The DWP is busy trumpeting the expansion of Universal Credit today, but what it won’t mention is that the programme has been scaled back yet again. UC, which aims to replace six of the main benefits and tax credits with a single payment, was originally due apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits from this month but in July, after it was given an “amber-red” rating by the Major Projects Authority (denoting a project in danger of failure), ministers announced that it would be introduced in just six “hub jobcentres” – Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton – alongside the existing four “pathfinders” (the latter representing just 1,000 claimants).
Three months on, we learn that it will now be launched in just one of the planned six jobcentres, Hammersmith and Fulham (rather misleadingly announced by the DWP as “Universal Credit expands to London”), with the other five not due to join the scheme until next spring. In addition, as I’ve previously reported, the only group of claimants included will be single people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. As Labour MP Glenda Jackson noted at a recent work and pensions select committee hearing, “The people you are actually testing are a small number, the simplest of cases. How an earth are you going to achieve the evidence that you keep telling us you are going to learn from when the cohort is so narrow and so simple?”
It was last month, in an excoriating report, that the National Audit Office warned that “throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work”, that the 2017 national roll-out date is in serious doubt, that the department “has not achieved value for money”, with £34m of IT programmes written off, that the current IT system “lacks the ability to identify potentially fraudulent claims” and that the DWP repeatedly ignored warnings about the viability of the project.
Iain Duncan Smith recenty told the work and pensions select committee that he was merely following advice from MPs “not to go too fast” but as Labour chair Anne Begg replied, “There’s rushing it and there’s a snail pace”.
Having once promised a welfare revolution, it is clear that the government’s priority is now damage limitation.