Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Cameron now afraid to mention Universal Credit?

The PM's piece on welfare reform makes no reference to Iain Duncan Smith's troubled programme.

Aside from his false claim that the number of workless families doubled under Labour (which I've fisked here), the most notable thing about David Cameron's piece on welfare reform in today's Telegraph is what he doesn't mention: Universal Credit. The programme, which aims to replace six of the main benefits and tax credits with a single payment, has long been touted as the means by which the coalition will transform the benefits system and "make work pay", but Cameron doesn't even reference it in passing in his article. 

Given the chaos surrounding the scheme, that's perhaps not surprising. To date, the DWP has written off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme and expects to write down a further £91m by March 2018, prompting the National Audit Office to warn that it has has "not achieved value for money". 

This waste has come in spite of, not because of, the number of people using the new system. As recently as March 2013, it was forecast that 1.7 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by 2015 but as the OBR table below shows, that figure has now been rounded down to zero. According to the DWP, there were just 3,200 people on the benefit at the end of November, 996,800 short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million, with only the simplest cases (such as single people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance) taken on. 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?"

By 2015-16, the OBR expects 400,000 people to be claiming Universal Credit, less than 10 per cent 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". 

So great are the obstacles now faced by Universal Credit that many in Whitehall believe it will be put out of its misery after May 2015. As today's FT reports, officials believe that it "must start delivering results by the next election or risk being drastically scaled back or even abandoned". 

Back in May 2010, many on the right claimed that Universal Credit would become one of the government's success stories and a defining part of Cameron's legacy. But nearly four years later, the PM can't even bring himself to mention it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What happened at Barnet's polling stations this morning?

Eager democrats who arrived early in the morning to vote in the London elections were turned away. 

What’s going on?

When polls first opened at Barnet’s 155 polling stations at 7 this morning, many registered voters found that they were not on the station’s voting lists, meaning they were unable to cast their vote. Many reports suggested that the overwhelming majority were turned away. Rules were later relaxed in some, but not all, polling stations to allow those who arrived with their polling cards (which explicitly state they are not needed to cast a vote) to vote.

Why is this happening?

It is, needless to say, unclear. But some reports have suggested that polling station staff only had the updates to the electoral register (that is, those who have newly-registered) rather than the entire register itself. Which makes you wonder why nobody realised before 7am that there might be rather more people wanting to vote in Barnet than the lists suggested.

Is this a conspiracy?

No, of course it’s not. And if you think it is, take the tinfoil hat off and stop watching Russia Today. Barnet is a Tory-led council. If this mess harms any party it is likely to be the Conservatives. We don’t know how Barnet voted for mayor in 2012, but we do know the votes of Barnet plus predominantly Labour-supporting Camden: Boris Johnson got 82,839 first preference votes while Ken Livingstone received 58,354. But remember London’s not just electing a mayor today. It is also electing the members of the Greater London Assembly – and one of them represents the constituency of Barnet and Camden. The incumbent, Andrew Dismore, is from the Labour Party, and is running for reelection. He won fairly comfortably in 2012, far outperforming Ken Livingstone. But Tory campaigners have been talking up the possibility of defeating Dismore, especially in recent days after Labour’s anti-semitism ructions (Barnet has London’s largest Jewish population). Again, if there are voters who failed to vote this morning and cannot to do so later, then that will hurt the Conservatives and help Dismore.

Is it the fault of nasty outsourcers?

Seemingly not. As we’ve written before, Barnet Council is famous for outsourcing vast proportions of its services to private contractors – births and deaths in the borough are now registered elsewhere, for example. But though postal votes and other areas of electoral administration have been outsourced by Barnet, voter registration is performed in-house. This one’s on the council and nobody else.

What has Barnet done about it?

The council initially issued a statement saying that it was “aware of problems with our voter registration lists” and admitting that “a number of people who had not brought their polling card with them were unable to vote”. Which was a bit peculiar given the polling cards say that you don’t need to bring them to vote and there were plenty of reports of people who had polling cards also being denied their democratic rights.

As of 10.40am, the council said that: “All the updated electoral registers are now in place and people can vote as normal.” There appear to be no plans to extend voting hours – and it is not possible to reopen polling tomorrow morning for the frustrated early birds to return.

What does this mean for the result?

It’s very hard to form even a vaguely accurate picture of how many voters who would otherwise have voted will not vote because of this error. But if the margin of victory in the mayoral election or the relevant GLA contest is especially slim, expect calls for a re-run. Frustrated voters could in theory achieve that via the arcane procedure of an election petition, which would then be heard by a special election court, as when Lutfur Rahman’s election as Mayor of Tower Hamlets was declared void in April 2015.

Some have suggested that this may delay the eventual result, but remember that counting for the London elections was not due to begin until Friday morning anyway.

Is there a dodgier barnet than this Barnet?

Yes.

 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.