The government’s Universal Credit program is not launching smoothly. The first “pathfinder” scheme launched on Monday with just 300 people expected to start claiming, after the other three trials were delayed. As it was, not one claimant actually turned up in person on day one, leaving staff at the Citizens Advice Bureau “unable to say what the rest of the form was like because they had not seen the live version”, according to the Guardian‘s Amelia Gentleman.
Faced with this teething trouble, the government’s spin machine is whirring up. Not to make the service sound like it works – that’s a task beyond even Malcom Tucker’s ken – but to make the failure somebody else’s fault. Rachel Sylvester in the Times quotes one government source shifting the blame on to the civil service:
“IDS has been an incredibly good minister and really determined to get this reform through, but he has been banging his head against official intransigence, lack of will and at times deception,” says a government source.
Conservative Home‘s Paul Goodman goes one step further:
Another has put it more bluntly to me: “They lied to him,” I was told (about the progress of the scheme).
Did poor IDS really only find out about the (lack of) progress in implementing Universal Credit recently? That seems unlikely, given that we all knew far sooner. In October 2010, the Chartered Institute of Taxation submitted its response to the Government’s consultation on Universal Credit:
The document suggests that the IT changes required would not constitute a major project, and this was repeated by the Secretary of State [Iain Duncan Smith] when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. We are sceptical about this.
By June 2011, those fears were becoming reality. The Observer‘s Daniel Boffey reported (presciently) that “Universal credit’s 2013 delivery could be derailed by complex IT system“:
A report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), details of which have been leaked to the Observer, reveals serious concerns among government IT suppliers over whether the deadlines for the new system can be met.
And by July 2012, the Telegraph‘s Christopher Williams was reporting that the technology underpinning the reforms had been “rushed through”:
The All Party Group on Taxation found that the Universal Credit, a single payment intended to replace several different benefits, is reliant on a new HMRC up-to-date “real time” information to track earnings.
Officials admitted that a pilot begun in April was suffering from a “glitch” that meant it had processed fewer than one in 10 of the 1m PAYE submissions so far submitted by employers. Internal documents also said the original project budget of £108m has grown to £201m.
Iain Duncan Smith may have a terrible relationship with his civil servants, but he can’t blame them for not knowing about the shambles he was heading for.