THE BLOG
10/07/2013 11:44 BST | Updated 09/09/2013 06:12 BST

Universal Shambles Does Duncan Smith No Credit

We all know how fond Iain Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions are of stretching the truth and using more spin than Graeme Swann on a roughed-up pitch.

So it was no surprise that Wednesday's announcement on the next phase of universal credit came sprinkled with the usual Duncan Smith fairy dust.

First, the initial "pathfinder" - pared back from the original plans to just one jobcentre in the small market town of Ashton under Lyne - was described as being launched successfully in April "in Greater Manchester".

Then the "national roll-out", due to start in October, was revealed to be just extending the scheme to another six jobcentres, none of which are in major cities, and still restricted to a minority of claimants.

But there is something else that may have escaped attention. My officials have been looking at the levels of unemployment in these second-phase areas.

Official statistics record jobseeker's allowance claimant counts by local authority area. In every new pilot location, the percentage of those claiming JSA is lower than the UK average and lower than the average for their region.

In the case of Harrogate - a spa town in North Yorkshire - it has the lowest proportion of claimants in the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber, and less than a quarter of that for Bradford, 20 miles away.

Rugby is half the average for nearby Coventry, and the West Midlands as a whole; Bath has almost half the claimant count rate of Bristol; Highland, which includes Inverness, is two-thirds the average for Scotland; and Hammersmith is lower than the London average.

Flintshire, which includes Shotton, has the fifth lowest rate in Wales. And it is more than double that in Merthyr Tydfil, a town much maligned by Tory ministers but very close to my heart, as it was where I went to school.

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the fact the DWP has so far failed to match its grand promises about the roll-out of its flagship shake-up of our benefits system, you have to wonder what it will learn from these limited trials in areas of relatively low need.

We are very concerned they will be used to justify sweeping changes that are designed solely to cut benefits for people who are in and out of work.

If you add together the unemployed and those looking for more work, or more stable employment, there are almost seven million people on the jobs market, but fewer than 500,000 vacancies. Not even the DWP's stats fairies could make these numbers fit.

So not only is Wednesday's announcement an admission - albeit an unspoken one - of failure, it throws up the very real possibility that the living standards of low paid workers and unemployed people are in line to be slashed even further on the basis of flimsy and unrepresentative evidence. How very Duncan Smith.