Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit roll-out has come under repeated fire. Photo: Getty
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DWP accused of hiding universal credit failings: why is IDS still in a job?

Iain Duncan Smith is under further scrutiny as the public accounts committee accuses his department of obscuring problems with the universal credit scheme.

During the most recent Downing Street reshuffle, commentators and politicians alike were rather surprised at the beleaguered Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, retaining his position. Not only is it well known around Westminster that the Chancellor George Osborne has clashed with the minister, but it was also widely thought that the failings of the Department for Work and Pensions’ proposed scheme to shake up the welfare system, universal credit, would do for Duncan Smith.

And it seems problems with the scheme and its delivery are never-ending. Only today, parliament’s public spending watchdog, the public accounts committee, has accused ministers at the department of hiding the extent of universal credit’s problems.

The committee of MPs, chaired by Margaret Hodge, has claimed that a new category devised by the department for the scheme of “resetting” projects may have been a way to shield the scheme’s problems from scrutiny. A new rating called “reset” was introduced and applied solely to a report in 2013/14 about the scheme, and appears to have been created especially for the new programme, according to the committee.

According to the Guardian, Hodge said: “We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a 'reset' rating to the universal credit project may have been an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny.”

In response to the committee’s concerns, the chief executive of the Major Projects Authority – which is responsible for assessing the scheme’s delivery – John Manzoni said: “I would say we do not invent new categories lightly or willy-nilly. In fact, this one of course had significant ministerial discussion and in fact was ultimately a ministerial and a government agreement to say, ‘That is what we are going to call it’.”

It’s the suggestion that DWP ministers decided that this new category would be applied to rate the scheme that has put Duncan Smith in the firing line that is so problematic. It is the set-piece of his radical welfare reform programme, merging multiple benefits into one single monthly household payment to the claimant. However, since the department began working on it three years ago, it has been subject to repeated scrutiny due to its repeated delays, spiralling cost, and massive waste from the cost of IT problems.

I expect Duncan Smith still has his job because he is still working on rolling out the scheme – once it’s done, and the unpopularity of his department is compounded, he will become expendable to David Cameron, as happened with former health secretary Andrew Lansley and his department's controversial NHS reforms. There’s no reason to burden a fresh cabinet minister with a bad reputation for the ongoing mess of their predecessor.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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