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Politics

Universal Credit now seven years late

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Iain Duncan Smith: Former Cabinet member responsible for welfare farce

THE ROLLOUT of Universal Credit has been delayed again to 2024.
Over seven years after it was originally supposed to be implemented in full and over a decade after it was first piloted, the scheme has lurched from crisis to crisis in its troubled history.
Universal Credit merges six existing benefits, including housing benefit and child tax credits, into one monthly sum.
The government’s stated aim is to simplify the welfare system, both to help claimants, cut fraud, and encourage work. However, its ultimate effect has been to slash welfare payments to the most vulnerable and plunge claimants into debt as they wait for their first payment of the new benefit.
The fresh delay, to September 2024, was uncovered in an upcoming BBC documentary about the government’s contentious welfare reform. It will add an estimated £500m to the Universal Credit programme, which is already billions over budget.
The delay has arisen because fewer people than expected had signed up to the new system, according to a new BBC documentary, Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State.
In an excerpt released by the BBC, Neil Couling, the DWP’s director-general for Universal Credit said, in August last year: “We’ve had a lot of anecdotal evidence of people being scared to come to Universal Credit.
“It’s a potentially serious issue for us, in terms of completing the project by December 2023, but I’m urging people not to panic,” he said.
Mr Coulting continues in a subsequent meeting to say: “Three, six or nine months, it doesn’t matter – the headline will be: ‘Delay, disaster’.
“I would say, ‘Go safe, put the claimants first, and I’ll take the beating.'”
This week, the DWP admitted the delay was necessary because the number of people who had moved on to UC was lower than official estimates.
The BBC documentary shows the DWP acknowledging that the reason for the lower-than-expected uptake was the fear that new Universal Credit claimants would lose out.
Gross and ongoing delays in making benefit awards on the new system have plunged people into debt recouped from their benefits due to the waiting period for its first payment imposed by the UK Government.
Universal credit was phased in during 2013.
The benefit was first due for full rollout by April 2017. However, transferring claimants to the new system has been plagued by a series of technical delays. Those delays include a fiasco over IT infrastructure and the failure of the system to account for varying incomes for the self-employed and those employed on casual or zero-hour contracts.
Last week, the UK Government lost a major case on the benefit’s rollout.
In a decision handed down in the Court of Appeal by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Singh, the court ruled transitional provisions relating to the treatment of disabled persons were discriminatory. It found that a severely disabled person who moved from an area where UC had not been rolled out to an area in which it had would be treated less favourably than a person who did not move. In a second case, the court quashed provisions meaning those who migrated ‘naturally’ from Severe Disability Premium to Universal Credit less favourably than those who made the transition under the managed migration scheme.
Last year, former DWP Secretary Amber Rudd said that payment delays of Universal Credit were ‘the main issue’ leading to dependence on foodbanks.
The delay’s announcement follows the publication of a report by the Resolution Foundation
The report notes that the final – and most challenging – phase of the roll-out, involving the transfer of existing benefit and tax credit claimants onto UC, is due to start later this year.
The Foundation states that a marginal average increase of a whacking £1 a week for some claimants ‘masks sizeable groups of families that lose out by large sums, and significant geographical variation across the UK. Thanks to factors such as local rent and earnings levels, and the characteristics of local populations, some parts of the country will be left significantly worse off as the switch to UC goes ahead’.
In areas with a relatively high proportion of single parents, out-of-work single people and disabled people, all of whom fare badly under UC, claimants lose out. Also, while Universal Credit favours working families with high rents, it hits those in areas with below-average rent levels.
The Foundation adds that policymakers in Whitehall, and across the UK, need to consider the impact of Universal Credit at a local level. At exactly the time that policy debates are rightly focusing on what can be done to close economic gaps between parts of the UK, this major welfare reform will be rolled out with very different impacts on those places.
Laura Gardiner, Research Director at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Welcome recent reforms mean that Universal Credit is now set to be marginally more generous than the benefits it is replacing. But this average hides a complex mix of winners and losers, with families in some areas of the UK faring particularly badly.
“As well as making reforms at a national level – such as helping families to overcome the first payment hurdle and offering more flexibility for those with childcare – policymakers across the country need to better understand the effect Universal Credit will have in different places. That understanding should be central to policy debates that are rightly focusing on what can be done to close economic gaps between parts of the UK.”
Welfare minister Will Quince said: “Universal Credit is the biggest change to the welfare system in a generation, bringing together six overlapping benefits into one monthly payment and offering support to some of the most vulnerable people in society.
“It is right that we revisit our forecasts and plan, and re-plan accordingly – ensuring that the process is working well for people on benefits.
“Claimants will not lose money due to this forecasting change.”

