The Work and Pensions Committee on Monday heard the now familiar litany of denial, buck-passing and claims that everything was really going swimmingly well. I was struck by this comment from Lord Freud, who explained how the pilot schemes – still largely confined to jobless single people, now managing more than two thousand claims, from over eight million initially expected – had shed a light on case management. He cited one ‘rather complicated’ case.
“Just to take an example of one of the more complicated cases we’ve had: we had a claimant who met a partner who had a son who wanted to move in together and they had therefore need to move house and had his own son moving in with them over the weekends. So the new partner was in receipt of Income Support. So what we get out of that rather complicated example was a partner claim, a child, termination of Tax Credit, termination of Income Support and a change of address, and we were able to work that through on policy terms on a manual basis to find out how these systems actually work …” (17:19:50)
There are several troubling aspects of this little anecdote. One is that the system has clearly not been designed to take into account the most basic and common changes in people’s lives. The assumption has been made that people fall into a defined category which then has to be modified, rather than the more obvious approach of developing a series of stand-alone modules to deal with possible categories. Second, half the ‘problems’ Freud is identifying seem to relate to the transition to Universal Credit itself. If that’s right, this is a fundamental design fault likely to be experienced by millions of claimants. Third, the experience and policy development of dealing with new household formation seems to relate to this one case, which is being treated as if it was exceptional. This system is going to have to deal routinely with thousands of cases just like this. Fourth, the development of Universal Credit has been going on for three years, and Lord Freud is still being surprised by the information that circumstances change. What will happen, one wonders, when the pilots do come across a genuinely complex case?