Given the travails that have dogged the Government’s welfare reforms, it is little surprise that patience is wearing thin. According to Iain Duncan Smith’s original plan, one million benefits claimants would be switched to his Universal Credit system by this April, all 12 million by 2017. Instead, only a smattering of small pilots are in place so far, and the Work and Pensions Secretary has himself acknowledged that the completion deadline will not be met.
The central problem is a technology project that – thanks to what the National Audit Office has identified as “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance” – has signally failed to deliver. Some £40m of investment has already been written off. Indeed, the IT is so unfit for purpose that it will be used only for the pilots; a second computer system is being developed in parallel, to cope with the national roll-out. The delays in that roll-out reflect Mr Duncan Smith’s – correct – assessment that missed deadlines are preferable to glitches that either leave claimants out of pocket or enable mass fraud. Such are the mountains still to climb, however, that questions are being asked as to whether the scheme should go ahead at all.
Despite everything, the answer must be yes. The existing system’s thickets of credits, entitlements and disbursements are both difficult for claimants to navigate and costly for the state to administer. Universal Credit, which rolls six benefits into one and is vastly more responsive to claimants’ changing circumstances, would be a real step forward. Contrary to critics’ claims, the aim is not to save money but to ensure that working – even for just an hour – always pays.
The risk of a policy white elephant is, in fact, the lesser danger here. More of a concern is that much-needed reforms will fall victim, yet again, to politicians’ tendency to over-promise, particularly as regards timescales. Universal Credit is a major shake-up of one of the most complex and sensitive areas of the state; implementation was always going to be slow and tricky.
Thus far, the whispers against Universal Credit remain just that. Officially, all three main parties remain committed (with caveats) to the plan. They must hold their nerve a while yet.