It is perhaps no surprise given the number of alternative political stories on offer as parliament returned from the conference recess this week that another failure in the government’s universal credit rollout passed almost unnoticed. The scheme has been beset by problems since its inception, so the news that there has been a 11 per cent fall in the number of new claims since the summer was depressingly predictable, but Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship policy has become so shambolic that Labour should now be putting the impact of its failure on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society at the heart of their attacks on the government.
Duncan Smith talks passionately about the moral purpose at the heart of his plans to transform the plight of the worst-off – citing a visit to Easterhouse as his political epiphany – but the miserable reality undermines his lofty rhetoric. When universal credit is supposed act as the catalyst to shift hundreds of thousands of people away from benefits and into work, it would be sensible to make it work. The target to reach 500,000 overall claims by next May always looked fanciful – especially when you consider that scheme failed to hit 100,000 claimants five months ago – and the direction of travel is drifting downwards. Labour should add it to a lamentable list of Department for Work and Pensions failures that belie the Conservatives’ claims to be the party of the centre-ground alongside the fallacy of their national living wage and the cuts to tax credits.
Universal credit’s troubled history has at its heart a troubling lack of joined-up thinking in government. The policy had barely got off the ground before the DWP wrote off £40m in IT costs in 2013 and the national rollout has already been delayed by five years. Where the pilot schemes have been introduced, there are serious questions over its effectiveness. The National Audit Office has contradicted Duncan Smith’s claim that the reform will save £20bn and the DWP have been negligent in addressing the 60 per cent of claimants who will be plunged into debt, with an average wait of five weeks for enquiry. Councils have seen their budgets cut to the bone by this government and will likely have to pick the slack as tenants move deeper into arrears, with many social landlords unable to access to the data they need to keep up.
There are broader policy problems to think of too, such as the prospect of the poorest schoolchildren missing out on the pupil premium highlighted by Meg Hillier last week. Labour’s new shadow work and pensions secretary, Owen Smith, should condemn this chronic mismanagement as a failure of policy and planning. For a supposed natural party of government, the Conservatives cannot seem to plot a plausible passage out of poverty for those who need it the most. It is not enough for us to loudly decry their failure, we must earn back our credibility through effective opposition. Fixing the mess Duncan Smith has created would be a good place to start.
Daniel Crawford is a councillor in the London borough of Ealing. He tweets @DanCrawford85
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