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15 June 2018

The car crash of Universal Credit is an omen for Brexit

It’s hideously expensive and pointless – but the real problem, its architect has always claimed, is that the people implementing it just didn't believe enough. Sound familiar?

By Helen Lewis

There is almost nothing in British politics that makes me angrier than Universal Credit. Handily, the other strong contender is the government’s handling of Brexit, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that both share some key features.

The National Audit Office has just delivered another savaging of the rollout of the welfare programme. If you ever want to know what accountants sound like when they’re angry, read the synopsis. The NAO “recognise the determination and single-mindedness with which the Department has driven the programme forward to date, through many problems”. (Translation: the department has been wearily bludgeoning on with a programme that everyone there knows is a complete lemon.) 

The Department of Work and Pensions “does not accept that Universal Credit has caused hardship among claimants… this has led it to often dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening.” (Translation: confronted with evidence that people are relying on foodbanks and sleeping in unheated houses, and facing pleas from charities such as Gingerbread and the Trussell Trust, it has instead gone LALALALALALANOTLISTENINGLALALA.) 

This attitude has resulted in “a dialogue of claim and counter-claim and gives the unhelpful impression of a Department that is unsympathetic to claimants”. (Translation: an entirely correct impression, which has been created because the Department is unsympathetic to claimants.)

Universal Credit arose out of a political climate where readers of right-wing newspapers were assured that many, many people claiming disability benefits were actually skivers, and just needed the firm smack of benefit reduction to get them off their lazy arses. Yes, there might be some lags who’ve been milking the system, but their numbers are balanced by those who have been unjustly deprived of assistance they desperatedly needed.

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Yesterday, the High Court ruled against the DWP in the case of two severely disabled men – one suffering from a terminal illness – who were moved from the old-style disability benefits to Universal Credit, and lost £178 a month as a result. This discrimination was unlawful, the judge declared. Esther McVey, the current Work and Pensions Secretary, has pledged that no one else receiving the Severe Disability Premium will be moved on to Universal Credit until “transitional protection” has been put in place. 

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“Transitional protection”. A fun reminder: Universal Credit was introduced in 2013. Five years ago. 

The NAO continues: “Both we, and the Department, doubt it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved… [we] conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven.” (Translation: all this misery has been for nothing.)

As if that wasn’t bad enough, here’s the first sentence of the summary: “We think that there is no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit.” (Translation: slow clap for everyone involved.)

So in summary: you have a scheme that miiiight have been a good idea – Labour has always supported the policy in theory, although notably never tried to implement it – but was effectively doomed from the start. Why?

1. Technological and bureaucratic limitations. Rolling six benefits into one transferred the complexity of the system from being something claimants had to deal with and manage, to something which a computer database had to incorporate. The programme also required claimants to visit job centres frequently (no matter if that job centre was one or two bus rides away); and have access to the internet. The latter sounded flash and digital and very Government 2.0, but ignored the reality of the lives of claimants.

You can see a similar deranged lack of preparation in the advocates of a “no deal” Brexit remaining blithely unbothered by the lack of, say, a massive lorry park in Dover, ready to deal with tailbacks caused by having no customs arrangement. Or the continued absence of the magic technology that will fix the Irish border question. 

2.  An ideological belief that the idea was brilliant, and all that was required was more belief to make it work. Trace this one back to Iain Duncan Smith, also an arch Brexiteer. As the NAO report shadily implies, there has been a resistance at the DWP throughout the project’s lifespan to engage with the fact that it was bloody complicated and therefore incredibly tricky to make work. Anyone who questioned the programme was assumed to be a secret pinko who would happily shower benefit claimants in readies given half the chance. When select committees raised concerns, they were handwaved away.

When any kind of fact-checking or critical scrutiny or parliamentary oversight is regarded as sabotage, chaos is the result. I’m not even going to bother drawing the parallel with Brexit, because this week’s Commons votes – and the resulting screams of betrayal, traitors, enemies of democracy – do the work for me.

