Getting ready for a crash

Several pieces have appeared today expressing fears about the Universal Credit system. The voluntary sector expressed its fears yesterday about vulnerability, debt and the impact of cuts. The Chartered Institute of Housing is worried about the effects on the poorest claimants. Several of today’s reports (here’s an example) are prompted by the Work and Pensions Committee, which is urging the DWP to revise the timetable. A coruscating analysis from opposition MP Stephen Timms points to problems in the design of the system, IT, the link with PAYE and the timetable. It’s beginning to feel like living a street where all the burglar alarms are being set off in rapid succession.

It’s in no-one’s interests to see this system fail, and while I don’t go along with the general consensus that it looked like a good idea at the time, the obvious question now is what can be done to limit the damage. The first thing is to do less. Any one part of the government’s programme – the Work Programme, monthly payments, medical reassessment, CTB decentralisation, integration with PAYE – is ambitious. So pick one element, get it in place, and secure it before moving on. To make monthly payments work, for example, the delivery of the system needs common time periods, budget support, negotiation with landlords and utility companies, and an IT system that supports it. This is quite enough to be getting on with. It will take two years in itself – do it, by all means, but don’t try at the same time to introduce other measures, such as direct payments, that will cut across it.

Second, slow things down. There’s no good reason to begin with instant adjustment and real time processing. Offer benefit entitlements for three or six months, so that constant declarations and amendments aren’t needed. (It’s been done before, for Family Credit).

Third, protect vulnerable claimants. Limit the degree of personalisation, which creates uncertainty. If the system is going to be based in IT, take steps to ensure they have access to IT. Reduce people’s vulnerability to debt by amending the laws on short term debt. Revise the overpayment rules.

Fourth, ask people. The surest way to avoid making an unholy mess of benefit reform is to consult with the people who know – and the surest way to guaranteee a crash is to keep things secret.

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