The botched rollout of universal credit is the biggest public policy failure since the poll tax

It is not as if ministers weren't warned. But now we've gone so far that we can't go back on this disaster

Friday 15 June 2018 17:10
Alok Sharma, the employment minister, appeared to dismiss legitimate criticism of universal credit
Alok Sharma, the employment minister, appeared to dismiss legitimate criticism of universal credit

Universal credit is a universal flop. Many expected it, but the scale of the failure is as grand and monumental as the ambitions set out for the doomed project by Iain Duncan Smith a few long years ago. Were there not still more monumental and grand failures currently littering the British political scene, the government would be in much more trouble over this fiasco. As it is, it too is dwarfed by Brexit.

The National Audit Office, an impeccably independent body, was withering in its judgement. Universal credit has failed on all criteria. It has cost four times as much to run per person as predicted – at £699 per claim, enough itself to help hard-pressed families in poverty; a fifth of claimants’ payments are delayed; as with the care crisis, it is pushing unsustainable burdens onto local authorities; food banks, churches and charities are having to take up the role that should be played by the state. Ministers, say the NAO, “will never be able to measure” the scale of the waste. What’s more, the system won’t be fully operational until 2023.

Yet despite it all, it is now too late to go back. So the nation is lumbered with universal credit. More to the point, many needy families have to deal with its failures, which for them can mean going without.

It is not as if ministers weren’t warned. Indeed, the Treasury under George Osborne and Philip Hammond was so sceptical and hostile to it, and its progenitor, Mr Duncan Smith, that they actively tried to undermine it. When that failed, they cut its funding, weakening further both its generosity to those facing poverty and the incentive to return to work it was supposed to create.

IT scheme failures are hardly unknown in the public or private sectors. By 2012, though, the authorities should have been sufficiently prepared to face the scale of trying to integrate six complicated benefits into one supposedly simple and straightforward one, saving money along the way. Plainly, even with the knowledge gained from similarly gigantic failures at the NHS and the BBC, ministers hoped for the best and didn’t prepare for the worst.

The scheme was, in fact, rolled out gradually – an admirable example of caution in attempting such radical change. Yet the lessons from the pilot schemes seem to have been left unlearnt. Either that was because of incompetence or, more ominously and more likely, because the flaws in universal credit are so fundamental and inherent that they cannot in fact be fixed.

Opposition spokespeople, backbenchers of all parties, pressure groups and research bodies such as the Resolution Foundation, not to mention individuals affected by the changes – all raised their fears and concerns frequently. All were met with the kind of complacency still visible in the government’s response to the NAO’s criticisms. Alok Sharma, the minister for employment, breezed his way around the media studios insisting that claimants were perfectly content with the state of things.

At best it sounded out of touch – at worst, callous, given reports of suicide and real distress suffered by people with disabilities. It might have been better if Mr Sharma had offered some hint of contrition. The prime minister could give him a master class in the art of apologising.

Not since the poll tax have people had to deal with such a botched piece of policymaking. To be fair to Mr Duncan Smith, he did resign from the cabinet when the Treasury attempted yet more cuts to his scheme. That too was a point at which things should have changed; but, as with so much else, the tsunami of the EU referendum result meant that critical gazes were averted.

Since then, only two years ago, we have had four secretaries of state at the Department for Work and Pensions (Stephen Crabb, Damian Green, David Gauke and now Esther McVey). It is scarcely a foundation for consistent direction of policy.

Somehow, funds will need to be found to patch up universal credit before it does even more damage nationally. Like the poll tax before it, and even with Brexit dominating public debate, in due course universal credit, unfair and unworkable, contains within it the capacity to do lethal harm to the government, just like the welfare of its recipients.

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