POLITICS

Iain Duncan Smith 'Knew Universal Credit Was Going Wrong Well Before Admitting It'

03/11/2014 13:06 GMT | Updated 03/11/2014 14:00 GMT
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LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, arrives in Downing Street for a Cabinet meeting on July 18, 2014 in London, England. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and carrying 295 passengers and crew, is believed to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile, according to U.S. intelligence officials and Ukrainian authorities quoted in published reports. The area is under control of pro-Russian militias. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Iain Duncan Smith has come under fire after one of the advisers behind his flagship benefits programme revealed that he knew it was going "off track" months before finally admitting it.

Dr Stephen Brien, dubbed the "architect" of the Universal Credit programme, told the economist Jonathan Portes for Radio 4’s Analysis broadcast that “things started to go off track... from rather relatively early on”, with Duncan Smith aware by the summer of 2012 that its successful implementation looked "very stark".

“When it became materially obvious we had to change plans it was over that summer," he added.

Critics say that Dr Brien's revelation indicated that Duncan Smith "knew far more about the problems with Universal Credit far earlier than we were previously led to believe", as he went on to tell MPs in September 2012 that the government would deliver Universal Credit "on time, as it is, and on budget".

Duncan Smith then told MPs in March 2013 that the rollout of Universal Credit, which aims to combine six benefits into one payment, was going "exactly in accordance with plans".

But after being bogged down in IT problems, a delayed introduction across the country and tens of millions of pounds being wasted, a government watchdog assessed Universal Credit in September 2013 and classed it as a new project in a "reset".

Dr Brien, who worked with Duncan Smith at his Centre for Social Justice think-tank, said that he would see him as a work and pensions secretary "on a nearly daily basis".

“My office was across the corridor from him. I would join him for all the senior meetings about the programme. I would keep him updated as a result of the other meetings and issues I was addressing within the programme team.”

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Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, member of the Commons Work and Pensions select committee, seized on Dr Brien's comments, telling the Huffington Post UK: "Every time Ian Duncan Smith is questioned about Universal Credit, he insists that everything is rolling out as planned and feigns surprise that we don't believe his assurances. Even when his previous words are read back to him he brushes them aside.

"It’s now clear that he knew far more about the problems with Universal Credit far earlier than we were previously led to believe.

"Not only does this call into question his competence, but it also highlights the Prime Minister’s weakness. Despite mounting evidence of delays and mismanagement, David Cameron has kept his Work and Pensions Secretary in post for all four and a half years of his time in office."

A spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said: "In what is a crowded field, Iain Duncan Smith surely leads the way in Tory spin and lies. He makes a lot of his Damascene conversion in Glasgow, but it's a political miracle that he's still in a job."

In response, a spokesman for Duncan Smith said the priority had been to roll out Universal Credit "in a safe and controlled way."

"In early 2013, IDS reset the plan to ensure that delivery remained on time and within budget. Since this reset, the Treasury has signed off the business case covering the full life-time of the programme.

"We deliberately started in a slow, controlled and safe way so we can expand Universal Credit securely to more people. Universal Credit is now available in nearly 70 jobcentres and will expand across Great Britain from February 2015."