The government’s battered flagship benefits scheme designed to shake up the current benefits system is facing yet another crisis and facing a fresh set of problems as leaked documents suggest a rift has developed between two vital departments at the center of the scheme.
Iain Duncan Smith, the minister in charge who has already demonstrated a strained and less than cordial relationship with Chancellor George Osborne, is once again facing delays to his prized Universal Credit benefits reform scheme over the provision of necessary IT staff.
As the architect of the scheme and driving force behind the massive benefits reform, Smith has faced many criticisms for numerous delays and out of control spending, all the while insisting that the reforms would be finished “on time and on budget.”
However, a recent internal Whitehall memo indicates there are significant strains between Smith and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, which pose a “high level” of risk to the successful and timely completion of the reforms after the election.
At the heart of the dysfunction is the withdrawal of the Cabinet Office of Governmental Digital Service staff that has been charged with operating the highly complex computer system needed to establish and run the Universal Credit reform scheme. The responsibility of the task will be transferred to Mr. Smith.
According to leaked minutes from a December 2018 meeting, “GDS wished to accelerate their withdrawal from the design-and-build team to allow DWP to take ownership. However, as GDS have supplied most of the expertise and resource to date, and a recruitment exercise needs to be undertaken to fill the technical vacancies, there is therefore the likelihood of some delay.”
A senior civil servant present at the meeting proclaimed that “friction between DWP and Cabinet Office” made everything much more “difficult than necessary.”
Noting that there were previous warnings of substantial cost write offs and delays, Labour’s Rachel Reeves said, “Now we learn that his officials are warning of further delays, more wasted taxpayers’ money, and bickering between ministers.”
“While families are facing a cost-of-living crisis, it’s completely unacceptable that millions have been wasted because of failures by the prime minister and Iain Duncan Smith to get a grip of their flagship universal credit scheme,” she continued.
With the impending election already on the horizon, the government can do nothing but see its new benefits scheme through to the end as it cannot risk changing its mind and undertaking a chaotic reversal of the process.