Welfare reforms are at the centre of a deep rift between politicians and civil servantsby Rachel Sylvester / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s the government’s flagship welfare reform, designed to streamline the benefits system while encouraging people back to work. And yet universal credit, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is mired in controversy and confusion. Already its introduction has been delayed—the planned national launch this spring was downgraded to a pilot and there is speculation that it may not meet its new deadline of 2017. Last week, the National Audit Office claimed that the setbacks to the £2.4bn project, which merges six benefits and tax credits into a single payment, have already cost the taxpayer £34m.
What may be most significant, however, is that universal credit has become the focus of deep and growing tension between politicians and their civil servants. It’s the fiercest battle in the war between ministers, who see Whitehall as “the enemy within,” and mandarins, who fear their political masters are trying to undermine their credibility and independence. Politicians are convinced that problems with the implementation of the policy are the fault of incompetent Sir Humphreys. Officials are equally convinced that this is a case study in political buck-passing. It’s a clash between high-minded political idealism and mandarin pragmatism, with wider implications for the running of an administration looking for transformatory ideas.
There is genuine bad blood between the two sides. A senior Tory says: “The Americans went to the moon in a decade. We are just trying to introduce some changes to the benefit system. Is it too much to ask the civil service to deliver that?” That is not how it is seen in Whitehall. According to one well-placed insider: “They are setting up the civil servants as the fall guys but it’s not their fault. The real problem is that ministers haven’t a clue how to manage these projects.”