, they will be protected. But they don’t feel like that now.”

Despite the troubling situation, the result of the referendum changes little when it comes to refugee law. “Refugee policy is shaped in London, not in Brussels”, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugees Action. “The decision about how well we support refugees in terms of integration is a matter for the UK, not Brussels. The number of Syrian refugees we choose to resettle is a matter for the UK, not Brussels.”

Although the law may not have changed, from a diplomatic or political perspective, the same cannot be said. This does have the power to negatively impact legislation. Post-Brexit reaction in France surrounding the Touquet Treaty typifies this.

The Touquet Treaty, reached between the UK and France in 2003, permits each country to carry out passport checks on the other countries’ soil. It is what, according to French politicians in Calais, has accelerated the growth of the "Jungle", which currently accommodates close to 5,000 refugees.

Because the agreement was signed outside the auspices of the European Union, Brexit does not affect its legal legitimacy. However, for France, EU membership was crucial to the nature of the agreement. Speaking earlier this year, Harlem Desir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said the Touquet Treaty is “a bilaterial agreement. So, there will be no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily in both being members of the EU.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and a long-time critic of the treaty, has been vocal in her demands for legislative change since the result. Speaking to French broadcaster BGM TV, she said: “The British must take on the consequences of their choice. We are in a strong position to push, to press this request for a review and we are asking the President to bring his weight to the issue.” Some have adopted the slogan of the Leave campaign, telling them to now “take back control of your borders.”

Modification of the Touquet Treaty was branded part of ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign. Because of this, change – if indeed it does happen – needs to be handled carefully by both the British and French governments.

The reaction of Natacha Bouchart is already a worrying sign for refugees. Firstly, it perpetuates the toxic narrative that casts refugees as an inconvenience. And secondly, any souring of relations between the UK and France over Brexit and the Touquet Treaty only increases the likelihood of refugees being used as political bargaining chips in the broader EU crisis over Schengen.

A divided government and disintegrating opposition do little to aid the situation. Furthermore, come October, how likely is a Brexit Tory cabinet – governing off the back of a manifesto predicated on reducing immigration – to extend the support networks offered to refugees? Even before the referendum, Theresa May, a supporter of the Remain campaign, said that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing it with the more questionable Bill of Rights.

Uncertainty of any kind is the most immediate danger to refugees. “Everyone is talking about it,” said Clare Mosesly, founder of Care4Calais. “But opinions on the impact are divided, which is creating yet more uncertainty.” Refugees, unsure whether Brexit will lead to increased fortification of the border, are prone to take ever more dangerous risks to reach the UK. Even economic uncertainty, seemingly distinct from issues such as the refugee crisis or immigration, has a negative impact. “The thing that worries me about a fragile economy”, said Paul Dillane, “is that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.”

The government must stress that the welcoming principles and legislation Britain had prior to Brexit remain in place. Andrej Mahecic, from the UNHCR, said “we will continue to rely on the UK’s strong support for humanitarian responses to refugee crises. Our work with the government on the UK’s asylum system and refugee resettlement schemes continues.”

The will from NGOs is there. The political will is less assured. In the aftermath of Brexit, the government must not concede to the darker side of the referendum debate.