Monday, 4 November 2013

Universal Credit is dead: someone should have the courage to say so

The Government's reaction to the implosion of its sad - but predictable - Universal Credit debacle is instructive, for it fits exactly into the five stages of grief. First, there's shock. Then, there's denial. Then anger. Then bargaining, hoping against hope that you can put right what's gone wrong. Only then can come acceptance, when the bereaved can move on.

We've pretty much got towards the end of the denial stage now. We're getting to the 'anger' bit, where the well-intentioned but seriously-out-of-his depth Secretary of State lashes out at everybody, including his own civil servants. Government press releases may say that the scheme is moving forward, but everyone knows that it's about as over as New Labour or the Spice Girls - you might hear talk of them now and again, but no-one seriously thinks that they're going to make a comeback. Only one area has gone ahead with the recent 'roll-out' of the scheme's pilot phase, rather than the six planned even on a scaled-down timeframe; all the talk within Whitehall is about moving to an even more web-based system (one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry about this suggestion), or just ripping the whole thing up and starting again.

What that means is that the denial and the anger will pass - indeed, they already are. And then the bargaining will start up and then die away - the special pleading, the pain of admitting all the money you've poured into something has gone up in smoke. The attempts to salvage something - almost anything - from the wreck. Soon, there will come acceptance. After a General Election, there'll be a new government, in which case Universal Credit will get buried, or Iain Duncan Smith (above) himself will get moved on by a reinvigorated Prime Minister powerful enough to move a potential right-wing rebel to another job - or to the backbenches. He'd have loved to do that a year or so ago, of course, but Mr Duncan Smith resolutely refused to move - some tribute to his tenacity, if not to his insight.

Then whoever's in power can move on. Perhaps to address the total failure that is the Work Programme, nearly as much of a blot on the landscape as Universal Credit. Or maybe they'll be able to reconstruct the new Personal Independence Payments 'scheme' for disabled people so that its private assessors don't muck up so many of the cases. Those schemes have an odd curate's egg quality - they are good in parts - but the stench emanating from Universal Credit's corpse is blocking out just about every other idea in town.

Universal Credit was a good idea, in parts. But it turned out to be impossible to deliver, certainly over one or two Parliaments, and probably forever. Our society is just too complex, our computer technology too unwieldy, our frontline agencies too overwhelmed. We should have a funeral, do a bit of mourning, and then have a (sober and dignified) wake. Anything else is just throwing good money after bad.

Here's a memo for the Department of Work and Pensions: Universal Credit is dead. Time to dig it a hole and leave some flowers.

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