Iain Duncan Smith arrives in Downing Street to attend a weekly cabinet meeting on April 8, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Universal Credit business case still not approved by the Treasury

Ministers' claims contradicted as civil service head says "we shouldn't beat about the bush: it hasn't been signed off".

If ministers' public statements are to be believed, all is well with Universal Credit. But another indication that that's far from the case has emerged today. Asked during an appearance before the public accounts committee whether the business case for Iain Duncan Smith's masterplan had been approved by the Treasury, Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, replied:

We shouldn't beat about the bush: it hasn't been signed off.

That contradicts the answer given by employment minister Esther McVey, who told Rachel Reeves last week: "The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement (5 December 2013, Official Report, column 65WS)."

The failure of the Treasury to sign off Universal Credit is further evidence of George Osborne's doubts over the financial viability of the project. 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. According to the DWP, there were just 5,610 claiming the benefit at the end of March, 994,390 short of the government's original target of one million. So great are the obstacles now faced by the programme that many in Whitehall believe it will be put out of its misery after May 2015. While both the Tories and Labour remain committed to Universal Credit in principle, the Treasury's forestalling is the strongest evidence yet that it may not survive under either. 

Update: Here's the DWP's response: "Universal Credit is on track to roll out safely and securely against the plan set out last year - the new service now available in 24 Jobcentres, and last week expanded to claims from couples.

"The Treasury has been fully engaged in the roll out plan and have approved all funding to date."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame