A report by Nicholas Timmins for the Institute of Government suggests that Universal Credit has recovered from its initial disasters and is now on the road to recovery. He has been told, and seems to accept, that the DWP and the Treasury have finally got a grip and sorted out the basic mistakes, and something like Universal Credit will be established.
Timmins’ report is largely based on interviews with senior politicians and civil servants. The report is basically a chronological account of how the policy developed, how it went wrong and what’s been done subsequently to get it right. But he would have done well to seek out some other perspectives. The failures in design are fundamental – and because critical analysis through the usual channels was suspended, they have still not been adequately considered. Amongst the many failures of Universal Credit,
- all the primary objectives – such as simplification, work incentives, reducing in-work poverty, smoothing transitions and cutting back on fraud and error – have been fatally compromised
- there is no effective system for coordinating and pooling all the information required in one place – the new system has come to rely primarily on returns from claimants about changes
- the system relies on accurate information from claimants, and people cannot answer questions they do not know the answer to. No computer system can go faster than the information that goes into it
- the marginal rate of deduction is much higher than intended
- the cuts in work allowances remove any incentive for most claimants to remain in contact with the system if they find work
- the system makes complex demands of people, (for example, those relating to security, agreements by couples and job search) which are almost impossible to police.
The administrative failures of Universal Credit largely reflect a cavalier disregard for any practical experience derived from the benefits it is supposed to replace. Even if everything had been done well, the scheme would have foundered; it was trying to do the wrong things in the wrong way. There is little indication that the present implementation has done more than re-christen existing benefits with some tweaks in the rules, and as things stand many of those tweaks (such as rules on rent, reporting and conditionality) are not working too well.