Earlier this week, a Job Centre somewhere in Mid Wales was graced by the presence of Yr Obdt Srvt, the author of this column. It’s true; I’m a real human being and I receive certain state benefits.
Having said that, it transpired during the conversation with my advisor that I was on one less benefit than expected; the DWP had, in its wisdom, cut me off from Income Support, with “No contact”. That was the on-screen comment. They stopped it but couldn’t be bothered to tell me.
But that’s by-the-way. The discussion ranged through the paid work that I do, my plans to expand my earnings, and my aim to get off-benefit as soon as possible -certainly “before Universal Credit comes into effect, in October”.
I said it, looked my advisor – who is, I should point out, a very nice person indeed, and therefore breaks all the rules of the DWP just by being there – in the eye, and we both had a little giggle about that one.
“That’s still right, isn’t it? In October?”
The conversation moved on.
Imagine my delight on Thursday evening, when I refreshed the BBC website and saw: “UNIVERSAL CREDIT PILOTS SCALED BACK”!
“The government is to scale back some of its plans to test a radical new reform to the welfare system,” the story stated. It was by James Landale, about whom I have previously complained to the BBC with regard to Tory bias, so it should be no surprise that the reason for the scaleback was buried 11 paragraphs down: “But Labour said this showed the scheme was in crisis and that the information technology needed for it was not ready.”
I turned to the newspapers for corroboration, and found it in the Independent, which put the issues right at the front of the story: “Ministers tonight significantly scaled back plans to begin piloting their controversial universal credit programme next month amid fears that the scheme is behind schedule and facing major problems.”
UC – I pronounce it “Uck” – was due to be tried out in four areas from late next month, but will now run only from a single Job Centre in Ashton-under-Lyme at that time. The three other pilot areas, in Wigan, Warrington and Oldham, won’t get started until “at least July” (it says here).
The plan is to merge around 30 benefits and tax credits into a single payment, on a tapering scale depending on a claimant’s earnings. It requires communication between computer systems belonging to the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, and employers who have to provide PAYE details (if I’ve got this right).
The scaleback is already being seen as an admission that the communications software – required for UC to succeed – doesn’t work.
There are also fears that the government doesn’t have anyone with the training or experience necessary to manage the scheme without messing it up completely and making the government look like a bunch of irresponsible fools. Again.
Needless to say, the government has denied that there is any problem. Apparently it is “sensible” to start in one area before rolling the system out elsewhere. Oh really? No attempt was made to explain why the original plan had been changed. Because the answer is too embarrassing?
This plan is a total disaster.
There can be only two reasons the government is pushing forward with it. Firstly, Iain Duncan Smith has said it will happen so it will happen, no matter how badly past-deadline and over-budget it turns out to be.
Secondly, if it doesn’t work, the only people who’ll be inconvenienced are poor people who are on benefits – and they won’t be able to take legal action over it because Legal Aid will have been cut for civil cases.
That’s why I want to be out of the blast zone when this one hits.
I fear for my future – and that of everyone else who will be caught up in this debacle – if I’m not.