The Secrecy Over Universal Credit Must Come to an End

There are so many concerns surrounding Universal Credit Iain Duncan Smith probably won't have the time to address them all today But if he is to prevent public confidence slipping away completely there are five questions he must answer when he sits down in front of the Select Committee.

In front of the DWP Select Committee this afternoon Iain Duncan Smith will be presented with yet another opportunity to come clean about the chaos surrounding his troubled plans for Universal Credit. This time I hope he takes it.

After 14 days of sustained attacks from all quarters, you could almost forgive the Secretary of State for retreating back into his bunker. But with billions of pounds of public money, and millions of families' tax credits at stake the time has come for Mr Duncan Smith to come clean.

With any project of this scale there are two huge issues you need to get right; bringing the project in - on time and on budget - and making sure it works as planned when it starts. Anyone who has picked up a paper in the past fortnight will know that on both counts Universal Credit is in danger of crashing into the rocks.

Let's start with the implementation. It was almost exactly a year ago that smoke signals began to arise from mysterious sources close to the Chancellor informing us that Universal Credit had already found its way to the top of the Treasury's watch list of projects at risk of failure. Little did we know how much worse things could get.

Iain Duncan Smith's cabinet colleagues now seem desperate to tell anyone who will listen about their worries over the Work and Pensions Secretary's treasured plans. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Secretary, was more than happy to share his total lack of confidence in the scheme when he thought Iain Duncan Smith was being packed off to the Justice Department, and another Minister - not brave enough to be named but concerned enough not to pull his punches - tells us the scheme is heading for a car crash. On top of all this, a day barely goes by without us hearing of yet more deep concerns from the country's most senior civil servant.

But it's not just the briefings that give the game away. The little information that has seeped out from DWP is even more troubling - revealing the scheme is already missing its targets. October 2013 has become mid 2014. And with £500 million spent the project is already £100 million over budget. When a scheme as complex as this is late and over budget the alarm bells begin to ring loud and clear. But DWP Ministers seem to be in total denial.

So what about the running of the scheme when it finally arrives. Again, here, the signs aren't good.

Once upon a time we were promised a welfare revolution. Universal Credit, we were told, would ensure that work always pays, improve incentives to work and it would vastly simplify the benefits system.

But sadly, from charities to think tanks, Ministers and the CBI there is now a widespread consensus that Universal Credit might be fine in theory but it's about to seriously backfire in practice.

Most worrying of all, research from my office, along with Social Policy expert Donald Hirsch shows Universal Credit is set to become a huge new squeeze on Britain's squeezed middle. The personal allowance that George Osborne said would help the low paid will be clawed back to the tune of half a billion pounds from more than three million families. What's more according to the Children's Society the lowest paid will lose up to £4,000 worth of help with childcare and DWP tables show Britain's low paid second earners are going to lose more of their pay packets.

And DWP don't seem to be able to answer even the most basic of questions. How will they ensure everyone is better off in work when Universal Credit comes into contact with localised Council Tax Benefit and means testing for Free School Meals? What will happen to the existing 20,000 Housing Benefit staff? How will small business cope with the coming tidal wave of red tape?

There are so many concerns surrounding Universal Credit Iain Duncan Smith probably won't have the time to address them all today But if he is to prevent public confidence slipping away completely there are five questions he must answer when he sits down in front of the Select Committee:

He should make clear how much 'squeezed middle' families are going to lose in childcare support and faster withdrawal of tax credits. He must assure the public that following the localisation of the £5 billon council tax benefit budget , everyone in every part of the country will be better off in work under Universal Credit.

With the implementation of Universal Credit already £100million over budget he must give details of how he will fund this overspend.

Universal Credit has already been delayed by nine months to the middle of 2014. We must have assurances that there will be no more delays - and that everyone will be on the system as promised in 2017.

The Secretary of State should tell us why the DWP told the OBR in July 2011 that £3.1 billion extra would be needed in 2016-17 and explain precisely what 'policy measures' have reduced this to £2.5 billion.

Finally with Government ministers now openly warning that Universal Credit is in danger of becoming a car crash. The time has come for an end to the secrecy surrounding the project. Will he now come clean and release the business case?

Labour want Universal Credit to work, but Ministers must now take down their wall of silence, admit they have got a problem and start working to find a solution - before it's too late.


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