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.
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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