By Tony Collins
One of the unwritten conventions in journalism is that is you don’t give bad publicity to a minister who gives you an exclusive interview.
Iain Duncan Smith has given an exclusive interview to the Huffington Post, one of the world’s top-ranking news websites, and it is, perhaps, no surprise that the subsequent headline says:
That’s great news. Is the UC programme out of trouble? Are the IT
problems that were imposing artificially low limits on the number and type of claimants – such as incorrect calculations of payments – confined to history?
At one point you could not claim UC as a single person or a couple if you received Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment.
You could not claim if you owned, or partly owned, your home, were homeless, or in supported or temporary accommodation. You could not claim if you worked but earned more than £330 a month. You could not claim if pregnant, had disabled, adopted or fostered children.
So are the brakes off now?
The Huffington Post said:
“According to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), in May over 3,800 new applications were made a week for the government’s new benefit system.”
That sounds a lot. A record indeed. But a close analysis of the numbers successfully claiming UC shows that since a national roll-out of UC began in February 2015 – amid much good publicity – the increase has been small.
It appears that the UC programme’s costly IT – an investment of £344m by 31 October 2014 (Appendix f) – is still limiting the number of claimants.
This raises the question of whether the DWP’s publicity machine, with IDS at the helm, has such an influence on the media that it is able to successfully propagate its own message in the face of inconvenient facts.
This was BBC Online’s headline in February 2015: Universal Credit roll-out £600m under budget”
The DWP’s plan is for 7 million people to claim UC but the latest figures show that the total number of claimants who had made a successful claim up to 14 May 2015 was 74,120.
This is about 1% of those potentially eligible to claim UC – 25 months after the scheme was launched in April 2013.
Has the number of claimants increased substantially since the national roll-out began in February 2015?
Before the start of the national roll-out about 35,000 people had successfully made a UC claim up to 8 January 2015. There had been an average of 2,325 new claims per week at 96 Jobcentre Plus offices.
Three months after the start of the national roll-out about 74,120 people had successfully claimed UC up to 14 May 2015. There were an average of 3,550 new claims per week at 278 Jobcentre Plus offices.
The DWP says on its website:
“Since national roll-out the rate of claims has been increasing at a rapid pace”.
But is this the case?
The number of successful UC claimants has more than doubled since the national roll-out began but the number of Jobcentre Plus offices where UC has launched have nearly tripled in the same period, from 96 in January 2015 to 278 by 14 May 2015.
And the total number of successful claimants remains tiny relative to the potential number of claimants although the DWP says it has expanded eligibility to claim UC from single people to couples and families.
According to the National Audit Office in November 2014, the DWP estimated that around 500,000 claimants would receive Universal Credit by mid‑2016. This target will not be hit at the present rate of successful claimant applications.
IDS welcomes record numbers of UC applications says the Huffington Post headline. But almost every week there will be record numbers claiming UC.
That is the nature of a national roll-out: numbers increase – even by small amounts. The number of applications will continually break records while the roll-out continues during 2015 and 2016.
No doubt IDS and the DWP will continue to seek a succession of media articles on the record number of UC applications. Only this week the DWP announced that UC is rolling out to 10 more jobcentres across England, Scotland and Wales.
Will the media always react complaisantly?
If it does it will be a pity – because MPs may stop asking questions about value for money in the context of the tens, indeed hundreds, of millions being spent on UC technology with the usual major suppliers.
And if the IT and business change challenges continue to limit the number and type of applications, the total numbers of successful claimants at the end of the national roll-out could be embarrassingly tiny relative to the 7 million potential claimants – not that the DWP’s publicity machine will mind.
The machine will find a new way to sail around the facts. That’s what the DWP’s senior officials seem to believe that government PR staff exist to do.