The Work and Pensions Select Committee was much denuded this evening, chair Anne Begg told the guests: its membership had either been promoted in the reshuffle or had personal crises to attend to. In the end Begg was joined by Andrew Bingham, Stephen Lloyd, Teresa Pearce and Glenda Jackson to interrogate Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud about the implementation of universal credit. Their questions seemed rather denuded, too: not of detail, for these MPs do truly know their stuff when it comes to welfare reform, but of a sense of the bigger picture.
During the hearing, which lasted nearly three hours, the Work and Pensions Secretary and his Welfare Reform Minister explained how they planned to encourage claimants to manage their claims online. Duncan Smith suggested this would bring claimants into the 21st century, explaining that ‘what we’re not doing is treating them all as infants’. He dismissed claims that monthly payments of the new benefit would push families into poverty, arguing that most claimants wanted monthly payments and that the days of weekly wage packets at the factory gate had gone.
‘Those days are long gone. For some they are still there, but there’s vast majorities want to go on monthly. We have to get them ready for that. That’s what this is about.’
The pair also outlined the safeguards for vulnerable clients who struggle to manage their own budgets, including announcing that the department is seeking expressions of interest from companies interested in providing products such as ‘jam jar’ bank accounts. They also announced a string of specific concessions for self-employed claimants and those living in supported housing.
This was all very well and good, and the committee members welcomed each announcement. But it was only towards the end of the session, after Duncan Smith had rather wearily expressed some desire for what was turning into an eternal set of questions to end, that Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd started to talk about the big picture. He urged the Work and Pensions Secretary to work at improving the image of universal credit, so that claimants might begin to see it as a positive thing. Duncan Smith replied that actually he would be spending Thursday explaining aspects of the credit which were currently rather misunderstood to the media. ‘There is a lot of ignorance in the media,’ he told the committee.
One issue the media is growing less ignorant of is the concern in Whitehall about the computer system that will make universal credit actually work. As the Spectator revealed in its leading article last week, Jeremy Heywood is briefing against the reform, saying he is ‘sceptical’ that it will be a success. But aside from admitting that the computer system bridging HMRC and DWP has not yet been tested, the two ministers said very little on this. Perhaps Thursday’s ‘major exercise’ with the media will shed a little more light on what the department is doing to allay Heywood’s fears, if there’s a chance of reassuring the Cabinet Secretary at all at this stage.