The architect of Universal Credit has told the New Statesman that IT problems would not stop the government raising benefits, as Rishi Sunak claimed recently.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV reminiscent of the Little Britain “computer says no” skit, the Chancellor had said that “technical problems” meant benefits can only be increased once a year. “Technical problems sound like an excuse, but the operation of our welfare system is actually technically complicated, and it’s not necessarily possible to do that for everybody,” Sunak said when asked why he refused to raise benefits and pensions in line with inflation (they rose by 3.1 per cent in April while price rises reached 7 per cent).
“Many of the systems are built in a way that can only be done once a year and the decision was taken quite a while ago before people realised… We’re constrained somewhat by the operation of the welfare system, so it can’t be done for everybody in that way.”
Rishi Sunak says the government’s computer system wouldn’t let him increase benefits further this year in response to the cost of living crisis— Bloomberg UK (@BloombergUK) May 13, 2022
The chancellor acknowledges “technical problems sounds like an excuse” https://t.co/zoo51U7F5F pic.twitter.com/EJiNzIt43x
Yet Deven Ghelani, who developed Universal Credit from its inception and is now director of the social policy tech firm Policy in Practice, said that “the IT is almost always an excuse”. Although he said it was true that it could “take months to uprate payments” via legacy benefits (those that preceded Universal Credit and are still claimed by 2.6 million people), he emphasised that did not mean there was no way for the government to support those recipients through the living standards crisis.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” he said. “People on legacy benefits could be sent a one-off supplement.”
There are other options, too. The government could raise their payments while migrating them over to the new system (a process that begins this year), Ghelani said. “They could be given extra help as part of current plans to migrate legacy claimants onto Universal Credit in the next two years. It wouldn’t be too difficult to ensure that people migrating to Universal Credit received transitional protection, and a welcome payment of, for example, £20-a-week from today to the date that they were migrated over.
“Obviously, getting money to people today would be better, and I think that is equally possible too.”
For the 5.7 million people on Universal Credit, the IT is available to raise their payments within weeks, he revealed. There is no technical reason behind the government’s decision not to raise Universal Credit during this period of spiralling bills and prices. “Universal Credit performed superbly in the pandemic, and was uprated in a matter of weeks,” Ghelani said.
During the pandemic, the government showed how swiftly it could intervene to protect living standards by introducing the furlough scheme and raising Universal Credit by £20 a week. Creaky IT systems do indeed plague Whitehall and local public services, but they can be bypassed or overridden when the government puts its mind to it. In the case of the cost-of-living crisis, however, it appears that Sunak’s mind is elsewhere.