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Media watch: Slow roll-out remains best bet

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“Botched”, “doomed”, and “in tatters” – just three ways the roll-out of universal credit has been described in the national media.

The project to merge six benefits into a single payment began back in 2011.

Since then it’s been beset by problems, ranging from a failing IT system to spiralling costs. All these calamities have been dutifully and widely reported by LGC and the national press.

It’s easy to see why work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been repeatedly pilloried.

Universal credit is, however, now live in about half of the country’s Jobcentre Plus offices, and claims have been widened from new single jobseekers to couples and families in some places. The pace is slowly starting to pick up.

There are currently 2,889 claimants on universal credit in Oldham – the sixth highest number in the country – but the council’s executive director of commercial services Emma Alexander told LGC there were only a “handful” at the beginning.

“In hindsight that was positive because it meant everyone could absolutely manage what was going through the system,” she said.

Lesley O’Halloran, assistant director for customer services at Wigan MBC, said it was better the roll-out was done “slowly and correctly”, not only due to the size and scale of the project but so its impact could be understood as well.

If not local authorities were at risk of being left to “pick up the pieces”, she said.

While the faults identified to date have been far from inconsequential, they have been contained among a relatively small number of claimants. In that respect the government’s ‘test and learn’ approach has worked.

Deadlines and targets can be set and scrapped. Reforming public policy on such a massive scale should not be rushed – the price is not worth paying.

In his Jummer Budget, chancellor George Osborne announced he planned to cut benefits by £12bn by 2019-20.

The impact that will have and how it fits into the implementation of universal credit, is yet to be fully understood.

Slow and steady will remain the best bet even if it doesn’t avoid embarrassing headlines.


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