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Even if Universal Credit is eventually implemented, most will now lose out

Frank Field's new report shows how the benefits of a programme hailed as revolutionary will be almost non-existent. 

Perhaps no government reform has been billed as more transformative than Universal Credit. From the moment it was first conceived in opposition by Iain Duncan Smith, it was said that the programme would remake the welfare state and "improve the lives of millions of claimants by incentivising work and making it pay". 

But the more time has passed, the less plausible this rhetoric has become. Universal Credit's botched implementation means that there have been just 250,000 claims to date, compared to an original target of 4.46 million by 2015-16. But even if the reform eventually crawls to the finishing line (at a cost of £2bn), its effect will be far from transformative.

The potential benefits of Universal Credit were always oversold. From a previous level of 73p in the pound, the typical withdrawal rate for benefit claimants would fall to 65p - a marginal, not a revolutionary shift. But as Frank Field, the work and pensions select commitee chair, notes in his new Civitas report, the reality is even less impressive. The decision to exclude council tax and free school meals from the reform and the cuts progressively made to the work allowance (the level of earnings exempt from withdrawal) means that the majority of claimants will lose out under Universal Credit. 

Of those low-paid workers who make a new claim and do not receive help with housing costs, childless workers will be £866 worse off compared with what they would have got under the current system, lone parents will be £2,629 worse off and couples with children will be £1,084 worse off. Of those who receive help with housing costs, childless workers will be £866 worse off, lone parents will be £554 worse off and couples with children will be £234 worse off. Field damningly concludes: "If creating an incentive to work is the goal the present system for the vast majority of claimants meets that goal more effectively. Any reduction in the marginal tax rate will only come for particular groups of Universal Credit claimants should the benefit be introduced". Has more time and money ever been devoted to a reform for so little gain? 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.