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Universal Credit defended by Duncan Smith

26th Dec 2013

Universal Credit, the flagship welfare policy of Ian Duncan Smith, has been defended from growing criticism as he rejects claims that it will miss key targets.

The work and pensions secretary said he had “never been specific” about the number of people expected to move onto Universal Credit before 2015.

Labour claims only a fraction of those planned will be transferred on time.

Mr Duncan Smith said changes had been made to protect these most vulnerable and to ensure the technology involved, an accompanying IT system, works perfectly.

Meanwhile, Downing Street said it had confidence in the minister’s handling of the troubled project and that the plan was always for it to be “gradually rolled out”.

Universal Credit will merge six working-age benefits – income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit – into a single payment.  The far-reaching change is designed to encourage work incentives and to reduce fraud.

Since it began in 2010 the project has been beset by problems.  Mr Duncan Smith has acknowledged that Universal Credit will not be paid to about 700,000 people until after a planned 2017 deadline.

Labour has claimed the £2 billion project is “in tatters”, citing figures from the Autumn Statement that only a handful of people will be claiming Universal Credit next year.  The statement also said that figures for 2015-2016 will be about 400,000, compared to initial expectations of 4.5 million.

But Mr Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the project was on track and that the “vast, vast majority” would be claiming the benefit by 2017.  He insists that Universal Credit will deliver £38 billion of long-term economic benefits.

“It is on budget and 6.5 million people will be on the system by the end of 2017,” he said.

Currently about 2,000 people are claiming the single benefit in a series of “pathfinder” pilots.

Mr Duncan Smith said he “disagreed” with claims that targets for the next two years would be missed.  Instead he suggested that he and his officials had “never actually been specific” about intermediate milestones.

“We never really wanted to dwell on figures because they move and change but I do accept, of course, that this plan is different from the original plan.”