Iain Duncan Smith has had to defend the progress of Universal Credit. Photo: Getty
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That families can only just claim Universal Credit shows how disastrous it has been

The government’s reformed benefit programme is being rolled out to parents in the northwest today, revealing its slow progress.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has extended his “revolutionary” reformed welfare programme to some families in Britain for the first time today. The fact that parents, and initially just in parts of the northwest, are only just able to claim Universal Credit shows how much of a disaster the scheme’s implementation has been.

The term "Universal Credit" has quickly become a byword for government incompetence, IT failure, missed deadlines, and over-promising ministers, as it has encountered obstacle after obstacle, and been severely delayed as a result.

Although the problems with the scheme are well-known now, it is worth pointing out that this intended “revolution” in welfare distribution has been watered down to a very slow evolution. As the BBC reports, tens of millions of pounds had to be written off due to technical problems with the IT programme and also, according to reports, only 20,000 people are claiming it, rather than the 1m envisaged for this time by the DWP. Though Duncan Smith on the BBC’s Today programme this morning insisted that the number of people claiming is actually 40,000, this is still significantly lower than what was once the target.

The people already enrolled on the Universal Credit scheme so far have been single people and couples with no housing costs or family, ie. the simplest demographic to which to provide welfare, due to it being the least complicated in terms of the benefits it claims. Universal Credit prides itself on “simplifying” welfare provision by combining six existing benefits into one, so the focus so far on the least complicated claimants shows it is only very tentatively being rolled out.

On Today, Duncan Smith refused to accept that his scheme had so far only been targeting the “low-hanging fruit” of benefits claimants, saying, “we have deliberately set out to roll it out so each individual bit is tested… we’re now doing families. This is being deliberately done like this.

“It’s about making sure people can cope as they go into work, they can stay in work… If we do it carefully, and land it safely, they’re far better off.”

When asked about the ultimate deadline, due to the targets consistently having been revised down over the years, he said “it starts rolling out nationally from next year” and that rather than the original deadline of the bulk of people being on it by “approximately the end of 2017”, “we should have everybody on it by 2019”. He admitted that the initial deadline had been “artificial in the first place”.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.