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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.