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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Are there “tens of thousands” who still don't have their Labour leadership ballot paper?

Word has it that swathes of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers, suggesting there is still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest. But is it true?

Is there still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest?

Some party insiders believe there is, having heard whispers following the bank holiday weekend that “tens of thousands” of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers.

The voting process closes next Thursday (10 September), and today (1 September) is the day the Labour party suggests you get in touch if you haven’t yet been given a chance to vote.

The impression here is that most people allowed to vote – members, registered supporters, and affiliated supporters – should have received their voting code over email, or their election pack in the post, by now, and that it begins to boil down to individual administrative problems if they’ve received neither by this point.

But many are still reporting that they haven’t yet been given a chance to vote. Even Shabana Mahmood MP, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, still hasn’t received her voting pack, as she writes on the Staggers, warning us not to assume Jeremy Corbyn will win. What’s more, Mahmood and her team have heard anecdotally that there are still “tens of thousands” who have been approved to vote who have yet to receive their ballot papers.

It’s important to remember that Mahmood is an Yvette Cooper supporter, and is using this figure in her piece to argue that there is still all to play for in the leadership race. Also, “tens of thousands” is sufficiently vague; it doesn’t give away whether or not these mystery ballot-lacking voters would really make a difference in an election in which around half a million will be voting.

But there are others in the party who have heard similar figures.

“I know people who haven’t received [their voting details] either,” one Labour political adviser tells me. “That figure [tens of thousands] is probably accurate, but the party is being far from open with us.”

“That’s the number we’ve heard, as of Friday, the bank holiday, and today – apparently it is still that many,” says another.

A source at Labour HQ does not deny that such a high number of people are still unable to vote. They say it’s difficult to work out the exact figures of ballot papers that have yet to be sent out, but reveal that they are still likely to be, “going out in batches over the next two weeks”.

A Labour press office spokesperson confirms that papers are still being sent out, but does not give me a figure: “The process of sending out ballot papers is still under way, and people can vote online right up to the deadline on September 10th.”

The Electoral Reform Services is the independent body administrating the ballot for Labour. They are more sceptical about the “tens of thousands” figure. “Tens of thousands? Nah,” an official at the organisation tells me.

“The vast majority will have been sent an email allowing them to vote, or a pack in one or two days after that. The idea that as many as tens of thousands haven’t seems a little bit strange,” they add. “There were some last-minute membership applications, and there might be a few late postal votes, or a few individuals late to register. [But] everybody should have definitely been sent an email.”

Considering Labour’s own information to voters suggests today (1 September) is the day to begin worrying if you haven’t received your ballot yet, and the body in charge of sending out the ballots denies the figure, these “tens of thousands” are likely to be wishful thinking on the part of those in the party dreading a Corbyn victory.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.