15 Jun 2018

As Universal Credit is savaged by critics, will the government soldier on?

Today the National Audit Office released a report heavily critical of the Government’s flagship benefit programme Universal Credit – saying it is failing to deliver financial savings or employment benefits, all the while leaving some vulnerable benefit claimants struggling to make ends meet.

This is a damning report but mostly because it’s on the back of endless damning reports about Universal Credit which have been published since it was launched in 2011 – a policy, it’s worth remembering, which had huge cross-party support at that time.

Within a year though, the Local Government Association was warning the computer system wouldn’t be ready in time.

By 2013 the then chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, described Universal Credit as an “unmitigated disaster of extraordinary proportions.”

There were endless warnings too from charities and campaign groups saying among the small numbers of people it had been rolled out to, it was causing real hardship.

One deadline after another has been missed, projected budgets have been bust. ┬áBut in a sort of Alice in Wonderland way, Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of Universal Credit, would constantly be popping up saying, “We’re on track and we’re on time…it’ll make work pay”, all the while, the evidence piling up that none of these things were happening, certainly not in the way being promised.

And here we are today, Iain Duncan Smith gone from the department – down the rabbit hole perhaps? The National Audit Office left, effectively saying that strategy of ploughing on regardless with Universal Credit is now the only option, because there’s no “practical alternative.” It would simply be too costly, too messy to do anything else.

The NAO touches on something which I think is really key here. It notes a culture in the Department for Work and Pensions where it views any criticism defensively, as if it is only coming from people “opposed to the policy in principle.” It says it’s a way of working which has lead it to “often dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship, instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening.”

And that, arguably, is why the government is where it is today with Universal Credit – pushing on with a project the National Audit Office describes as “not value for money now and … its future value for money is unproven.”

All of that before you even get to what living on Universal Credit means for people themselves.

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