It’s not been a good month for Universal Credit. Hard on the heels of the release of the Full Business Case, there has been a critical report from the National Audit Office and a troubling review of the operation of Universal Credit based on the experience of claimants. Neither of them shows the system in a good light. The NAO report casts doubt on the efficiency of service delivery and questions whether any of the claimed advantages of the reform can be realised. They write:
We cannot be certain that Universal Credit will ever be cheaper to administer than the benefits it replaces.
There is no clear reason to suppose that the system will save money or that fraud and error will be reduced, and the impact on employment is unknown and unknowable. The review of the system’s operation finds that the system is complex, difficult to access and the support is inadequate. Only half the claimants managed to claim without help, and the NAO found that rather less than half managed to get through the verification procedures online. A quarter of claimants couldn’t submit a claim online at all. There were particular problems for older claimants and people with health conditions. Then, after claiming. getting on for half the claimants were falling behind on bills or experiencing major difficulties.
One of the points that the NAO picks up on is timeliness in payment. This little gem offers the DWP’s reasons for late payments:
2.20 … The Department has told us that the performance had
declined because payment timeliness is sensitive to staff availability. It believes the lower performance can be attributed to:
• poor weather leading to office closures;
• February being a shorter month and therefore incorporating fewer working days to administer payments; and
• the Easter bank holidays.
Who could have guessed that there would be bad weather during the winter, that February would be shorter than other months, or that there would be a bank holiday at Easter?
Depressingly, the NAO thinks we’re committed – this has gone on too long to be unwound again. But there were still only 815,000 claimants in March, 325000 of them on ‘live service’ using legacy systems; that means that there are half a million people on full service, when the system is supposed to deal with 8.5 million. It still makes sense to pause the rollout and fix what can be fixed.
Additional note, 15th June: This is not so much an additional note as a reminder. We’re being told, yet again, that Universal Credit was a great idea and everyone liked it. I first objected to the ideas behind Universal Credit in October 2010, starting on the day that Iain Duncan Smith announced the scheme. I argued then that the proposal was simplistic and impractical. “There is no reason to believe that this scheme will increase incentives to work. There is no reason to suppose it will reduce fraud or error – quite the contrary. And there is no real basis for supposing it will make any difference in getting people to work instead. The government’s hopes for the new scheme look like wishful thinking.” More than eight years later, there’s not a word of that I need to change.
I might add, though, an objection to the silly argument that UC is a success because more people receiving Universal Credit are getting into work while on the benefit. The Resolution Foundation comments on the basis that 110,000 more people are in work; the DWP says that 200,000 will be. The NAO has already commented that we can’t know whether this has anything to do with benefits at all, but let’s assume for a moment that it’s true. This is a scheme intended to cover eight and a half million people (the figure is on page 4 of the NAO report). If 200,000 more people work, that covers less than one person in 42. If it’s 110,000, it’s one person in 77. For every person who gets more work than before, there are something between 40 and 75 who don’t. Universal Credit is a scheme that introduces confusion and hardship for roughly half of all claimants. Does it really make sense to make twenty or thirty people suffer to get one of them – just one – into a job?
If governments seriously wanted to get people into work, it would be cheaper, fairer and easier to make jobs instead.