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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.