The great Universal Credit disaster … and what it tells us about IDS
It was a great day to bury bad (or rather, embarrassing) news. Today Iain Duncan Smith announced what everyone had been expecting for a long time: that the government has given up on its original plans for bringing in Universal Credit. These were, let us remember:
- From October of this year phasing in the introduction of Universal Credit for new claims for out-of-work support.
- By next April there were to be no new claims for JSA or Employment and Support Allowance and after that no new claims to Tax Credits.
- After next April, people would be gradually moved from existing benefits and tax credits to Universal Credit.
- By October 2017, UC would have completely replaced them.
Today’s announcement is carefully drafted so that the substance is in the last paragraph and you have to turn the page to reach it:
Our current planning assumption is that the Universal Credit service will be fully available in each part of Great Britain during 2016, having closed down new claims to the legacy benefits it replaced; with the majority of the remaining legacy caseload moving to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017. Final decisions on these elements of the programme will be informed by the development of the enhanced digital solution.
And in a special West Wing tribute, IDS also decided this was the best time to announce that 700,000 Employment and Support Allowance recipients will definitely not be transferred to Universal Credit before 2017.
The best sign of how embarrassing all this is for the government is how desperately the Secretary of State has denied it would happen. After the National Audit Office’s damning report in September he told MPs:
I have taken action on this particular programme. This programme will deliver on time and in budget.
The next month he told Frank Field:
Universal credit will roll out very well and it will be on time and within budget.
In a way, of course, all this is the froth of politics. The Opposition gets to mock the hapless Duncan Smith, but the shift to Universal Credit will still go ahead. There is the waste of money (£34 million already, according to the NAO) which is not totally insignificant at a time of austerity, but it isn’t on the same scale of importance as the assaults on disabled people, children and low paid workers that take place without such enthusiastic comment. Even when we consider UC itself, I’m inclined to believe that the problems Universal Credit claimants are having with the shift to monthly payments – which will get next to no attention – are more significant.
But what has been very revealing about this affair has been what it shows about the IDS management style. If you take his statement at face value, the whole thing is a success story! The delay – which for months he has been denying would happen – is a sign of how good he is at his job. To quote a DWP tweet this morning, “overriding priority throughout will be safe and smooth delivery of Universal Credit”.
Par for the course, I suppose. But the attempt to throw the blame onto everyone else has been really disgusting. He and his friends engaged in a “concerted political briefing campaign” against his own Permanent Secretary, and he responded to the National Audit Office’s criticisms about leadership and culture by announcing that yes, he too was worried … about his own Department!
This internal report showed me quite categorically that my concerns were right, that the leadership was struggling and that there was a culture of good news prevailing.
The former Scots Guards Lieutenant has a terrible way of dealing with adversity – what must it have been like to have Iain Duncan Smith as your officer?