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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.