Select Committee reports come in many flavours, most of them containing a musty hint of a maiden aunt’s muted disapproval. There’s the ‘Go on, then, if you must’, the ‘I really do hope we’ll see some improvement soon, hmm?’ and of course, the school report special : ‘You’ve let us down, you’ve let the class down but most of all, you’ve let yourself down.’ Rarely do trumpets sound to announce either triumph or assault.
Rarely, but not never. The Work and Pensions SC released their fifth report into Universal Credit last night (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmworpen/1209/120902.htm) and the members are clearly furious. Reading the report in isolation, (never mind in combination with reports from the PAC), it is easy to see why.
The problems revolve around two points, both equally damning. There are serious, ongoing problems with the delivery framework for the various ‘widgets’ necessary to deliver (notably IT and the Local Support Services Framework) and there are also problems with the DWP’s attitude to scrutiny.
The report begins by rehearsing the sorry history so far: the re-timetabling, the late delivery of evidence to the committee, the NAO report published last year into the accounts & the concerns about vulnerable claimants. It is notable that the committee emphasises itssupport for the policy objectives of Universal Credit - their worries are about the implementation.
There have been three changes to the delivery timetable last year (2013) alone - these following the (more-or-less forced) establishment of ‘Pathfinder’ initiatives which have very limited scope. (So limited in fact that the Committee was moved to point out that “…Although we agree with an incremental approach, there is a difference between sensible caution and a snail’s pace.” These changes followed concerns from the Major Projects Authority about UC. An alarming feature of Universal Credit thus far is that every scrutinising body with which it comes into contact ends up worried.
A consequence of these delays is that Local Authorities are still carrying the administrative can for Housing Benefit, with no end to this duty in sight. Coupled together with the conspicuous hole where the Local Support Services Framework (LSSF) should be (of which more later), and local government has every reason to be worried.
But, first to the IT aspect of the report. It is crucial to understand that without the IT working, Universal Credit cannot deliver. And on the evidence thus far, the problems, arguably self-induced, are significant. Rather than admit to a failure the DWP have adopted a ‘twin track’ approach - the existing, sub-optimal IT will continue to be rolled out in order to allow the Pathfinders to progress, whilst simultaneously an ‘end state’ solution is being developed with outside experts. (The Government Digital Service is another body who has been jettisoned en route to the sunlit uplands). This against a backdrop of the NAO asking: “…how it will work; when it will be ready; how much it will cost; and who will do the work to develop and build it.”
Support for vulnerable claimants has been a long-standing niggle with UC (declaration of interest: I volunteer with an charity working with people who fall into this group). The issues here are: support with using the IT, and the delivery of the housing costs switch from LA administration to UC. The policy ‘widget’ that is meant to address this is the LSSF by delivering support ‘on the ground’. Lord Freud himself has described it as being “almost as important as Universal Credit itself”. But as yet, there is no detailed plan, and astoundingly, “…no indication has yet been provided of the level of funding that the Government envisages…”. This is promised for autumn 2014. Here’s hoping.
Now, I have a theory about why the delay with the LSSF has taken place - I have no evidence, but on the face of it it makes a certain sense. Whilst this isn’t the place to go into the intricacies of the European Social Fund awards process, many of the voluntary organisations (including mine) working with vulnerable claimants have been in receipt of ESF funding.The new round for 2014-2020 closed earlier this week. It does not seem beyond reason that the DWP is waiting to see the levels of awards, or indeed what funding it gets itself, before deciding its budget for LSSF support. I’d be most interested to hear what people think.
If I am right, then it would have been polite if nothing else, for the DWP to tell its own SC what was going on. Which neatly brings us to the part where someone writing this report lit the touchpaper and stood well back; the issue of the DWP’s attitude to scrutiny. The word ‘attitude’ here should be taken to mean both ‘stance’, and imply a certain ‘Am I bovvered?’-ness at committee appearances.
I recommend reading the actual report on this, but distilled: the DWP has, in the Committee’s view, consistently delivered information crucial to the Committee’s work and the public’s understanding late, partially, not at all, and/or inaccurately. The members are extremely cross, and rightly so.
Like the Committee I support the idea of Universal Credit - my experience at volunteering has shown me the impact the present tortuous system has on the most vulnerable. But it has to be built and delivered robustly, or its internal stresses will cause it to fail and as in any system stress is visited on those least able to resist it. I am therefore pleased to see the Work and Pensions Committee take such an uncompromising line with the DWP. I hope that the dept in turn appreciated the reasons for their line, and responds constructively - but on the current evidence, I’m not holding my breath.