Reeves versus Duncan Smith - universal credit debate highlights
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Universal Credit and also in Bill Payments, Central Government, Housing, Local Government
Reeves versus Duncan Smith - universal credit debate highlights
Iain Duncan Smith was once again forced to defend universal credit in the House of Commons yesterday after Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves launched a scathing attack on the flagship policy.
Reeves used a debate on the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions to criticise the government for failing the country's most vulnerable through a succession of "flawed" welfare reform.
She was particularly critical, however, of Duncan Smith's "pet" project which she accused of being "widely" off-target. Duncan Smith responded with his usual dismissive bluntness.
Here are the Hansard highlights of yesterday's debate:
Rachel Reeves: Let us now deal with universal credit, the Secretary of State’s pet project and the Prime Minister’s flagship welfare reform. Where are we with that? It was supposed to be the Government’s way of achieving £38 billion of savings over 10 years and £7 billion a year thereafter by reducing fraud and error and by encouraging more people into work.
Today, with more than £600 million spent on set-up costs, we should be starting to see the benefits—1 million people should be claiming universal credit now, as part of a roll-out that the Government said would be completed by 2017—but instead we find that £130 million of this expenditure has already been written down or written off and only 6,000 of the simplest cases have so far received the benefit, which is less than 1% of the level it should be at now.
Most worryingly of all, we now have no reliable timetable and no Treasury-approved business case to tell us how, when or whether this project will ever be fully operational or deliver value for money.
We have repeatedly called on the Government to come clean about the state of universal credit. The rescue committee, which we appointed to advise on the future of universal credit, has recommended that the books be opened for a warts-and-all review, with the National Audit Office signing off any new business case before it goes forward.
But instead of moving on from the culture of secrecy and denial, which has been identified as the biggest fatal flaw besetting universal credit, the Government are instead spending yet more taxpayers’ money fighting freedom of information requests and court cases to try to stop the publication of documents setting out the risks, milestones and state of progress of this multi-billion pound project. They are hiding behind a veil of secrecy that is making universal credit harder, not easier, to deliver.
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I respect the hon. Lady’s real world experience and the things that she has done in the business world before coming to this place. In that vein, will she not understand that it is vital to roll things out on a test-and-learn basis and not, as the previous Government did with tax credits, on a crash-and-burn basis?
Rachel Reeves: What I know from my business experience —I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows it as well — is that writing off and writing down £131 million of expenditure is not good value for money. It is good to test things, but I do not see this Government doing much learning from the mistakes they are making.
The evidence is now clear that the Secretary of State’s record has been a complete car crash.
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): On the point about learning lessons, is my hon. Friend aware that I have been making freedom of information requests to the Department in relation to mandatory reconsiderations? When people get their work capability assessment, and it has failed, before they can appeal there has to be a mandatory reconsideration.
The Department does not know how many cases have been overturned, how many claimants have been left without any money and how long the longest period is for reconsideration. It cannot answer a single one of those questions under a freedom of information request.
Rachel Reeves: That links in with what I was saying earlier. If the Government do not learn from their mistakes, how can they make improvements?
Universal credit is widely off track; the work capability assessment has almost completely broken down; personal independence payments are a fiasco; the Work programme is not working; the Youth Contract is a flop; support for families with multiple problems are falling far short of its target; the jobmatch website is an absurd embarrassment; the unfair and vindictive bedroom tax is costing more money than it saves; and the Government cannot even agree on a definition of child poverty let alone take action to deal with it.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to fail to deliver on one policy might be considered unfortunate; to miss one’s targets on two has to be judged careless; but to make such a complete mess of every single initiative the Secretary of State has attempted requires a special gift. It is something like a Midas touch: everything he touches turns into a total shambles.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State will spew out dodgy statistics, rant and rave about Labour’s record, say “on time and on budget” until he is blue in the face and, in typical Tory style, blame the staff for everything that goes wrong. We have all long given up hope on the Secretary of State ever getting a grip on his Department. The real question today is when will the Prime Minister learn and take responsibility for the slow-motion car crash he has allowed to unfold?
The DWP has the highest spending of any Government Department, and the responsibility for handling some of the most sensitive situations and some of the most vulnerable people in our country. We will all be paying a price for a long time to come for this Government’s failure to get a grip, and the lives of too many people, such as Malcolm Graham who is still waiting for his personal independence payment, have been irreparably damaged. It is clear that this Government will never take their responsibilities in this area with the seriousness that is needed. Let me pledge today that a Labour Government will. They will help those thousands of families who have been let down by the system and the millions of taxpayers who are seeing their money wasted. That change cannot come soon enough.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Iain Duncan Smith): I welcome today’s debate. We have waited and waited for a debate on welfare in Opposition time, yet today we see a cynical motion from a cynical party, pandering to their unions and chasing media headlines.
