The implementation of the government’s Universal Credit, already proceeding ‘carefully’ according to welfare minister Lord Freud, is now slowing to a crawl with just one new area joining the scheme this month. By now it was supposed to be well on the way to a national roll-out. Instead, it continues to be dogged by the difficulties with the project mismanagement of an IT system subject to scathing criticisms from the National Audit Office and the parliamentary public accounts committee.
So far just a few thousand people are claiming the new benefit that merges six means-tested working-age benefits and tax credits. It will, once it is eventually rolled-out across the country (still scheduled for 2017), affect something like 8 million households. One might reasonably ask whether it makes much sense spending tens of millions of pounds on a gigantic and failing technical solution to what is a deeply ingrained cultural (as much as an economic) problem? In order to ‘make work pay’ (let alone save a projected £38 billion), the government are going to need more than a computer system no matter how big or clever it gets; if they are going to undo the damage done by a welfare state that maintains millions of people, including entire communities, in a state of miserable, unproductive passivity. But it seems the critics too are missing this most fundamental of points
Despite one controversy after another about how ministers are calling benefit claimants names (‘scroungers’, ‘shirkers’, etc); or how ‘the vulnerable’ are being victimised by the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the work programme, and anything else to do with the reform of the welfare system; there is next to no debate about the underlying substantive issues. It is the implementation, not the rationale, of Universal Credit that comes in for most criticism. So not only have the critics delighted in anticipating the inevitable problems with the ‘over-ambitious’ IT system; they also like nothing more than to anticipate the inadequacies of the supposed beneficiaries of the shiny new benefit. It is outrageous to expect claimants to apply online because they just won’t understand it, or to expect them to get their money monthly (rather than weekly) because they are too feckless to manage it properly. Such are the arguments used by the supposed defenders of the welfare dependent.
Indeed what both sides seem to have in common is contempt for those entangled in the welfare net. While blaming welfare claimants for the mess won’t do, nor will the patronising words of commentators and lobbyists who worry over the inadequacies of those in need of little more than a job. For all the venom directed at benefit claimants on the one hand, and at incompetent political managerialists on the other; there is little prospect of an end to dependency and worklessness, or of the government’s failure to tackle it being properly exposed. What is really outrageous is that rather than having an argument about the rights and wrongs of welfare, both sides are projecting the welfare problem onto the supposed deficiencies of individual claimants – whether they blame them or feel sorry for them.
First published in Institute of Opinion