It is a testament to the ineptitude of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain ‘Sunken’ Smith that his flagship scheme has been sent back to square one – listed as “reset” by the government organisation responsible for grading its progress.
Mr… Smith (otherwise known as RTU or Returned To Unit, in tribute to a lifetime of failure) is determined that Universal Credit – which rolls all the major benefits into a single payment which the government can manipulate to make life extremely uncomfortable for claimants – will be his legacy; the achievement that marks him out for posterity.
Well, it will certainly remind us all of the man’s nature. Universal Credit has been beset with one false start after another and remains capable of handling only the simplest of tasks while promising miracles – and when it fails to deliver, its faults are explained away with implausible excuses.
The latest is that the Major Projects Authority (MPA) assessed the project last September and its judgement is out-of-date because there has been progress in implementing the scheme through pilot projects in Job Centres.
That seems about as plausible as RTU’s claim that the scheme has not written OFF £140 million of taxpayers’ money; instead the cash has been written down (meaning, it seems, that the value of the investment has been downgraded in the same way your computer is worth less now than the amount you paid for it – “the amortisation of cost over a period of time”). That’s not an acceptable answer as the money has still been spent.
Alternatively, you may wish to consider cabinet colleague Francis Maude’s claim that UC implementation has been “pretty lamentable”. The Secretary-in-a-State said this was a reference to a time before he made emergency changes to the project; changes that he did not mention to anybody – even the Commons Work and Pensions select committee, when it was investigating the project, maintaining that all was well.
In fact, this latest excuse is also among the oldest in Mr… Smith’s arsenal; it was used last year in response to the rating UC had received at the time.
The MPA rates major schemes according to a ‘traffic light’ system – green, amber or red. Universal Credit was previously marked as amber/red, meaning it was in danger of failure.
The organisation’s new report, released yesterday (Friday), possibly in an attempt to bury bad news, states: “This time last year, we rated 31 projects red or amber/red. Of these 31 projects, more than half did better this year and only one has got worse.”
You won’t get any prizes for guessing which one!
The bad news is that, despite everything, Universal Credit remains an ongoing project and will therefore continue to haemorrhage taxpayers’ pounds – that’s your hard-earned shekels – by the million.
The good news is that we can look forward to more media humiliation for Smith himself.
The man has caused more misery than anybody since Margaret Thatcher; it is right that he should face a little suffering of his own.
You would think that, in the week of the Maria Miller scandal, the Conservative-led Coalition would spurn any contact with people or organisations responsible for financial irregularity in connection with the government – right?
Wrong: Here’s G4S.
(You really need to be playing the Soundcloud clip – above – to get the full effect of this article. The song is the G4S anthem ‘Securing Your World’; it is sub-Bon Jovi cheese that sets you up perfectly for the facts about the firm.)
G4S is the company that famously failed to meet the terms of a contract to provide security guards for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. This was a brutal embarrassment to our privatise-everything Government because it had to call in public servants – the Army – to do the work instead.
Not content with that cock-up, in July last year the Serious Fraud Office launched an investigation into G4S after it was alleged that the company was overcharging for the electronic ‘tagging’ of criminals in England and Wales. It was claimed that the company was charging for people who were in prison, outside the UK, and also for people who were dead.
It seems highly unlikely that there was any danger of this last group absconding.
The company agreed to pay £109 million back to the Treasury, which is as good an admission of guilt as any. G4S breached its contract; in fairness it should have paid back all monies provided to it by the UK government.
That was last November. Now – less than six months later – Francis Maude wants us to believe G4S has cleaned up its act and is worthy of our trust once again. Seriously.
For this reason alone it is worth checking whether Mr Maude has shares in the company.
Our government of crooks couldn’t wait to get back into cahoots with this company of crooks, could they? Delaying new contract bids until the start of the 2014-15 financial year was as much as they could manage.
If you ran a firm that behaved in this manner, you would face civil action for breach of contract and possibly criminal action for fraud – profiting from false claims. You would most likely be barred from ever bidding for such contracts again, and possibly even from working in the same industry for the rest of your career.
Yet here’s G4S, Securing More… well, you can read the headline.
It all bodes well for Maria Miller. Accepting her resignation, we are to understand, David Cameron made it perfectly clear that he would have the fraudster back in his Cabinet just as soon as he possibly could.
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It seems there has been an argument between Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP and Francis Maude’s Cabinet Office, and now the much-troubled Universal Credit project has no IT experts working on it.
Good. It’s a terrible idea, designed to remove money from the people who need it most.
The project aims to update benefit claimants’ entitlements in ‘real time’, ensuring that they only ever receive what government regulations say they should. Sadly, there is no commitment to update the entitlement amounts in ‘real time’, so people will always be getting less than they need, as inflation boosts prices beyond their range.
Minutes of a Universal Credit ‘board meeting’, leaked to The Guardian, show that IT experts from the Cabinet Office are pulling out of the project and the DWP must now search for somebody else with the skills needed to take on the work.
This means more delays and an even greater cost. This is unlikely to bother Iain Duncan Smith, who sees the project as his legacy to the nation and will pay any amount to see it through – in sharp contrast to his attitude towards the benefit claimants for whose livelihoods his department is responsible.
It seems the argument arose because of Mr… Smith’s vanity – he insisted on a “twin-track” approach to the project, keeping current work going in order to make it possible for claimants to use Universal Credit before the 2015 election while also funnelling money and time into a purely web-based system that will not require Job Centre staff to fill in claimants’ details. One may presume that he will happily sack the excess Job Centre staff after that system is complete.
Those on the current version will be tranferred onto the digital system when it is ready, we are told.
A separately-leaked document made it clear that the withdrawal of the Cabinet Office expertise is one of the most serious problems facing the project because the DWP will now have to try to find people with the necessary skills in the market, and may not be able to afford the cost.
