Former DWP minister Iain Duncan Smith set unrealistic timetables for the roll-out of Universal Credit, according to a senior civil servant.
Outgoing DWP permanent secretary Sir Robert Devereux has also revealed the ex-Tory leader clashed with then-chancellor George Osborne over cutting benefit costs during his tenure at the department.
In an interview with Global Government Forum to mark his last day in office on Friday, Devereux said he believed the nationwide roll-out of the controversial benefits system, which combines the six main welfare payments into one, is now inevitable.
“It’s pretty much a matter of record that the relationship between this department and the Treasury in respect of Universal Credit, for most of the time, was pretty frosty,” he said.
“And that was for a very straightforward reason: the original design that Iain Duncan Smith brought into government…would have added billions of pounds to public spending. And the chancellor was trying to take some billions out.”
Devereux added that he should have been more realistic about the DWP’s digital capabilities in rolling out the project - initially intended to be more online and digital-focused – and more willing to challenge Duncan Smith’s timetable.
“Ministers are all too aware that they may only have a brief time in one job, so standing back and saying: ‘Realistically, this is a two-, three-Parliament reform,’ is never the first thing a minister wants to hear,” he said.
“So if I had my time again, we probably should have called a spade a spade – and done one thing, and then done the other.”
He added that with 60,000 people new in receipt of Universal Credit, the project is past the point of no return, despite repeated calls from Labour to pause its roll-out to prevent people from being pushed into debt.
″[I have] no doubt that the thing is going to roll out,” he said.
Devereux, who was knighted for “services to transport and welfare” in 2016, also defended the DWP’s medical reassessment process when transferring disabled welfare claimants from Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independence Payment.
About 20% of claims are rejected following assessment by private companies Atos and Capita.
He said: “We passionately want to give the right amount of money to people who are disabled.
“But it’s a system that dispenses cash and some people will, I’m afraid, seek it.
“Billions of pounds of your taxes are being spent, and we’re trying to make this as objective as possible; we don’t always get it right, but we have mechanisms for redress.”
A source at one benefits campaign group told HuffPost UK: “This is proof from the horse’s mouth that many of the problems we’ve seen with Universal Credit are the result of Osborne’s politically motivated and ideological drive to cut public spending in the early days of the coalition government.
“The current government is now picking up the pieces but if it’s going to be a success they’ll need to go even further to restore some of the fundamental principles of Universal Credit - like providing real incentives to work.
“The permanent secretary also suggests that Iain Duncan Smith should have taken more time to get the reform right too. He’s right.”