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.