THE BLOG

Government Welfare Failings Cost £1.5billion, but Does Labour Have the Answer

22/08/2013 13:35 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 10:12 BST

Labour has accused the government of ruling over a chaotic welfare reform system as multiple failures come home to roost.

The party's work and pensions spokesman, Liam Byrne, estimated the cost of youth contract, universal credit, the bedroom tax, the work programme and work capability tests could end up costing the country nearly £1.5billion.

The coalition introduced some of these measures as part of its austerity programme to cut costs, and an accusation of financial incompetence will not sit well with ministers.

Byrne also launched a personal attack on Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith, telling the BBC: "There seems to be something very wrong in the mind of the man at the helm of DWP.

"He has a mandate to reform but the instruction to deliver appears to have got lost somewhere in his office."

Smith has been criticised by the Office for National Statistics for making false claims about official figures, for using hateful language about unemployed people and for presiding over a shambolic department unable to deliver its aims.

Labour currently supports some of the measures, including universal credit and the benefit cap, but argues that they have gone badly wrong in implementation.

Byrne has asked the DWP for cross-party talks "to see exactly how bad things are" with universal credit and "what's needed to fix them".

The scheme was originally meant to have been delivered across the country by October this year but, amid rumours of an IT system that cannot handle complex benefit cases, that timetable has slipped.

The work programme has been an embarrassment for the government, meeting none of its targets and being described by a committee of MPs as "extremely poor", leading to UnemployedNet calling for radical changes including the introduction of new competitive practice and attendance to be made voluntary.

Labour estimates that the high level of successful appeals of work capability assessment findings will cost £287 million over the course of this parliament as the company contracted to carry them out, Atos, gets around a third of them wrong.

The government has repeatedly been accused of presiding over a dismantling of the welfare state, with food bank use doubling while the coalition denies a link with its cuts even as provider The Trussell Trust shows that half of its referrals are linked to benefits.

A spokesman for Smith told the BBC: "Labour is panicking - after a summer of discontent, here is yet another disastrous speech, void of any ideas. Same old Labour is in the wrong place on welfare. They want people on benefits to make more money than the average hard-working family earns. They want unlimited amounts of benefits to be a basic human right."

The defence repeats a misunderstanding of the benefit cap; an average working family would also be entitled to benefits but these are not counted towards the cap, skewing the results.

It also misunderstands the fact that only housing benefit has previously been uncapped, and this is paid entirely to landlords, acting as a subsidy for those who own properties rather than claimants.

Criticism of unemployed people who apparently receive higher level benefits is misplaced for this reason, as their spendable income is and has always been capped at the level of their Jobseeker's Allowance, currently £71.70 per week, if they are single.

Liam Byrne is rumoured to be facing the axe as his party's work and pensions spokesman as Labour's poll lead over the Conservatives is marginal or non-existent even as the government cuts spending on working and workless people alike.

It does not appear to have found an answer to the hardline rhetoric employed by the coalition as voters are unclear what the party now stands for when it abandons those, including unemployed people, who struggle to support themselves due to the economic downturn and failures of regional policy which see more than 50 jobseekers chase each vacancy in some northern areas.

These have traditionally been Labour's strongholds, and support for government policies like the benefit cap serve to both separate the party from its heartlands and confuse other voters on where its moral centre lies.

No Labour election victory can be achieved this way, no matter that the polls say the majority value hardline anti-welfare policy, and quibbling with the government over implementation issues even as it trumpets the same messages is unlikely to help.