Numbers in a twist, Mr Duncan Smith?

The next trial is in Harrogate, the spa town with the lowest number of unemployed in Yorkshire. It’s like testing a raincoat by taking it on holiday to Saudi Arabia

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One of the finest talents of this government is its ability to rant about “public-sector waste”. Ministers explain that the global economic crisis was caused not so much by the banks, who don’t have much impact on money really, but by Trafford Council spending £3.25 on custard creams for meetings, while Co-op own brand digestives were on a three-for-the price-of-two offer all summer, so with that level of waste is it any wonder our car industry has shut down.

Or they’ll make things up – about the mayor of Lambeth ordering himself a panda to ride on around the town hall, or a fire authority in Stafford paying 50 million quid to get its sirens replaced with a rap specially written by Jay Z that goes “bee ba bee ba move your motherfucking car.”

So they’ll be delighted at the revelation yesterday from the National Audit Office that Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to bring in a “universal tax credit” instead of the current benefit system has so far wasted £34 million on computers that can’t be used.

Iain Duncan Smith should now be on every news channel yelling, “You see, I’m typical of the frivolous inefficiency you can expect when you allow the public sector to take charge.

“It’s all right for me, I live in a £2m Tudor mansion, but I expect the hard-working people of Britain to pay for my endless round of ill-thought out idiocy. Let’s hope I’m sold off to a private investor who can find some way of stopping me being a constant drain on the public purse.”

To help him put this case, the auditors blamed his department for “weak government, ineffective control and poor governance”, which, translated from the official language these people use is, “You USELESS STEAMING KNOB, now GET OUT before you burn the place down.”

So he was interviewed on the news, but missed his opportunity, because instead of yelling about waste he insisted that the money lost wasn’t all that much, and he had “intervened early” when the problem became known. This is true, because it was only two years ago that he was warned the system wouldn’t work, and now only two years later he’s intervened by appearing on television to say it wasn’t his fault.

There’s an impressive creativity with the way Duncan Smith’s department uses language. For example, it insists the new benefit system was “launched successfully in a trial in Greater Manchester”. But the trial only took place in the market town of Ashton-under-Lyne, which is one small part of Greater Manchester. They might as well have said, “We’ve tried it out in the universe and there doesn’t seem to be a problem, so we’re ready to start it in the Midlands as well.”

It may be that Ashton-under-Lyne was chosen for the first trial because it’s an area with relatively few claimants. Similarly, the next trial is in Harrogate, the spa town with the lowest number of unemployed in Yorkshire. Then comes Bath, and Shotton, one of the most prosperous areas in Wales. It’s like testing a raincoat by taking it on holiday to Saudi Arabia, then saying, “I stayed dry as a bone all week, it works perfectly.”

When Iain Duncan Smith was questioned about how far behind these trials seemed to be, he said, “The numbers are irrelevant.” That’s a novel view of statistics. He’d be an interesting football manager, announcing he’d bought a new striker as he seemed all right for Ashton-under-Lyne so he’s successful in Greater Manchester, and he hasn’t scored any goals but that doesn’t matter as the numbers are irrelevant and in any case he was only 32 million quid so hardly worth fretting about.

The problem may be more than whether his department has introduced the scheme efficiently. It could be that the whole idea of universal tax credit is based on the idea that we pay too much out in benefits, so that remaining unemployed pays more than being in work. But no one seems able to find a genuine example of where this is the case. The most comprehensive study suggests that on average, even starting a job for 30 hours a week on the minimum wage, will pay 25 per cent more than remaining unemployed.

The Department of Works and Pensions’ own model, used by civil servants to calculate the effect of benefits, doesn’t suggest a single case where someone would be worse off working than staying out of work.

So this whole institution, costing billions and terrifying the people it affects, has been created to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. They might as well spend 50 billion setting up a department to stop an attempted coup by caterpillars, or quelling a threat by unruly cloud formations. So it’s possible that the real purpose may be to persist with the idea that the people who ruined the economy are the poor.

It would also appear, if you looked at the matter long enough, that unemployment goes up and down for reasons other than the unemployed deciding they’re better off not working. Or maybe not, and the reason Iain Duncan Smith hasn’t started trials of the universal tax credit in areas with large unemployment like Middlesbrough and Merthyr Tydfil, is everyone’s so rich there, he couldn’t afford to stay there long enough to see the results.

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