20 Jun 2014

Will the universal benefits plan have to be redrawn?

When Iain Duncan Smith announced he was going to launch the most radical reform of the welfare state in modern times, I wonder whether there ever was a little, cynical voice in his head saying sarcastically: “Good luck with that, fella.”

The enormity of the task from the offing was never in doubt. But did the secretary of state for work and pensions ever think it would be as difficult as its turned out? I wonder.

Today, two reports castigating two major areas of reform. My old colleagues at the BBC report that a leaked internal document suggesting the government could breach its own much vaunted cap on welfare spending because of the soaring cost of employment support allowance (ESA) – the main sickness benefit.

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The documents suggest more people are moving off jobseeker’s allowance and onto ESA (ESA is a higher-rate benefit and therefore costs more). People are sicker than had been anticipated and therefore on the higher rate benefit for longer and are hit, of course, by the much-reported problems with assessment of those claming the benefit.

Then today the public accounts committee has issued a report into the personal independence payment (PIP) – which replaces disability living allowance – and called it a “fiasco”, with delays to the system causing hardship to vulnerable people.

In response, the government says ESA is “back on track”, the benefit cap won’t be breached, and it’s sorting out delays to the assessments for PIP.

It also points to the fact it is are ready to “roll out” the next phase of government’s flagship welfare policy, universal credit.

Rolling out suggests a juggernaut storming ahead, but this is a juggernaut with very tiny wheels. The latest roll-out will see single claimants in the area transferred over to universal credit. The more complex cases – couples with children, for example – will join at a later date.

There are a number of pilots around the country, generally piloting just one aspect of how UC might work. None yet taking in all claimants on all benefits.

But the policy has been plagued by delays and a succession of reports raising concerns about whether it will meet the original deadline of transferring all claimants across by 2017. Mr Duncan Smith has already had to admit more than £40m has been written off in computer costs in trying to implement the new system.

There are few – within and without parliament – who dispute that the aim of universal credit is a good one, and so far universal credit has had cross-party support. But Labour voices have become more critical of late.

So will there come a point when the policy is redrawn in some way?

As we watch the wagons roll out the next phase of universal credit over the next few months, it’ll be interesting to see whether any of the parties decide to announce they’d put the brakes on it in its current form.

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8 reader comments

  1. Rachel s says:

    ESA for my daughter has taken 7months so far… Annoyingly their .gov web site STILL assures you that you will be assessed in 13 weeks. If you raise this on phone, they get annoyed and tell you that they’re snowed under. You only get 50% benefit until you’re assessed – I think theyre keeping it until after next election!! No wonder deficit is down . People are living in absolute poverty (50 week) because of gov incompetence. If I’d been warned of backlog, I’d have claimed Inc sup instead.

    1. Keiran says:

      If i’ve understood the rules correctly, you’ll only get the award backdated to week 14 of the claim not to when you first claimed so that could amount to many hundreds of lost income.

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    For “redrawn” read “reduced”.

    It really is that basic.

    Same old mean-spirited corner-shop mentality tories. They’ll NEVER get a social conscience – if anything they get worse the more desperate they are to steal more from our most vulnerable citizens. But they never fail to hand out to their rich chums. Like the USA and most of Europe, Britain has become a welfare state for rich oligarchs and transnational companies.

    And there is much, much worse on the horizon. Then watch mainstream media go into its corrupt lying overdrive about “scroungers” and maybe even yet another war (for which there is ALWAYS sufficient money).

  3. Dee says:

    when I appealed my ESA it took 11 months to get a date which I won but only awarded it for 2 years so next January so wish me luck. I dread when I have to claim PIP as it took three appeals to get any care compondant then awarded LRC, then got MRC and then HRC for 4 years and then it was reviewed they dropped me to LRC which I got them too look again and went up to MRC, A few years ago i was reported for fraud and the doctor that came put down that i could walk 300-400m which isnt true it nearer 20-30 meters.

    Why doesnt it surprise me that government has got it wrong again on the changes to the benefits changes because they tried to push the changes to quickly and it means people that are left high and dry waiting to get the benefits they need. How many people have died or taken they own life because of the stress it causing them. I have had to go to the food bank once because I just couldnt afford to feed myself, but the problem is that a lot of food that I received I couldnt use because of allergies and been on a gluten free diet. The food didnt go to waste I gave them to my local church that do a cheap meal once a week.

  4. AJH says:

    The DWP is a department out of control.It lies as a matter of course,historical revises statistics to suit and produces ad hoc ones to provide a screaming headline of the reverse of the truth.People are having to apply for JSA because they will no income otherwise,and then in time because they are ill move to ESA in a continual loop for many .An obvious attempt to get people to give up.PIP delays are particularly worrying given it cannot be emphasised as to the importance of timely receivership,financial consequences are only a part of of it,given the passported nature as regards support.It means inability to leave your house or have your basic needs attended to for many,risking further deterioration in health.
    The truth is this.Having created a myth of mass fraud,and the media is complicit in this ,policy was based on this fundamental lie.This is the inevitable consequence and rather than admit their misanthropy they will continue I suspect,because as every tragedy occurs,the dust settles,the same lies are repeated.This is a national scandal and this time will be looked back as a particularly dark time and future generations will wonder how could our ancestors let this happen

  5. Philip says:

    IDS has to shoulder much of the blame for this – but it’s not entirely his fault. DWP is having to introduce 3 enormous programmes, pretty well at the same time…as well as all the “getting people into work” stuff. Most of it involves heavy use of new IT programmes & external contractors. The Public Service record in managing large IT programmes & external contractors is mixed at best. Doing all this at the same time carries an immense risk – not least of overstretch in the small number of managers with the skill, knowledge & experience to control and run these huge programmes. Did anyone in DWP (or the Cabinet office, for instance) consider how feasible this portfolio of programmes was to deliver? Is anyone in charge of managing the resources – not just cash but, critically, the right people – to ensure that there are people with sufficient knowledge not just of programme management & managing external contractors, but also the critical details of the actual policies, to ensure that these are in the right place at the right time? From what it appears, no-one – least of all IDS – has a proper grip on any of this….and the PR speak when the problems become public is utterly devalued by DWP’s record under IDS. If I was the PAC, I’d want to look at DWP programmes as a whole & get the NAO to look from the top down at how thy were being managed, prioritised, co-ordinated and controlled. From what I’ve read, the system is a PR-led headless chicken

  6. Tom Gourlay says:

    Over the past 4 years I have provided advice, help, information, support to vulnerable adults / family members with enduring physical / mental health and wellbeing issues. I have found the changes ongoing / too many in to short a time.
    Individuals being sanctioned or a change in circumstances leaving individuals with no income on a regular basis. Time delays dealing re issues or queries.
    Political dogma dictating the demonisation of vulnerable individuals.
    Advice given changing on a weekly basis so support staff chasing their tails on a regular basis. Unsatisfactory, ineffective, inefficient IT systems unable to cope and staff training etc unsuitable in my personal opinion.

  7. George Barker says:

    One size fits all never works, as it always turns out to be a penny-wise pound foolish approach. Just look at the mess the Tories made of education with the one size fits all National Curriculum introduced in 1987 that effectively ended all real vocational choices in schools. And what did that achieve? A skills shortage and a lot of very frustrated kids disrupting lessons they didn’t what to be in as they weren’t suited to them so everyone suffers.

    I suggest Jackie Long needs to get out a little more if she thinks few outside of parliament think universal credit is a bad idea. She’s as cossetted and out of touch as the Westminster MPs.

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