Duncan Smith tries to run away from failure on Universal Credit

The Work and Pensions Secretary says he "never wanted to dwell on figures" after the OBR forecasts less than 10% of his original target will be met.

After trying, with some success, to bury bad news about Universal Credit under coverage of George Osborne's Autumn Statement last week, Iain Duncan Smith will find it harder to avoid scrutiny of his failures today. He will appear before the work and pensions select committee at 4:30pm to answers questions about the problems with the programme and Labour is highlighting new OBR figures showing just how few claimants will be on the benefit by the time of the election. 

As recently as March 2013, it was forecast that 1.7 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by 2015 but as the table below shows, that figure has now been rounded down to zero. As I reported last week, there were just 2,150 people on the benefit at the end of September, 997,850 claimants short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million. By 2015-16, the OBR expects 400,000 people to be claiming Universal Credit, less than 10% of the original target of 4.5 million. Nearly three million (2.9 million) are forecast to be on the system by 2017 but the OBR warns that "given the delays to date, and the scale of migration required in 2016 and 2017, there is clearly a risk that the eventual profile differs significantly from this new assumption". It notes that the government's new migration timetable "has yet to be subjected to full business case approval". 

Universal Credit: from 1.7 million to zero

Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, Duncan Smith defended his record on the basis that, unlike in the case of previous government failures over tax credits and the NHS IT system, "no one has been affected". But this defence relies on him accepting that he has failed to deliver the "welfare revolution" he so confidently promised in 2010 in favour of damage limitation. After regularly boasting that more than a million people would be on the system by 2014, he unconvincingly claimed that he "never wanted to dwell on figures", before eventually conceding: "I do accept, of course, that this plan is different from the original plan." 

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 was 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".

Also appearing on Today, Rachel Reeves described the programme as "a shambles" and declared that "the whole project is now in disarray". But the shadow work and pensions secretary again affirmed that Labour still believes in "the principle of Universal Credit", a position that contrasts with that taken by the SNP, which has pledged to scrap the scheme if Scotland votes for independence next year. While Reeves is rightly using Duncan Smith's failures to gain the political edge over her opponent, the longer they continue, the more urgent the question becomes of just how Labour will get the project back on track if it wins in 2015. 

Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Grenfell survivors were promised no rent rises – so why have the authorities gone quiet?

The council now says it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, the government made a pledge that survivors would be rehoused permanently on the same rent they were paying previously.

For families who were left with nothing after the fire, knowing that no one would be financially worse off after being rehoused would have provided a glimmer of hope for a stable future.

And this is a commitment that we’ve heard time and again. Just last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) reaffirmed in a statement, that the former tenants “will pay no more in rent and service charges for their permanent social housing than they were paying before”.

But less than six weeks since the tragedy struck, Kensington and Chelsea Council has made it perfectly clear that responsibility for honouring this lies solely with DCLG.

When it recently published its proposed policy for allocating permanent housing to survivors, the council washed its hands of the promise, saying that it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels:

“These commitments fall within the remit of the Government rather than the Council... It is anticipated that the Department for Communities and Local Government will make a public statement about commitments that fall within its remit, and provide details of the period of time over which any such commitments will apply.”

And the final version of the policy waters down the promise even further by downplaying the government’s promise to match rents on a permanent basis, while still making clear it’s nothing to do with the council:

It is anticipated that DCLG will make a public statement about its commitment to meeting the rent and/or service charge liabilities of households rehoused under this policy, including details of the period of time over which any such commitment will apply. Therefore, such commitments fall outside the remit of this policy.”

It seems Kensington and Chelsea council intends to do nothing itself to alter the rents of long-term homes on which survivors will soon be able to bid.

But if the council won’t take responsibility, how much power does central government actually have to do this? Beyond a statement of intent, it has said very little on how it can or will intervene. This could leave Grenfell survivors without any reassurance that they won’t be worse off than they were before the fire.

As the survivors begin to bid for permanent homes, it is vital they are aware of any financial commitments they are making – or families could find themselves signing up to permanent tenancies without knowing if they will be able to afford them after the 12 months they get rent free.

Strangely, the council’s public Q&A to residents on rehousing is more optimistic. It says that the government has confirmed that rents and service charges will be no greater than residents were paying at Grenfell Walk – but is still silent on the ambiguity as to how this will be achieved.

Urgent clarification is needed from the government on how it plans to make good on its promise to protect the people of Grenfell Tower from financial hardship and further heartache down the line.

Kate Webb is head of policy at the housing charity Shelter. Follow her @KateBWebb.