It is interesting that this document is a risk assessment. Does anybody remember the furore over the NHS risk assessment, when the Health and Social Care Act was working its way through Parliament like an unhappy bowel movement? Even though these documents are almost always publicly available, that one was jealously guarded by Andrew Lansley and still has not seen the light of day.
Of course the different government departments are claiming that nothing is wrong and all is going according to plan, and this might be true – if we’re discussing the kind of plan that changes with the wind.
Meanwhile, Universal Credit is increasingly becoming a symbol of the government creating it – not only is it monstrously expensive but it also doesn’t work.
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This is not a good time to run a retail business – the effect of the Coalition’s benefit cuts will trickle up and bite our rich retailers and industrialists hard.
According to the BBC website, business activity was hit hard by last month’s exceptionally cold weather, with the number of people visiting shops down by more than five per cent.
For one person, this will have been an extremely pleasant piece of news, because for once he won’t have to explain himself.
That person is, of course, Gideon George Osborne.
For one month, he hasn’t been in the unenviable position of having to root around in the political undergrowth for a reason the economy has tanked – that isn’t related to his own hopelessly inadequate economic policies.
For one month only!
He will not have an excuse when the figures come in for April, worse than for March, as sane economic forecasters should expect.
Instinct says he will tell us the funeral of Margaret Thatcher will have something to do with it. He used the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as a shield – what goes for ‘matches’ must surely apply also to ‘dispatches’.
The real reason will be the effect of the huge benefit cuts, that will take £19 billion out of the economy over the next year, if commentators are to be believed.
That’s just in money terms. Add in a conservative estimate of the fiscal multiplier (the effect on the economy) and we’re staring into the black pit of a £30.4 billion loss. That would be £500 for every person in the UK, if we were all affected.
But the richest among us won’t be. It is on the poorest and least able to defend themselves that this hammer blow has fallen. The government has been giving money back to the richest, as we all know.
In fact, this show of support for his cosseted buddies might protect them from the storm that’s coming, and may therefore prove to be a shrewd move – but we must all remember that Osborne is not an intelligent man and good fortune coming to anyone as a result of his policies is pure chance.
Because the rich will be affected by the benefit cuts. Poor people have no choice but to spend the money they receive. They have to buy things they need and pay the bills, so it goes on food, heat, light, water, the rent, repairs and other necessaries. With less money available to them, they will not be spending as much in the shops, and will be more careful about how much gas, electricity and water they use, as well.
Who owns and runs the shops? Who owns the shares in the utility companies (now that the bulk of shares have been bought up from the middle-class speculators who bought them in the 1980s)?
After a few months of this, we’ll see what happens to their profit margins. My guess is that a £100,000 tax rebate won’t help very much.
The propaganda machine keeps spewing out nonsense, of course. Only last weekend we heard Francis Maude telling Jonathan Dimbleby and the Any Questions audience in Exeter: “The Coalition government, which is two parties which have come together from a different place, in the national interest, to do something quite big and difficult, which is to address the biggest budget deficit any country in the west had.”
It wasn’t the largest budget deficit of any western country – either by size or percentage of GDP. That was a flat-out lie and I wish Jimbles would pull him up on it.
The deficit in the United States is greater than ours in percentage terms; in money terms, it dwarfs the UK.
Across the whole world, Japan has the biggest deficit.
Strangely, you don’t hear the Japanese making a big fuss about it.
I asked this before, and I’m still asking now: What have they got to hide, and can it be any worse than what we’re all thinking?
Why is it that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson have both been charged with crimes of corrupt payments to public officials, but their good friend David Cameron – perhaps the most public official in the UK – is able to evade investigation?
If his emails and text messages to Mrs Brooks were innocent, then why have they still not been made available to the public – as they should have been during the Leveson inquiry – and as promised after a Freedom of Information request elsewhere on the Internet?
Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson are among five people facing charges that they made corrupt payments to police and public officials. She is a member of the ‘Chipping Norton set’ and a close friend of Mr Cameron, as we know from the fact that there is a wealth of email and text correspondence between them – all innocent, we are told – that we have been prevented from seeing. He is a former Downing Street communications chief who was previously editor of the News of the World, under Mrs Brooks.
Also facing charges are journalists Clive Goodman – former royal correspondent of the News of the World – and John Kay – formerly chief reporter at The Sun – and Ministry of Defence employee Bettina Jordan Barber.
Mr Coulson and Mr Goodman will be charged with two conspiracies, relating to the request and authorisation of alleged payments to public officials in exchange for information, including a royal phone directory known as the ‘Green Book’.
The two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office involve one between 31 August 2002 and 31 January 2003 and another between 31 January and 3 June 2005.
Ms Barber, Mr Kay and Mrs Brooks face one count of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office between 1 January 2004 and 31 January 2012.
None of these charges suggest any wrong-doing by our comedy Prime Minister, I should stress.
But he is a long-term friend of Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson, and his correspondence has been kept hidden for so long that I’m sure I’m not the only one smelling something rotten here.
The current line from the Conservative Party on this matter is that we all (and especially the Labour Party) need to “change the record”.
That’s a particularly weak defence, isn’t it?
It was made by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, while emphasising the government’s programme on transparency.
Labour’s Chris Bryant asked, if that was the case, when Mr Maude would publish the “large cache” of emails relating to Mr Coulson [and] Mrs Brooks, and that was his answer: “The honourable gentleman needs to change the record.”
He can’t “change the record”. His question relates to a vitally important matter: Is there any evidence to suggest the Prime Minister of the UK may be implicated in alleged criminal actions by his close friends?
The longer we have to wait for an answer, the more suspicious this affair seems.
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