It’s going to be another uncomfortable day for Iain Duncan Smith. Today’s Public Accounts Committee report on Universal Credit is one of the most excoriating anyone can remember. Margaret Hodge and her colleagues warn that most of the £425m of public money so far spent on the programme is likely to be written off, that management of the project has been “alarmingly weak”, that the DWP has consistently failed to “grasp the nature and enormity of the task”, and that it missed early “warning signs”, refusing to “intervene promptly”.
The committee adds that Duncan Smith will not meet his current target of enrolling 184,000 claimants (a fraction of the original number) by April 2014 and that the department will have to “speed up the later stages of the programme” if it is to meet the 2017 completion date. This, it warns, poses “new risks”.
The Universal Credit pilot, which is confined to just five jobcentres and to single people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, is rightly derided as “not a proper pilot”. The MPs note: “It lacks the security components needed to prevent fraudulent claims and protect individuals’ personal information. It does not deal with the key issues that Universal Credit must address: the volume of claims; their complexity; change in claimants’ circumstances; and the need for claimants to meet conditions for continuing entitlement to benefit. The Department needs a revised pilot that is capable of properly informing the full roll-out of Universal Credit.”
As on previous occasions, there appears to have been a concerted attempt by Duncan Smith and his allies to pin the blame on DWP Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux. The Times reports that at least three Tory MPs on the committee were approached and asked to ensure that the report “heaped blame on to the Permanent Secretary” and that “Robert Devereux was to be associated with the key failings”. This despite parliamentary rules stating that ministers are not allowed to influence Commons committee reports. One opposition MP tells the paper: “It was obvious there was some kind of coordinated effort going on. Some of the Conservative members wanted us to be much tougher on the Permanent Secretary than the rest of us were comfortable with”.
In the resultant report, Devereux is not mentioned by name, with only two references to the “accounting officer”, suggesting that Labour members prevailed over their Tory counterparts. A spokesperson for Duncan Smith says today: “Iain was clear back in the summer about how he and the permanent secretary took action to fix those problems. He has every confidence with the team now in place, and that team includes Robert Devereux.” But the Tories are simultaneously briefing that his resignation will be accepted if offered, with one commenting: “Once again officials have been named and ministers have not, and that will make uncomfortable reading.”
But if the doctrine of ministerial responsibility means anything it’s worth asking: how is Duncan Smith still in his job? He was warned from the start by multiple groups that he had underestimated the scale of the task and that Universal Credit would be delivered neither on time or on budget. Back in October 2010, the Chartered Institute of Taxation noted in its response to the government’s consultation: “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.”
That Duncan Smith remains in his post owes much to the weakness of David Cameron and George Osborne. When attempts were made to move him to Justice in the September 2012 reshuffle, the Work and Pensions Secretary refused point blank, making it clear that there was only one job in government he wanted. Rather than allowing this eurosceptic right-winger to emerge as a rival centre of power on the backbenches, Cameron and Osborne chose to keep him in the tent. Given the failure of Universal Credit, they may well have concluded that the best option lies in him remaining in post and soaking up the abuse.
Labour, meanwhile, has focused its criticism on Cameron, not IDS. In her response to today’s report, Rachel Reeves said: “Today’s report from the Public Accounts Committee is a shocking confirmation of David Cameron’s failure and another nail in the coffin of his Government’s promise to deliver Universal Credit on time and on budget.
“Families facing a cost of living crisis need welfare reform they can trust. Instead they’ve got an out of touch Prime Minister who has presided over chaos and waste.” Forget the enfeebled Duncan Smith, Labour has bigger fish to fry.
Thus it seems, defying all convention, that Duncan Smith will survive. But his original ambition to transform the welfare system in one parliament is dead. Whether Labour or the Tories win in 2015, don’t bet on them picking up the baton.