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Johnson’s reshuffle throws up jokers

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IT WAS all about ‘The Saj’.
The shock departure of the former Chancellor from the government only a few weeks before his first Budget surprised media commentators and MPs alike.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s ‘did-he-fall/was-he-pushed’ resignation aside, the reshuffle was a return to the traditional way of Cabinet reshuffling Cabinet members. Out with the competent and argumentative and in with a collection of flunkies and stooges who owe everything to their loyalty to Brexit and Boris Johnson.
Julian Smith became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in July last year. In his brief tenure in that role, he managed to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly and a cross-party power-sharing executive after three years of constitutional limbo during its suspension. That is the sort of signal achievement which usually leads to promotion. However, Mr Smith was an advocate of a ‘softer’ Brexit than proposed by Number Ten. He had gone so far to comment, in October last year, a no-deal Brexit would be “a very, very bad idea for Northern Ireland”.
Competent and with a record of achievement in his brief Cabinet tenure, he had to go.
His replacement is former Conservative Party Chair, Brandon Lewis. Ironically, one of the Conservative MPs who broke pairing arrangements at Mr Smith’s direction when the latter was Chief Whip.
The reaction to Julian Smith’s departure was a series of aghast tributes by all sides in Northern Ireland and Mr Lewis’ appointment greeted by the sort of ‘dangerous indifference’, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested was behind his predecessor’s sacking.
Mr Lewis is as loyal as a loyal thing. You tell him what to be loyal to and he’ll be loyal to it. Rather like a cushion, he bears the impression of the last backside to sit on him. He will lead the nodding dog tendency in Cabinet meetings.
The only tension in the Cabinet with him in it will be whether he or Health Secretary Matt Hancock gets the first Boris Bonio after meetings.
There weren’t only high profile departures, though. Liz Truss remains in place as Secretary of State for International Trade. No. Don’t laugh. Ms Truss’ presence at the Cabinet table is a sign of hope and a beacon to others. Her continued tenure in government is evidence that no matter how dimwitted, mediocre or out-of-their-depth a person is, this is a government of opportunity for all. Her presence shows senior backbenchers with talent, intelligence, and ability that their gifts are no substitute for those qualities’ total absence. To new Conservative MPs with room temperature IQs, her example shows that they, too, can aspire to Cabinet status.
The same might be said for Matt Hancock. The Health Secretary, who’s behaviour in the election campaign marked him out as a man to watch – preferably while he sat in a padded cell rocking to himself and murmuring the words ‘forty new hospitals’ over and over – is the only person in the country to take what the Prime Minister says at face value. The incredibly credulous Hancock has chained himself to the wheel of misfortune and will spin every disaster into a triumph with puppy-like devotion. Like a whipped dog will try to make friends with its tormentor, Matt’s loyalty is endless.
The departure of Andrea Leadsom demonstrates that even Boris Johnson thinks a joke can be taken too far. Floundering in every position she ever occupied, it is difficult to conceive that she could have been the leader of her party, and subsequently PM, barely three years ago, Ms Leadsom’s legendarily argumentative nature ushered her to the Cabinet door.
Her replacement at the Department of Business, Energy, Investment and Skills (BEIS) is Ashok Sharma. Mr Sharma’s appointment is interesting. He might be dangerously half as clever as Boris Johnson thinks he is, which means he could run rings round the PM. His ability was rewarded in a particularly cunning way. Accepting a role turned down by a former PM and a former Foreign Secretary, Mr Sharma will coordinate and chair the government’s preparations for the next round of climate change talks, due to take place in Glasgow later this year.
If the conference achieves anything, highly unlikely as the US, China and India will stall any possible progress, the praise will be the government’s and therefore Boris Johnson’s. Like the Sun King, Boris is not only a state but the state. If it all goes the well-known shape of a pear, Mr Sharma gets to take the fall. Rewarding ability with a poisoned chalice: that’s the way of government these days.
