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Don't blame Whitehall: Civil servants are highly-trained experts in their field; Conservative politicians are amateurs with opinions. Who do YOU think is responsible for the cock-up called Universal Credit? [Picture: Daily Telegraph]

Don’t blame Whitehall: Civil servants are highly-trained experts in their field; Conservative politicians are amateurs with opinions. Who do YOU think is responsible for the cock-up called Universal Credit? [Picture: Daily Telegraph]

Isn’t it a shame for the Tories that they hung their ‘welfare’ ‘reforms’ on an incompetent like Iain Duncan Smith?

Accused of wasting £140 million of taxpayers’ money on his white elephant Universal Credit scheme (or is it scam?) he can at least take comfort that the latest report followed his lead and fell back on what is now becoming a Conservative Party Standard Excuse: Blame the civil service.

That won’t wash, though. The real reason, as detailed in this blog previously, is lack of interest by Conservative Party ministers like Smith himself.

We call him ‘RTU’ because we believe his incompetence as an Army officer led to him being ‘Returned To Unit’ and eventually shuffled out of the service and it is this history that seems to be repeating itself here.

Let’s have a look at the “alarmingly weak” management for which the Secretary-in-a-State was rightly criticised by the Commons Public Accounts Committee this week.

We know that the project is now well behind schedule, despite protestations to the contrary from RTU and the Department for Work and Pensions. A planned pilot roll-out in April was restricted to just one Job Centre, where they handled only the simplest cases, working them out on spreadsheets because the IT system is open to fraud.

Since then it has been started in Hammersmith, in London, where its success or failure is not yet known.

It is now doubtful whether the project can still be delivered, on-budget, by its 2017 deadline. If it is, what kind of service will it provide?

Of the £2.4 billion set aside, £425 million has already been spent and a sum between £140 million and £161 million is likely to be written off, depending on whose figures you believe.

We know that a secretary was allowed to sign off £23 million worth of purchases because RTU’s systems were so lazy. Does anybody even know what this money bought?

“From the outset, the department has failed to grasp the nature and enormity of the task; failed to monitor and challenge progress regularly; and, when problems arose, failed to intervene promptly,” said Public Accounts Committee chair, Margaret Hodge. She described the system’s implementation as not only poor but “extraordinarily” poor.

And she said the pilot scheme was not a proper pilot, as “It does not deal with the key issues that universal credit must address: the volume of claims; their complexity; change in claimants’ circumstances; and the need for claimants to meet conditions for continuing entitlement to benefit”.

The report by the committee singled out the DWP’s permanent secretary, Robert Devereux, for particular criticism, saying he only became aware of problems in ‘ad hoc’ reviews, because reporting arrangements were inadequate and had not alerted him to problems. Even after he knew of major problems, he did not closely monitor the project, the report stated.

It seems Conservatives on the committee wanted more criticisms to be included, and The Guardian has stated that senior Tories have said they would accept Devereaux’s resignation, if offered.

Let’s face it: we’ve been here before.

Michael Gove’s Education Department is now in a terrible mess because he brought in a gang of “advisors” to operate “above” his officials – who have meanwhile faced huge cuts in their workforce and a disastrous fall in morale. Gove brought his ignorant mates in to force their foolishness on the professionals, as this blog reported in June.

That was when The Spectator weighed in against the civil service, lodging an advance claim that if Universal Credit flops it will be due to the civil service, but if it succeeds it will be a victory for Tory ministers alone.

what a lot of nonsense.

Civil servants do what elected Members of Parliament tell them to do. They pay attention to the wishes of their political leaders and apply their considerable expertise to the problems set for them, in order to produce the required result, within budget, while complying with the strictures laid down by those political leaders.

They are very good at their job.

If they are failing, then the problem must lie with the politicians. If a goal is unrealistic, then blaming the ‘help’ is totally unproductive – it only serves to make them hostile.

And, let’s face it, we’ve all seen sheep with more intelligence than Iain Duncan Smith.

*If you have enjoyed this article, you may wish to consider picking up the book, Vox Political: Strong Words and Hard Times. The site is not professional and receipts from the book are its only means of support. Its 350 pages contain a great deal of information that should be just as useful as this article, and it may be bought here, here, here, here and here – depending on the format in which you wish to receive it.