John McTernan: IDS’s ‘on time on budget’ deception

Iain Duncan Smith is presiding over a massive government IT failure. Picture: Getty

Iain Duncan Smith is presiding over a massive government IT failure. Picture: Getty

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Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms are punitive and often malicious, intended to save cash rather than turn around lives, writes John McTernan

On time and on budget. It’s a pretty straightforward statement, everyone knows what it means. So when Iain Duncan Smith uses it to describe his landmark welfare reform project – Universal Credit – he is making an easily understood claim. Normally he gets away with it. For TV and radio interviewers, it is just one of hundreds of topics they have to deal with in a week. Most mainstream journalists don’t have the expert knowledge to challenge IDS on the technicalities. And, by and large, journalists – though en masse a pretty cynical bunch – don’t assume that Cabinet ministers routinely lie.

Well I have some general advice about IDS – never employ him to do your home improvements. For sure, he will be polite and plausible. He’ll offer the most competitive bid, it’ll be done in six months, and it will only cost £100,000. But once you’ve employed him he will disappear and you won’t see him for a year. Then he’ll turn up, bright-eyed and bumptious, and say there’s had to be a reset. Not a problem. It’ll cost the same – £100k – and still take six months. It’s just six months in three years’ time, and it’s £100,000 on top of what you’ve already spent. That’s been written off, after all there’s been a reset. That’s effectively what the National Audit Office (NAO) – the government’s financial watchdog – has concluded about Universal Credit. It has done an exhaustive study of the implementation of the policy and found some pretty egregious errors.

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Let’s take the delays. The proposal that Universal Credit takes over from tax credits from January has been kyboshed by the Treasury. And the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) itself has delayed until 2019 its plans to transfer the majority of claimants on tax credits on to Universal Credit. A further half a million claimants won’t be on UC until after 2020. This, remember, is a benefit that originally had a 2017 deadline for all claimants to be on it. So much for “on time”.

As for the costs, where do you start? Earlier this year DWP admitted that £131 million of IT costs had been written off. The NAO brings that figure up to £239m. But that is dwarfed by NAO estimates of the cost of workarounds being used by the DWP at the moment. As the full digital system isn’t live yet, there are manual systems in place – if these were still needed when the seven million caseload is all on UC then it will cost about £3 billion extra a year. As oil tycoon H Bunker Hunt used to say, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Now, does any of this matter? It’s a government IT project that has gone over budget and over timetable. Definitely in the dog bites man category. And the administrative failure of one politician is only remarkable in IDS’s shameless ability to blame everyone but himself for failure and to skate through interviews unscathed because of his assertion that all is well – “on time and on budget”. So far, so – sadly – unremarkable.

There is, though, a tragedy at the heart of this mismanagement. Iain Duncan Smith is right on one thing. Successful welfare reform is morally the right thing. By the same token, the failure of reform is, on the ground, a cost that is borne by individuals and families. Work is still the best form of welfare for people of working age. It brings dignity and independence. And, as all of us in work know, the best way to get a job is to have one already. If you are unemployed, you suffer multiple discriminations. It is because the aim of Universal Credit is so worthwhile that its failure is so terrible.

The costly failure of UC has created another monster – the vile and cruel system of cost-cutting “reforms” that the DWP is pursuing to keep costs down. The most inhumane of these is probably the sanctions regime in Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA). Talk to any MP and you will hear story after story of the unfair imposition of sanctions which throw people off benefits. There is a right to appeal, but before a claimant can access that, there is an administrative review of the case. This now takes so long that the sanctions are over before any appeal can be made. A cursory glance through cases reveals a disturbing level of arbitrary – and indeed malicious – sanctions. DWP, remember, is the government department with the largest number of staff on the minimum wage. Many of these young workers face downward pressure from management to hit targets and claimants are the collateral damage.

A close second in sheer inhumanity is the treatment of disabled workers. There are those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) who are being assessed for their ability to work. Again a noble ambition – to see the ability not the disability. But a rather different reality – backlogs, delays, punitive decisions and appeals which overturn a huge number of those decisions.

The true face of IDS’s reforms can be seen in the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the replacement for the hugely successful Disability Living Allowance (DLA). The intention of PIP is straightforward – cut spending by 25 per cent. The benefit and the eligibility criteria are explicitly designed to do this. There are also massive delays in processing new claims – so people in need are waiting up to a year for an award. This, to remind you, is a benefit to help with the higher living costs of people with disabilities. Delays in awarding this benefit are unforgivable. So we have a system not of social security but of insecurity. Not welfare for many claimants but warfare against them.

This is all bad enough, but there is a dirty secret at the heart of the government’s approach to welfare reform. Neither Osborne nor Cameron have much respect for IDS. They had no illusions about his ability or competence when they made him Secretary of State for DWP. That was a selfish indulgence by them which has led to cruel suffering for many. IDS is not up to his job and should be out of it.

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