3. Intractable rows between ministers and their civil servants. The role of civil servants is to do what ministers tell them, after first passing those orders through a filter of “is this a bloody stupid thing to be asked?” In the early days of the programme, there were clashes between its ideological parent, Iain Duncan Smith, and his permanent secretary, Robert Devereux. These were bad enough that the country’s then top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood, intervened with David Cameron (remember him?) to plead that the briefing against Devereux must stop. Civil servants do not answer back in public, which makes them easy targets for a minister with a policy that’s collapsing and needs someone else to blame.

The lead civil servant in charge of Brexit, Olly Robbins, has faced similar hostile briefings. This was foreseen back in January 2017 by Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, when he resigned. In his resignation letter, addressed to civil servants and negotiators, he wrote: 

“Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished  even where this is uncomfortable  and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27… I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power. I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.”

Translation: David Davis is not going to like it when you tell him he can’t have a unicorn. But his strong desire for a unicorn does not make unicorns exist, so show him the two horses which are actually available, and make him choose between them. He won’t like it, but at least the country will have a horse by 2019, rather than a hole where a unicorn should be.

4. A Treasury that thinks the whole thing is a f***ing stupid idea. Notoriously, then-chancellor George Osborne thought Iain Duncan Smith was useless. Osborne was also trying to pursue massive spending cuts with minimal upset to the kind of people who might vote Conservative.

So plundering the UC budget – on the basis that the rollout would take a million years, if it happened at all – seemed like an appealing prospect. This “salami slicing” of the welfare budget was what finally prompted Duncan Smith to resign from cabinet, suggesting that his brilliant idea, which definitely would have worked if people had only believed in it more, had been ruined.

The difference with Brexit is that IDS was unarguably right about half his complaint: whether UC could have succeeded before the budget cuts is a moot point. However, taking even more money out of the system definitely knackered it.

The similarity with Brexit is that the Treasury – now derided as “the heart of Remain” by Boris Johnson – is filled with people who understand numbers, and therefore, to some extent, are in touch with objective reality. The Treasury looks at the economic forecasts, and talks to businesses, and has concluded that the application of three layers more belief is not going to make Brexit any less damaging to the economy.

5. A refusal to change course until it’s too late. I saw a tweet this morning saying that the alarms had been raised over Universal Credit, but that “no one was listening”. That’s half-true. The New Statesman has been covering Universal Credit with grim regularity ever since its inception (our latest piece, this week, followed the diary of a clamaint – and makes for such appalling reading that several people have been in touch to offer help to the writer). So have the Mirror and the Guardian, where Frances Ryan and Patrick Butler in particular have written story after story about the human cost of its bureaucracy, delays and kneejerk hostility to claimants.

The NAO has issued stinging report after stinging report. In 2013, the Major Projects Authority told Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that the project was in deep trouble. As I said earlier, the select committees have repeatedly raised concerns – particularly Frank Field, no one’s idea of a bleeding heart leftie, at the work and pensions committee. Labour MPs such as Stephen Timms questioned the design of the programme, such as the payment by household rather than individual, from the start. Ken Loach even made a bloody film about the welfare system.

And yet – nothing. The government has been able to shrug off the overwhelming weight of evidence suggesting it has presided over a disaster which has caused millions of people increased stress, anxiety and preventable poverty. (In September, I talked to a woman on her fifth round of chemo whose benefits were wrongly stopped.)

The only conclusion can be that the misery of Universal Credit is not borne by People Like Us – the political and media class – and therefore, ministers feel safe to ignore it, egged on by those with an ideological belief that benefits claimants are a class apart from regular citizens, and they deserve a bit of punishment anyway. 

Which brings us back to Brexit. If it has the negative economic effects which forecasters predict, they will be borne disproportionately by the same kind of Britons who rely on the welfare system (40 per cent of Universal Credit claimants are in work).

But just as the deparment of work and pensions still refuses to accept that it has presided over a policy which has failed both at a human level and its stated objectives, I very much doubt that the architects of Brexit would ever admit they have been wrong.

The evidence of Universal Credit also suggests that if they peddle this narrative, they will get away with it.