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Tuesday, December 10, 2013 

Iain Duncan Smith: a credit to the coalition.

It must be great being Iain Duncan Smith.  After all, when you've already hit rock bottom, as he did following his defenestration as Tory leader barely 2 years after being elected to the position, the only way is up (baby).  Partly thanks to on-going guilt within the Conservatives over his treatment, his overthrow hardly moving the party on, partly due to how despite Cameron's initial attempts to soften the party it's since shifted further to the right and closer to IDS politically, and partly due to how the media almost at large has decided the welfare state must be slashed back, it doesn't seem to matter how hopeless or mendacious he is as work and pensions secretary, nothing seems to stick.  The worst that can be said is he was supposedly described as "not being clever enough" by George Osborne, which must be a bit like being called overweight by Eric Pickles.

Any other minister who had helmed such a catastrophe as the introduction of universal credit would have been sacked or demoted long ago, while at the very least the press would have been calling for their head.  By the standards of the NHS programme for IT, the IT fiasco to end them all, as yet UC hasn't cost the taxpayer billions.  Nonetheless, as Duncan Smith was forced to admit yesterday before the work and pensions committee, £41m has so far been written off as wasted due to the original software for the system being fatally flawed, while a further £91m has been written down as it covers the interim system to be used only for the next 5 years.  The National Audit Office in its second report on universal credit also points out it's not guaranteed the replacement software will either work, or be developed quickly enough to reach IDS's previous deadline of 2017.

Some of the justifications for how this state of affairs was reached were almost as eye-watering as the figures themselves.  Mike Driver, finance director general at the DWP told the committee that "this level of write-off in the software industry was not unusual for a project of this kind".  Perhaps it isn't when it comes to massive public projects, where it seems the money taps are never turned off regardless of how useless the contractor turns out to be, but elsewhere in the industry the writing off of £41m would result in some major firms going bust.

The massive waste might be easier to take if IDS and others at the DWP showed even the slightest smidgen of humility about the whole process, yet the secretary of state has blustered and bulldozed his way through even the meekest criticism of the failings at the department.  He's blamed civil servants, insisted time and again that the project was on time and on budget, and then when he finally has to admit that at the very least 700,000 claimants still aren't going to be on UC come the end of 2017, he announces it on the morning of the autumn statement, completely burying it.  He further lucked out by choosing the day of the storm surge and the passing of Mandela, so his embarrassment went almost entirely unnoticed.

Even if it is just £41m that has gone down the tubes and there are no further foul-ups, it's worth considering how that money could have alleviated some of the other problems the coalition's welfare reforms have created.  Ed Balls (yes, I know) thinks the bedroom tax is going to raise hardly anything, so it could have gone towards filling the hole of repealing that self-defeating policy.  Despite all the nonsense, the autumn statement also revealed that only 25,500 households have had their benefits capped at £26,000, way below the near 70,000 it was expected to hit, further reducing the already small amount it was projected to save.  This naturally hasn't stopped the DWP from sending out press releases to friendly newspapers pointing out how 50 families were receiving the equivalent of £70,000 a year in benefits, without making clear that a substantial part of that money was going straight into the hands of landlords via housing benefit.

Then again, the cap never was about saving money.  It was about sending a message, while ignoring the often temporary exceptional circumstances which those receiving such large amounts had found themselves in.  IDS's reign at the DWP has been based around that concept: talking tough and winning the support of those who love nothing better than to play spot the scrounger, while in the background the reforms either haven't worked or were never going to.  It's why 400,000 have been sanctioned by the Jobcentre in the last year, to make up for the failings elsewhere, with repeated reports of pressure being put on staff to issue them for either imaginary or the slightest infractions.  At some point IDS's luck is going to run out and he's going to once again plummet into the abyss, but it's anyone's guess when those currently backing him will realise just how useless he's been second time around.

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