If you’d judged the success of universal credit purely on Iain Duncan Smith’s tone at the Work and Pensions select committee this afternoon, you might conclude that things weren’t going very well at all. IDS was in a fabulously grumpy mood this morning on the Today programme, muttering about the presenters trying to find fault, and he didn’t seem to have cheered up by the time he arrived in the Wilson Room for his select committee grilling, accusing Labour MP Debbie Abrahams of ‘moaning’ and Glenda Jackson of ‘conflating so many issues here, it’s almost becoming risible’.
So what did we learn? IDS insisted that ‘in essence it will be delivered by 2017’: his plan was still the same as the original one he’d outlined to them in September. He added: ‘This is what Howard Shiplee is saying, with the one exception, for reasons I think I’ve made obvious, in essence that was the plan delivered. The different way we’re delivering it is instead of loading those numbers up front, we want to ensure, by testing evaluation and then implementing, that actually the systems work for the complex groups before we then start rolling the numbers into it. I think that is nothing less – nothing more than common sense.’
Shiplee and Lord Freud also explained the new work on the UC technology to deal with the ‘lobster pot’ (this describes the way that once a claimant has moved to UC, they will stay on UC regardless of any changes in circumstances and is a bit of jargon that Freud described in July 2013 as a ‘term that we probably should not have introduced’) for couples: currently the system cannot deal with them. Universal credit is a trove of jargon: jam jars, agile, waterfalls, ‘pathfindering’ and ‘front-end loading’, not to mention those difficult rollouts. At one point Lord Freud remarked that ‘there’s a lot of jargon around using this word digital by default’, then tried helpfully to bust the jargon by saying: ‘We are building a digital system, we are building a system where initially people interrelate with it…’
The £40.1 million IT write-down from the project was as a result of code that Mike Driver said ‘has no use within the system’, and that this sort of write-down was ‘standard in pretty much every organisation’, with about 30-40% of code in these sorts of projects needing re-working. There will be a further £90 million worth of software written down in value over the next five years which the department will still get some use from over the next five years, but Driver told the committee that there would not be another write-down.
IDS also took the opportunity to drop CCHQ and Grant Shapps in it when being grilled on his department’s use of statistics, telling the committee that on one particular story about 900,000 people pulling out of claims for disability benefits rather than facing assessment had come from CCHQ. ‘I wasn’t even aware that they were going out with that comment at the time,’ he told the committee, adding:
‘They’ve pulled two things together and conflated them… but it’s not ours and I have had conversations with him [Shapps] and with others about being careful to check with the department if they are going to say something about the statistics that are out there, they should check with us that those are the statistics that can be correctly used.’
Perhaps, though, aside from the DWP’s use of statistics, there needs to be another session on its use of jargon. Because under all the pathfindering, rollouts and front-end loading, there is an argument that some of the chaos around universal credit is quite normal: the write-downs, for instance, that you’d find in any project like this, and the decision to delay the timetable so that the benefit works. As for whether universal credit will work, well, today’s session didn’t really shed much light on whether the reform will eventually come good. Iain Duncan Smith is adamant that it will. But perhaps that’s because he, too, is stuck in some kind of lobster pot over the reform.