In his resignation letter, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith said bluntly:
“I am unable to watch passively while certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.”
He singled out cuts to Personal Independence Payments proposed in the new budget as the last straw: 200,000 people have been told they will lose support altogether in the same breath with which the Government announces tax cuts. However, a feud with the Treasury has rumbled on for years, and IDS’ flagship policy has in some ways altered to the point of unrecognition by the demands of deficit reduction.
So what’s the status of Universal Credit? The Department for Work and Pensionstold parliament last month that it expects to fully roll out the programme by 2021: the ‘digital service’. The Public Accounts Committee found in 2013 that only £34 million of the £334 million spent on IT systems will be ultimately be recovered from the ‘live service’ now in operation. ‘In operation’ is putting it kindly: it’s only being used for the simplest cases. The real test of the system will only come in 2019, when tax credit claimants and legacy claims are added to the system.
Some unflattering revelations are likely to follow IDS’ departure. The Department for Work and Pensions has just lost its third attempt to resist Freedom of Information claims over early reports on Universal Credit: including departmental staff’s early concerns, early hiccups, and the outcome of a high-level review. In its final report after the reform was ‘reset’ the National Audit Office said DWP “relied too heavily on uncertain and insufficiently challenged operating assumptions” and lacked “sufficient understanding of its portfolio of programmes”.
Who takes over? Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire since 2005. A former whip, he is the first Conservative minister with a beard for a century. More significantly, despite refusing to be drawn on policy when interviewed this weekend, he believes the welfare state provides a “genuine safety net”. He told the BBC last month, “I had a mother who, as we got older, moved progressively from a position of complete welfare dependency to being fully economically independent, working full-time…and that has to be the model of the way the welfare system should work.”