Theresa Villiers’ departure from DEFRA and her replacement with George Eustice received a cautious but warm welcome from farming unions and rural organisations. Ms Villiers’ naked enthusiasm for the benefits of free trade and blindness to the consequences of it for UK agriculture did little to instil farmer with any confidence in her to do what was best for the industry. From a farming background himself, Mr Eustice is far better placed to sell any betrayal to those farmers who, free of the EU as they wished, find their businesses going down the pan if/when imports of lower quality and lower price undercut them after December 31 this year.
The Department of Culture Media and Sport (Don’t Care Much, Seriously) has a new Secretary of State in Oliver Dowden. Mr Dowden replaces Nicky Morgan, a minister you couldn’t possibly describe as two-faced as she wouldn’t wear the one she does if she was.
Mr Dowden’s main ministerial achievement in a brief parliamentary career was his replacement by Jonny (‘Did I mention I was in the Army?’) Mercer as a junior flunky in the Cabinet Office. His task is to put into place the Government’s policy of neutering the BBC and trashing public service broadcasting. A PR man before entering parliament and – as a special advisor to David Cameron – a PR man for a PR man, Mr Dowden will have to sell the Government’s plans to dismember the BBC to the public and MPs.
The appointment that caused most comment and concern was Suella Braverman’s promotion to replace Geoffrey Cox QC as Attorney General. Brexiteers hailed Mr Cox’s independence of mind and judgement when he declined to rubber-stamp Theresa May’s proposals for an Irish Backstop as part of her doomed attempts to force a Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. He also loudly – he doesn’t do quietly – laid into the High Court’s decision that Mr Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. However, Mr Cox is also a person with a deep and abiding respect for the rule of law and the need for courts to act as a check and balance on poorly-made and ill-considered legislation. The growth of Judicial Reviews of governments’ laws can be partly laid at the door of those who prepare legislative measures in haste and then repent at leisure as the Court’s painstakingly explain why they are unenforceable or unlawful. Whatever his flaws as a Government minister, Geoffrey Cox is a proper lawyer with a keen understanding that bad laws and incompetently-prepared legislation are properly subjected to scrutiny by the Courts.
Suella Braverman has no such scruples. An advocate of increasing political vetting of judicial appointments, she also has no evident skills as either an advocate for sound law and sound law-making.
The role of the Attorney General is to advise the government, as impartially as possible in the circumstances, on a range of legal issues arising from its planned legislative programme. Ms Braverman’s appointment is a sign that what Boris Johnson wants most from his law officers is a nodding-dog approach, a readiness to sign-off on any crackpot plan, and knifing the Courts for doing their job properly in a plural democracy in which an overmighty executive needs curbing.
The most rabid of Brexiteers and an appalling media performer whose backside she often confuses with her humerus, Suella Braveman cannot be relied upon to do what’s right but can be relied upon to do what Boris Johnson tells her is right. Otherwise, her main qualification for her new role seems to be the gift of forgetting that she studied at the Sorbonne under the Erasmus programme and had her post-graduate studies in Paris funded by the French embassy. In other words, precisely the sort of exposure to continental education and cultural enrichment this Government is dedicated to ending.
And finally, we come to the new Chancellor. Rishi Sunak’s rise to power is proof that enormous personal wealth, a background as a merchant banker and having a job working for his indescribably wealthy father-in-law. All that might be unfair to Mr Sunak; however, replacing state-educated Sajid Javid with a privileged alumnus of Winchester could be easily interpreted as an attempt to broaden the government’s appeal to distressed billionaires.
Mr Javid’s loaded remarks around the circumstances of his dismissal, ‘no self-respecting minister would continue to serve’ (if ordered to sack his entire team of ministerial advisors) suggests Mr Sunak’s self-respect is in inverse proportion to his self-regard. It is also a sign that Mr Johnson has restored the long-forgotten tradition of the Exchequer as a money chest at the beck-and-call of a prime-ministerial whim. Mr Sunak’s one advantage is that he can scarcely be sacked after the manner of his predecessor’s leaving. At least for as long as he does what he’s told.
The cringe-worthy sight of Mr Johnson’s new Cabinet at its first meeting playing call and response with the class bully suggests that Boris Johnson now has a team he wants. More-or-less malleable office-holders who will do as they are told. Taking back control, it turns out, means an uncontrollable PM.

