Iain Duncan Smith is up before the Work and Pensions Committee this afternoon to talk about his department’s annual report. Doubtless the latest bad news on universal credit will crop up, which is a line in the OBR’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook which says there will only be a handful of claimants on universal credit by 2014/15, rather than 1.7million, and just 400,000 claiming the benefit in 2015/16 rather than 4.5million.
Duncan Smith had a trial run of this afternoon’s grilling on the Today programme, where he seemed particularly grumpy, muttering about the presenters trying to find fault while insisting that the programme was still on budget. He argued that the timetable should be flexible because it was more important that this programme works than meeting a timetable:
‘I’m not really going to give any figures out but I know that, because the point is we’ve given a figure at the end of it and we never really wanted to dwell on figures because you move in changes, but yes, I do accept, of course, that this plan is different to the original plan and the reason why, Him, let’s get this right, I introduced a Red Team of outside experts to come in to look at the plan back at the end of 2011 for the very simple reason that I was concerned that we may end up repeating the mistakes that were the last government’s over the rollout of tax credits and the health department which lost billions and billions.’
Of course, the minister is entirely right about not rushing a timetable for such a big project. And it is surely more important that universal credit eventually works – even if there are a fair few hiccups with technology along the way – because of the moral case that IDS eventually repeated in this interview, which Labour also supports.
But today’s interview, and probably today’s DWP select committee hearing too will only serve to underline the nerves that some of Duncan Smith’s colleagues have had about his ability to lead the project through its tricky implementation phase. Certain Cabinet Ministers roll their eyes when universal credit is mentioned, fearing that it is indeed a basket case. They also fear that Duncan Smith is so driven by his own moral mission on this that he struggles to take criticism properly, which is perhaps not an unfair assumption given his grumpy tone on the Today programme. But universal credit must work – if it doesn’t, the risk is that no pragmatic government attempts welfare reform on this scale for a long time to come.