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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.