Universal Credit has "not achieved value for money", warns NAO

More bad news for Duncan Smith as the National Audit Office says there are "considerable weaknesses" in the department's financial controls over the programme.

Conveniently for Iain Duncan Smith, this year's DWP accounts were not published to coincide with his appearance at the work and pensions select committee yesterday; some may say it's now clear why.

In the accounts, which have now been released, the National Audit Office states that Universal Credit has "not achieved value for money", noting that the DWP has written off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme "as it will never use them" and that "it also now expects to write down £91.0 million of the remaining assets to nil value by March 2018, due to the considerable reduction in their expected useful life." The head of the NAO comments: "While this is the appropriate accounting treatment, it should not detract from the underlying issue that the Department has spent £91.0 million on assets that will only support a limited service for 5 years, with clear consequences for public value." In addition, it notes that there were "considerable weaknesses" in the department’s financial controls over Universal Credit and that the "size and complexity" of the programme "stretched the Department’s capacity and capability". 

Here's the statement Margaret Hodge, the head of the public accounts committee, has issued on the "truly shocking" figures. 

In 2012-13, the Department for Work and Pensions had to write-off £40.1m for assets that were developed for the implementation of the universal credit system but which they will now never use. They now tell us they will also have to write-off another £91m of assets over the next five years.

Whilst these figures are truly shocking, I do not think we have heard the end of this matter and would not be surprised if further write-offs emerge over the coming period. It is deeply depressing that DWP has chosen to pour more money into the existing IT system in what seems like a short-term fix, rather than showing the confidence and foresight to come up with a solution that will truly stand the test of time.

Even for those people who transfer to the new benefit, the online system is currently not able to deal with issues like frequent changes of circumstances, claims if a couple splits up, or conditionality.

In more bad news for IDS, the report also shows that the amount of money lost to fraud and error in the benefits system has risen from £3.2bn (2% of the total budget) last year to £3.5bn (2.1%). Of this total, £700m (0.4%) was lost due to official error, £1.6bn (0.9%) to claimant error and £1.2bn (0.7%) to fraud. 

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the latter figure is lower than the amount lost last year due to benefit underpayments: £1.4bn (0.9%). But don't expect the DWP to publicise that in its briefings. 

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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.