They have cynically avoided the topic of welfare reform, missing the real point, which is the impact and success of what we are delivering. More people are in work than ever before, with the figure up 1.7 million. More people are in private sector work than ever before, with the figure up more than 2 million. Unemployment and youth unemployment are lower than the Opposition left them at the last election, and workless households are at the lowest rate since records began.
The Department processes 7.4 million claims successfully, issues more than £680 million in payment to 22 million claimants and carries out more than 24 million adviser interviews. To date, since we introduced the efficiency programs, call volumes have been at their lowest level, as have complaints. We have seen record debt collections of more than £2 billion—and, by the way, debt is lower than the figure we were left—as well as record online claims. At the same time, we have saved £2 billion from the Department’s baseline spending compared with 2009-10.
Let me repeat that: £2 billion has been saved from the Department’s baseline expenditure compared with 2009-10, when the previous Government left office. Let me give two examples of where, when we came into office, there was ridiculous, excessive and personal waste. When I walked through the door, I found that the previous Government and their Ministers had had six cars and six drivers sitting permanently inactive, costing more than £500,000. We have reduced that to one pool car used by all of us, or we get taxis or the tube.
Equally, under Labour the DWP spent £13 million on first-class travel. I honestly wonder whether anybody wanted to see them that much more quickly as they got off at the other end—I doubt it. We have banned that.
The motion contains no mention of those efficiencies or achievements, no suggestion of what Labour would do and—there is no better illustration of how cynical the Opposition are—no admission of the shambles they left behind. The economy was at breaking point, £112 billion had been wiped off our GDP and we were burdened with the largest deficit in peacetime history. Welfare bills were completely out of control. Housing benefit alone had doubled, contributing to overall spending increasing by 60%. The benefits system was in meltdown, with a mess of 30-plus benefits that meant that work simply did not pay.
At its peak, when I walked through the door, our inheritance was 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, a million of them for more than a decade. Youth unemployment had increased by nearly half and long-term unemployment doubled in just two years. One in five households was workless and the number in which no one had ever worked almost doubled.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I want to talk about incompetence on his part. Every week, people come to my surgery who cannot have their personal independence payment claims processed. Will he take some responsibility and apologise to them for the incompetence of his policy and his Department?
Iain Duncan Smith: We take full responsibility for ensuring that that benefit is rolled out carefully, so that when we do the full national roll-out of the whole benefit, we will know that it works. We have made a series of adjustments and also have more recruitment going on and more staff going in. I will give some pointers about where we will be when I return to this point. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that when Labour rolled out tax credits, more than 400,000 people failed to get their money and the Prime Minister had to make a personal apology. I do not want to repeat that in this case. I want to ensure that those most in need will get the benefit.
The debate continued - often straying onto other subjects before Iain Duncan Smith returned to universal credit.
Iain Duncan Smith: Let me move on to universal credit. Across all 44 programmes of change in the Department, we are taking a careful and controlled approach to achieve a safe and secure delivery. For example, the benefit cap started with an early roll-out and is now fully implemented, seeing 42,000 households capped and 6,000 move into work. Universal credit is on track to roll out safely and securely, against the plan I set out last year. The hon. Member for Leeds West quoted a figure of £12.8 billion but, as ever, shows a poor grasp of the finances. We have always been clear that universal credit’s total budget is £2 billion, and we will not overspend.
Furthermore, we have taken decisive action so as not to repeat the way in which programmes were rolled out under the previous Government. The reset will avoid the “big bang” concept that they put forward at the last election. They did a number of things that led them to have to write off huge sums of money. For example, their benefit processing replacement programme was not even introduced; it was just scrapped after £140 million had been wasted on IT that could never be used. Lectures about money that has to be written off with nothing to show for it should be directed at them, not us.
We have introduced the pathfinder in order to test and learn. We are now rolling it out, as I announced the other day, to 90 jobcentres across the north-west, and that process will be completed in the autumn. Furthermore, I have announced that, from today, new universal credit claims for couples will be rolling out into the live status, and claims for families will follow that roll-out. That will complete universal credit’s roll-out in the north-west, as we set out last year.
On the digital solution, nothing offers clearer proof that the existing live service works. It is delivering universal credit and will continue to do so. As I have always said, the majority of the existing IT will continue to be used, even as we develop the final element, which is the digital service, using all that equipment. It is about an end-state solution—fully online, fully secure and responsive to all digital threats—enhancing what we have already built. Universal credit will roll out on time, and it will deliver what we have said it will deliver—at least £38 billion in net benefit to the Exchequer.