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Universal Credit has been an unmitigated calamity and so-called ‘reforms’ intended to end billions of pounds of spending on Incapacity Benefits every year have instead increased the cost – that is the end-of-Parliament report on Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions from Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).
In addition, the department has suffered serious – and possibly lasting – damage to its reputation since 2010, a reputation that was at a high when Mr Portes left it in 2008, due to the success of its integration of benefit offices and job centres into Job Centre Plus.
“Six years on, that reputation is in tatters,” he writes in The Guardian. “This decade’s flagship programme – the integration of the six major working-age benefits into universal credit – is far behind schedule, with tens of millions of pounds of IT investment already written off and much more to come. The [National Audit Office]’s verdict has been damning, describing weak management, ineffective control, and poor governance, with both ministers and civil servants coming in for severe criticism. External experts – most of whom supported the principles behind universal credit – are unsure of whether the system can ever be made to work, even several years late.
“But this is far from the worst of the failures. The collapse of the department’s contract with Atos to reassess incapacity benefit claimants means perhaps half a million remain in limbo. The suffering of individual claimants misclassified by Atos and DWP – in some cases left literally starving – has been well-publicised. Less so has been the cost to taxpayers. But the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Welfare Trends report, published last week, shows an upward revision of £3bn a year in spending on incapacity benefits – entirely attributable to delays and mismanagement.”
And it is all the fault of the Tories, it seems.
Mr Portes states: “But the evidence points to a combination of hubris on the part of Iain Duncan Smith, a reluctance by civil servants to push back against unrealistically ambitious timetables, and arbitrary, Treasury-driven spending cuts.” The man we call RTU (Return To Unit) or SNLR (Services No Longer Required) is too proud to admit his ambition outweighed his ability; his staff were too timid (afraid of him?) to make him face the realities of the situation and the Treasury, run by Duncan Smith’s rival George Osborne, forced cut upon cut onto the department, perhaps in an effort to make the Secretary-in-a-State look worse than he already did.
So “Even after it was obvious that the [Universal Credit] programme was well off-track, Duncan Smith continued to claim it was ‘on time and on budget’.”
Sir Bob Kerslake, outgoing head of the civil service, described a “culture of good news” where no one could say that things were going wrong.
And “Duncan Smith’s well-publicised attempts to shift the blame for the mess to civil servants has poisoned relations within the department”.
Meanwhile, in a bid to claw back some of the money lost on UC, ministers were desperately clamping down on incapacity benefit claimants: “Ministers firmly believed that hundreds of thousands of people on incapacity benefits could in fact work, and that the new work capability assessment would show just that, giving the Treasury some of the savings it needed. So when their own independent reviewer, Malcolm Harrington, told them that the work capability assessment needed major changes, and meanwhile the reassessment process should be delayed, they ignored him; not pressing ahead would have left a significant black hole in the sums.
“The predictable result – tens of thousands of appeals, many successful; considerable hardship; administrative chaos; and eventually the collapse of the DWP’s contract with Atos. And the long-term downward trend in the number of people on the benefit has now actually reversed. Ministers have yet to explain why, if it is really the case that hundreds of thousands of people were receiving the benefit when they shouldn’t have been, the “reforms” are now actually seeing the numbers going up again.
“The promised savings, of course, have long since vanished. In fact, the OBR estimated last week that the delays to the government’s plans for these two benefits are now costing taxpayers close to £5bn per year – dwarfing savings made elsewhere, and leaving a large potential black hole in the next government’s budget.”
Perhaps this is why Rachel Reeves keeps talking about money, rather than the human cost of the DWP’s bungling.
Only this morning, she was on Twitter telling us she would be appearing on LBC to talk about how Labour will “make work pay” – annoyingly trying to steal a Tory soundbite.
Perhaps, also, this is why the DWP is infamously reluctant to answer Freedom of Information requests. The infamous call for an update on the number of ESA claimants who have died since November 2011, first made by Yr Obdt Srvt in 2013 (following other unsuccessful attempts) is now – on a second attempt – with the Information Commissioner’s Office on appeal after ministers found another reason to refuse it.
And the Huffington Post has told us that a perfectly legitimate request by Newsnight’s Chris Cook has also been snubbed by the department.
“Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP has made a name for itself as one of the most vindictive arms of government since the coalition came into power, far more concerned with saving money than serving its jobless customers, and as useful as a wet paper bag in getting people into work,” wrote Nick Stephenson.
“It has been found to be using targets to drive sanction numbers ever upwards, its actions are one of the main reasons why people need to use foodbanks, and its latest wheeze is for staff to go into schools to scare children away from claiming benefits.”
Here on Vox Political, as stated above, we call Iain Duncan Smith ‘Return To Unit’. On the evidence above, let’s hope the voting public decide it’s time he actually went.
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