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Cabinet recommends 5% Council Tax rise

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AT ITS meeting on Monday this week, the Council’s Cabinet decided to recommend a Council Tax rise of 5% for the next financial year.

If the Full Council meeting agrees with its suggestion at its meeting on February 27, the rise will add £1.04per week to the average Band D household Council Tax bill.

Band D is the marker used by Councils across Wales to represent the average home.

Opening budget discussion, Cabinet Member for Finance Cllr Bob Kilmister, praised the level of scrutiny by Council committees and public engagement. The Facebook Live webcasts were particularly successful, the second reaching a record audience for such an exercise. Cllr Kilmister reported one engagement event at Llanteg produced high-quality questions, which demonstrated how the public had engaged with the process and the issues behind the Council’s budget. Cllr Kilmister also expressed satisfaction about engagement with the trades unions, whose written budget submissions are included in the consultation report for the first time.

Discussing the proposed Council Tax rise, Cllr Kilmister said where scrutiny committees expressed a preference, it was for a 5% rise. That figure also received the most support from the public who engaged in the consultation process. The unions wanted a 10% rise to preserve frontline services and avoid staff cuts.

He outlined amendments to aspects of the budgets had been made following committee scrutiny. However, he also reported a potential £1m item of additional expenditure due to the closure of Asian markets to recycling from overseas. The pressure, Cllr Kilmister reported, was UK-wide and resulted from a global reduction in recycling capacity.

Bob Kilmister said he accepted one particular request for amendment, which came from the Council’s Policy Overview Committee and related to funding climate change initiatives, but difficulties existed about the funding commitment without specific projects to which it could be allocated.

Accordingly, the Cabinet approved an amendment to the budget statement resolving to provide sufficient funding necessary to enable progress to be made and will make full use of any external funding opportunities. Sufficient resourcing will include the consideration of suitable Capital Bids and feasibility funding in line with the Capital Programme managed by the Capital Board and if necessary, revenue resource in the coming financial year, if it is necessary to support the work of becoming a Net Zero Carbon County by 2030.

Bob Kilmister underlined the Council’s commitment and his commitment but said a considered approach was needed. He was adamant he would not agree to the diversion of resources from core services, such as education and adult social care. He said projects needed a clear business plan and had to show how benefits would accrue from capital investment and revenue use. Cllr Kilmister said he suspected extra money would come forward once the UK Government set the budget in March, possibly – although not certainly – through grants from the Welsh Government. He cautioned against depending on those grants.

The cost of adult social care and the budget for it was the subject of an impassioned intervention from Cllr Tessa Hodgson. Cllr Kilmister responded that ‘we are at a crisis point in adult social care’. Proposals for funding had to come from central government and come quickly. The current funding model for social care, he said, was not working; central government knew it didn’t work; had known it didn’t work for some time; had done nothing about it.

Making a political point at the end of the discussion, Cllr Paul Miller noted last year, when Pembrokeshire had a poor budget settlement, Conservatives had rushed to condemn the Welsh Government. He cynically observed this year, when Pembrokeshire had one of the best budget settlements, there hadn’t been a positive response to the announcement.

Council Leader David Simpson wound up the debate with some strong words about those of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committees which refused to give the Cabinet a steer on its budget for the coming year. He reflected upon the lack of consultation before budgets under the previous administration where councillors were given information the day before cuts were due to place.

David Simpson said he was frustrated that Council committees and their members, presented with information, sat on their hands when offered the chance to input into the process of budget-setting positively. He made it clear that a steer given at the consultation stage was not a commitment to support the budget in the chamber but a response to the information given to the committee during its questioning of Cabinet members and officers about the coming year’s budget.

