It is unwise to stake a political reputation on an IT system, and one anonymous cabinet minister is already calling universal credit ‘a disaster waiting to happen’
Is Iain Duncan Smith trying to change the subject? Until now, whatever the welfare question, the welfare secretary’s answer has been the universal credit. At times he has seemed reluctant to discuss anything else. The pension half of his empire is entrusted to a Lib Dem deputy, and enquiries about everything from the morality of the poor to the child benefit of the rich have been swept away with a promise that the universal answer is on its way.
And yet Mr Duncan Smith is not using the dawn of the Year of the Credit to talk about his own cherished scheme, but instead to start a retrospective row about the decade-old system of payments to families which Gordon Brown launched in 2003. Aside from airing the old rightwing thesis that giving poor people money somehow makes them poorer in spirit, the nub of his column in the Daily Telegraph was to condemn the extremely wide leeway which Mr Brown gave claimants to boost their earnings as an invitation to fraud. In the abstract, Mr Duncan Smith appears to have a point – allowing a worker to bring home an extra £25,000 before reassessing their needs sounds like a slipshod way to target scarce funds. But this extraordinary flexibility was not, as Mr Duncan Smith implies, introduced in the slow buildup to Mr Brown’s desperate 2010 election campaign, but rather came a few months after Tony Blair’s 2005 victory. The Treasury pragmatically conceded “greater certainty of awards for claimants” because aggressive pursuit of back-payments was becoming the single biggest issue in the postbag for MPs of all stripes.
Claimants will continue to land jobs and lose them, couples will come together and split up. Perhaps the new universal credit computers will prove capable of recalculating payments quickly enough so that big debts do not build up this time. But it is unwise to stake a political reputation on an IT system, and one anonymous cabinet minister is already calling the credit “a disaster waiting to happen”.
The computers are only one of many known unknowns. Claimants and landlords alike are nervous about the former receiving their rent directly. The budgeting challenge for the vulnerable will be all the greater because of the switch to monthly payments. Changing rules about where payments go in the family could transfer resources from purse to wallet. Last but least, there will be a new regime to chivvy part-timers into upping their hours. Expanding jobcentre-style scrutiny into the workforce would be risky at any time; but with extra hours in such short supply, the hazards are greater.
With all of these imponderables looming, it is not surprising if IDS has decided that 2013 is the year to talk about something else.