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The universal credit is the government's next big train wreck


Welfare reform could go so massively wrong, even the intelligence services are worried.

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The universal credit is the government's next
big train wreck
Welfare reform could go so massively wrong, even the intelligence services are worried.

Even if the process for awarding the West Coast rail franchise was bungled by civil servants, it is
politically disastrous for the government for a number of reasons. First, voters don’t want to hear
politicians blaming their officials, even when the blame is deserved. Second, if ministers seize on the
episode as an opportunity to accelerate civil service reform – as they surely will – the long-standing
Cold War between Whitehall and the government will heat up, with inevitable leaks, briefings and
other mischief that can destabilise an administration.

Third, David Cameron’s governing philosophy is famously obscure and coalition with the Lib Dems
curtails his room for policy manoeuvre, so demonstrating the ability to competently implement
existing policy is vital for the Prime Minister’s prospects at the next election.
When asked about the plan for recovering public support, senior figures in both coalition parties these
days talk about “delivery” – showing that the government is actually getting on with the business of
repairing the national finances and sorting out “Labour’s mess”. It is all about rolling up the sleeves
and looking like a professional administration, hired by the electorate to do a tough old job. (Check out
how often Cameron is photographed with his sleeves literally rolled up.) Labour, by contrast, can then
be depicted as deranged fantasists; avoiding tough choices and banging on about weird abstractions
instead of talking practical sense, rolling up their sle… you get the idea.

So it looks bad when the “delivery phase” doesn’t deliver and the competence file gets corrupted. Right
now, Downing Street should be thinking very hard about what the next part of the programme to
unravel will be and taking some pre-emptive measures. There are two obvious candidates.

First, the election of police commissioners. Hardly anyone knows this is happening although the votes
are due to be held in England and Wales on 15 November. Turnout will be dismal and, by all accounts,
the calibre of candidates is low. This was supposed to be a flagship reform, a great democratisation, a
ballot box incarnation of "the big society". It looks like being a bunch of single-issue council seat by-

Second, the universal credit (UC). This is a big one – the epic reconfiguration of the benefits system
with a view to making work more lucrative than claiming welfare is due to be rolled out from October
next year. Hardly anyone in Whitehall thinks this will happen. It is a vast project that requires complex
IT systems, the effective commissioning of which is not an area where the civil service has famously
distinguished itself in the past. One particular cause of concern is a plan to introduce “real time” data
transfer from employers to the department for work and pensions - via HMRC – so that changes in
someone’s work and pay status can filter through automatically to their benefit payments.

This experiment in massive inter-departmental exchange of highly sensitive private data combined
with payments worth billions of pounds has the potential to go spectacularly wrong. I understand from
a well-placed source that the intelligence services are taking a close interest in the administration of
universal credit because they fear it will compromise national cyber-security. Well-organised criminal
hackers (or indeed other foreign intelligence agencies) could break into the system to commit colossal
fraud or otherwise sabotage government business.

Separately, those who witness the administration of the welfare system on the ground – whether in job
centres or through citizens’ advice bureaux – are reporting a steep rise in cases of misallocations,
errors and general bungling that means some very vulnerable people aren’t getting the money they
need. The question being asked with increasing urgency (but still mostly in private) by pretty much
everyone involved in welfare policy is this: if the DWP can’t seem to administer the existing benefits
system properly, how on earth are they going to manage the switch to UC?

It doesn’t help that Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State responsible for the whole thing, has a
thin skin. Officials, charities and advisors from other departments report a culture of prickly denial at
the top of the DWP. To hear the way “stakeholders” tell it, if you suggest there are problems with the
UC implementation, it is inferred that you do not believe in IDS and, as an enemy of the project, are
frozen out. If this is true there is serious trouble ahead.

One remarkable feature of both the police commissioners and universal credit policy accidents waiting
to happen is that no-one seems to know who in Number 10 is supposed to be across these things. One
of the most frequent complaints from Tories about the Downing Street operation is that there aren’t
enough people with really sound political antennae keeping a strategic eye on other departments. Too
much, it is said, is being done by civil servants who work on practical measures but don’t keep their
ears to the ground for the sound of an incoming stampede of bad headlines.

Maybe the current turmoil in the Department of Transport could never have been foreseen. Some
storms do appear from nowhere. But some can be detected by radar long before they hit the shore.
There is a hurricane gathering over the DWP and when the wind picks up and the bad news starts
raining down, Cameron should be prepared.

Some are petitioning the International Criminal Court for the prosecution of
David Cameron and the UK Government for the relentless persecution and abuse
of the sick, disabled and vulnerable citizens of the nation.

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