The Council Leader took time to single out Cllr Brian Hall for congratulations on seizing the chance as Chair of the Corporate Overview of Scrutiny Committee to give Cabinet a steer by asking members of his Committee to vote on a recommendation to give to Cabinet based on the information they had before them on the day they met. That was the sort of response the Cabinet wanted to help it set priorities for the budget.

Cllr Simpson said democracy was in a chamber of sixty people and not just to be doled out by Cabinet. The budget, he said, ‘is not a Cabinet decision’ and found councillors’ reluctance to participate when invited to do so ‘strange’.

‘That’s life!’ Cllr Simpson observed bitterly to close the discussion.

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Politics

Assembly Committees report on Welsh Budget

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'People are searching for clarity and certainty': Says Finance Committee Chair, Llyr Gruffydd

FOUR National Assembly committees have published reports examining how the Welsh Government intends to spend its £17 billion budget on schools, hospitals, the environment and local services.

EQUALITY, LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND COMMUNITIES COMMITTEE

The Committee is disappointed the Welsh Government’s commitment to ending homelessness in Wales is not backed up by the amount of money allocated to tackling the problem. In fact, under the draft budget, funding will stay the same which equates to a real term cut when taking inflation into account.
The Committee recommends that the Welsh Government increases the allocation of funding to the Housing Support Grant and the Homelessness prevention budget line in the 2020-21 budget to ensure that the Welsh Government’s ambition on reducing homelessness to be rare, brief and unrepeated can be delivered.

CHILDREN, YOUNG PEOPLE AND EDUCATION COMMITTEE

The Committee has raised again this year how vital it is to ensure that enough money is made available to fund schools in Wales. While it welcomes the increase in local authorities’ funding and the commitment given by local government to use it to prioritise school and social care funding, it remains very concerned about school funding in Wales.
The Committee’s report calls on the Welsh Government to robustly monitor this funding and to demonstrate to the Assembly that this money is reaching our schools.

CLIMATE CHANGE, ENVIRONMENT AND RURAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

In the light of the Welsh Government declaring a climate emergency, the Committee was expecting a transformative budget showing how investment was being prioritised to address the issue. But members concluded the budget was business as usual and that it was unacceptable for the Welsh Government to continue to plead ignorance about the cost and potential benefits of its decarbonisation policies.
From next year the Committee expects the Welsh Government to change the way it does things – the draft budget should be accompanied by detailed information about the carbon impact of the allocations in it.

ECONOMY, INFRASTRUCTURE AND SKILLS COMMITTEE

The Committee‘s report looks to get beyond the headline figures of the Draft Welsh Budget by looking at issues including rail funding, research and development funding and how the Welsh Government is planning to support regional economies in Wales.
The Committee calls for greater transparency on the funding for KeolisAmy, the company who operates the Wales and Borders rail franchise as TfW Rail Services, as well as their performance targets and the penalties they face for poor service.
During the scrutiny process, Kirsty Williams AM, the Education Minister, admitted that the Welsh Government did not know how much it spent on research and development funding. The Committee has called for a review, especially as a significant amount currently comes from the EU.

The Committee has also called for the release of research behind the Welsh Government’s new Regional Economic Frameworks and Regional Indicative Budgets which will be used to develop regional economies across Wales.

HEALTH, SOCIAL CARE AND SPORT COMMITTEE

The Committee believes that this draft budget fails to show a shift towards mainstreaming prevention and service transformation. Going forward, the Welsh Government needs to demonstrate how its funding allocations will support long term sustainable change in the delivery of integrated health and social care services. The Committee expects to see a greater strategic focus on transformation and prevention in future budget rounds.
The reports follow an overview of the draft budget from the Finance Committee which raised concerns around climate change, poverty and Brexit.
Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM, said: “We are in unprecedented times as we approach Brexit and, risks and opportunities aside, what people are searching for most of all are clarity and certainty.
“The Welsh Government expects EU Structural funds will be replaced by the UK Government. But agriculture sits outside of this so the Committee would like assurances farming payments will continue as normal until a new funding structure is brought in.
“Nobody should be worse off as a result of leaving the EU.”

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