Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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Universal Credit “reset”: was there an attempt to bury the bad news?

Low expectations remain for the government's flagship welfare reform as a watchdog deems it a high risk of failure. Was the report deliberately released amid coverage of the local elections to avoid bad publicity?

After chronic delays, multi-million pound write-offs and the emergence of major design flaws, Universal Credit was hit last week by the latest missile in the fusillade of bad publicity that has beset it. And more could be on the way. All of which prompts the question: what happens to the ambitious IT system now?

Last Friday, the Major Projects Authority (MPA) released its annual assessment of the Government’s major infrastructure projects, in which it scrapped Universal Credit’s former amber/red status – reflecting its high risk of failure – and instead labelled it “reset”.

It is the first time a major project has received this curious classification. It signals that the original plan for the pioneering IT system, which aimed to simplify and digitise the British welfare system, has been modified in scope and nature to such an extent as to designate it an entirely new project altogether.

The MPA report only deals with this worrying new classification in a page 12 footnote: "We have undertaken significant work to develop a 'reset plan' to place the roll-out of universal credit on a more secure footing, and the 'reset' DCA [delivery confidence assessment] reflects this new status of the project."

Eyebrows have been raised at the report’s timing too. Critics in SW1 have noted that the report, thought to have been ready for days, was finally published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the midst of local election coverage, leading to accusations of a botched attempt to bury the bad news.

The DWP’s current woes over Universal Credit do not stop with last week’s report, however. The department is allegedly fighting to block the publication of four reports that contain further indictments of the system.

According to Politics.co.uk, the DWP has appealed against a series of information tribunal rulings in a bid to prevent the release of risk register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review documents. The department has claimed that release of the publications, which contain “candid” and “imaginative pessimism” about Universal Credit, would have a “chilling effect” on the project’s progress.

Given the latest setbacks, what are the realistic prospects for Universal Credit? The horizon hardly looks promising in the near future. DWP spokespeople continue to confirm that the project is “making progress” and recently announced that it is being rolled out to job centres across the North West from next month. Unfortunately the exact timescales for the regional, let alone nationwide, rollouts are unavailable, according to a department spokesperson, as were projections of the number of likely users of Universal Credit by the end of the summer.

Confidence is further undermined by the DWP’s insistence that the scheme is “on track”, as a spokesperson told me yesterday. In fact it was supposed to be rolled-out nationwide last October – three years after the Government released its white paper on welfare reform – with a million users predicted by April 2014. As of February this year, however, only 6,000 claimants had used Universal Credit according to DWP figures.

Despite Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith assuring Parliament that the project was “proceeding exactly in accordance with plans” last March, the true severity of the troubles surrounding the project emerged a month later.

The soft launch of the scheme was radically scaled back last April. Three areas postponed their trial, while Tameside Council, the only participant, expected only 300 people to claim Universal Credit. The cautious trial was limited to those claiming only Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) – just one out of more than 30 types of benefit – and only single claimants at that. This summer’s extension of the scheme in the North West will now see couples, as well as singles, able to claim JSA.

Initially, there was enthusiasm for the project across the political spectrum, but the government’s ability to deliver it has lead to widespread criticism in the past year. In addition to censure from the Office for National Statistics and the Public Accounts Committee, Labour has repeatedly raised concerns about the scheme’s continuing problems. Last week Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves urged the Prime Minister to “urgently get a grip of this failing policy before any more taxpayers money is wasted”.

She added: “The fact that Universal Credit was the only one of the 200 projects assessed by the Major Projects Authority to have been singled out is extremely concerning. It's increasingly clear that Universal Credit is lurching from one crisis to another with incompetent ministers failing to deliver the savings they promised.”

Despite the criticism, Labour is still keen to see Universal Credit, or at least some form of the scheme, succeed. The Government conceded last November that its flagship welfare reform will not meet its 2015 deadline. While initially 1.7 million people were expected to be on Universal Credit by then, now there will be just a handful.

In response to queries, a DWP spokesman told the New Statesman yesterday: "The reset is not new but refers to the shift in the delivery plan and change in management back in early 2013.

"The reality is that Universal Credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way... Jobseekers in other areas are already benefiting from some of its positive impacts through help from a work coach, more digital facilities in jobcentres, and a written agreement setting out what they will do to find work."

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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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.