Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was forced to explain Treasury approval for Universal Credit today. Photo: Getty
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Treasury backing for Universal Credit scrutinised

Iain Duncan Smith said that the business case for universal credit has been approved by the Treasury, but only up to 2015.

Iain Duncan Smith was forced to explain today what level of backing the Treasury has granted Universal Credit, after the Government's flagship welfare scheme came under scrutiny.

The Work and Pensions Secretary told the Commons that the strategic case for the ambitious IT project had been approved by the Treasury for the remainder of this Parliament. Treasury approval for the entirety of it has not been agreed, however, though he added that it was expected “very soon”.

Labour MP for Rhondda Chris Bryant was granted an urgent parliamentary question in the Chamber today about the status of the scheme, in which he said: “There has been so much beating about the bush that it feels as if this Parliament has been misled by a government engaged in a deliberate act of deception.”

He was rebuked by the Speaker for “overstepping the line” in suggesting that ministers had misled the government. Duncan Smith hit back at Bryant, describing the Labour MP’s words as the "most pompous, ludicrous statement that I have heard".

Bryant's question was prompted by revelations from Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the Civil Service, who said earlier this week that Universal Credit had not received Treasury approval, and instead was being funded on a step-by-step basis.

He told MPs on Monday that taxpayers' cash was only being released in stages as efforts continued to get the multibillion pound project back on track.

"We shouldn't beat about the bush. It hasn't been signed off," Kerslake told the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

"What we've had is a set of conditional reassurances about progress and the Treasury have released money accordingly. That is one of the key controls."

Conservative welfare minister Esther McVey responded on Tuesday: "The chief secretary to the Treasury has approved the universal credit strategic outline business case plans for the remainder of the Parliament, 2014-15. That is the response and I've just had it verified."

The project, which is designed to simplify and digitalise welfare payments, has been beset by troubles. Last year it was “reset” by the Major Projects Authority, following delays and multi-million pound write-offs.

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

 

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.