How the ” emotionally attached ” architect of Universal Credit will now be its chief DWP scrutineer

Dr Stephen Brien: The architect of Universal Credit. Pic credit: BBC

Self declared non politically active appointee turns out to be one of Iain Duncan Smith’s close advisers

A very important quango appointment has been made by the Conservative government which could affect the treatment of millions of benefit claimants -especially the huge number on Universal Credit.

It is to a fairly obscure body known as the Social Security Advisory Committee – which provides impartial advice on social security. It scrutinises most of the complex secondary legislation that underpins the social security system.

Put it more simply, its advice will influence how the DWP treats millions of poor, disabled, jobless people who are living on the breadline. It will cover a period when the government plans to to claw back money after the huge spending splurge to combat Covid-19.

The appointment is for the chair of the body and it has gone to Dr. Stephen Brien, a man who is publicly credited as the architect of one of the country’s most hated benefits, Universal Credit.

He will now lead until 2024 a committee of people who will both comment on future benefit changes and do independent research on the effects of the benefits system on the poor. The membership of the committee includes Seyi Obakin, Chief Executive of the homeless charity Centrepoint: Phil Jones,Director, The Prince’s Trust Cymru and Liz Sayce, board member of the Care Quality Commission.

Charlotte Pickles.Pic credit: Conservative Home

But Therese Coffey, the secretary of state for works and pensions, has also recently appointed Charlotte Pickles, director of the “non partisan” think tank, Reform and former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, who piloted Universal Credit. She wrote an article for Conservative Home calling for the abolition of child benefit for millions of people and taxing the Disability Living Allowance. Read it here.

The appointment process for Dr Brien was marred from the start. The works and pensions committee was never informed of the recruitment process which is a breach of Cabinet Office guidelines as the appointment has to be scrutinised by Parliament. They learnt about it after a member of the committee staff spotted it.

This led to an exchange of correspondence between Stephen Timms, the committee’s Labour chairman and Therese Coffey. It is reproduced here.

Not only did Mr Timms complain about the omission but also some subtle change in the wording of the job specification. The 2018 wording asked for ” strong leadership qualities”. The 2020 specification is ” measured and balanced leadership qualities”. Similarly the words ” independent” has been dropped in favour of “impartial”.

Therese Coffey defended the change in wording to reflect the future strategic direction of the organisation and that she wanted ” to strengthen relationships” between ministers and shareholders. She admits she was embarrassed by the omission but can’t bring herself to apologise. It took an earlier letter from Mr Timms to Baroness Stedman-Scott, Lords minister for work and pensions to give her ” sincere apologies”.

The appointment process looked fair – though the small number of applicants -12- were overwhelmingly white with just one disabled person. Six were ruled out without an interview including the disabled person.

Six made the interview including one BAME person. Four were women and two men but only three were considered appointable.

The interviewing panel itself did include one BAME “fast track” woman , Tammy Fevrier, from the DWP Partnership Division.

Dr Brien’s appointment comes under the category of a ” non political ” one according to the code adopted by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. He declares himself :” I am not now and have never been politically active.”

Yet his CV is pretty questionable on this matter. As well as developing the idea for Universal Credit he was on the board of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice from 2008-11 and 2013-19. This is where he developed the idea of Universal Credit and this is the body that wants to deprive people in their late 60s and early 70s of a state pension by raising the age to 75.

Official Commons portrait of Sir Iain Duncan Smith

On top of this he was a special expert adviser to Iain Duncan Smith in the coalition government from 2010 to 2013 at the DWP where in his words he “Played a substantial role the DWP’s engagement with the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility to secure the financial settlement for the reform programme” and “Worked in partnership with the senior officials delivering the Universal Credit”.

This was the time the Treasury insisted on speeding up the rise in the pension age to 66, refused to introduce national insurance auto-credits for women born in the 1950s while keeping them for men and imposed other welfare cuts.

And guess what Charlotte Pickles – also just appointed to SSAC- started her policy career at the Centre for Social Justice and then went on be the expert special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP. See her profile at Reform.

Critical friend

MPs did question Dr Brien thoroughly at the appointment hearing – with both Labour MPs Stephen McCabe and Debbie Abrahams pushing him on disabled people’s deaths and whether he was emotionally attached to Universal Credit. See here.

Dr Brien’s mantra was he would be impartial and he kept repeating he will be a ” critical friend” of the ministry.

I wonder. It depends on the balance of being friendly and critical. Either he will use his knowledge- he claims to be passionate about social security since he was 19- to try and make the new system work better. Or will he be part of the new Chumocracy – which takes in everyone from Dominic Cummings, the PM’s adviser and Michael Gove to Rishi Sunak – and give a fair wind to new benefit cuts no doubt with the approval of Charlotte Pickles.

I did an article for Byline Times on how the Conservatives through a former Vote Leave adviser are trying to pack quango appointments with Brexit inclined Tories – though it is not clear whether this is one of them.

I shall be watching. He can start with something he did promise to MPs over transparency. The minutes of SSAC should be public. They have not been published for over a year which is a disgrace. Let’s see how he gets on with this first.

Conservative Home: Asset or Tory trojan horse

tim montgomerie -Con Home success could be Cameron's dilemma

If David Cameron wins the next general election, will Conservative Home be an asset or a Trojan horse that could wreck the first Tory government in 13 years?

Like its right wing counterparts in America the website is one of the great success stories in giving a lively voice to free market and Conservative views. It reflects the wide gamut of party opinions on Europe, crime, benefits and taxation. It is to the embarrassment of Tory spin doctors at Central Office singularly unafraid of carrying blogs criticising the Cameron leadership.  Witness the recent public debate on the site over whether Cameron was out of touch and living in a protected bubble from the rest of the party as he roamed round Parliament. Something you might expect more on Labour Home than Conservative Home.

Despite being funded by billionaire Tory donor Lord Ashcroft there appears to be no heavy hand of censorship and some Tory stars like Eurosceptics David Davis and John Redwood are more popular on Conservative Home than members of the present Shadow Cabinet.

Much of its success is due to the personality of Tim Montgomerie, a Christian Tory who is less abrasive than his anarchic right wing counterparts, Tory Bear and Guido Fawkes. He appears to have taken the view that a well read website should not have to toe the party line and can produce uncomfortable facts for the leadership. None more embarrassing recently than the low priority many of a new generation of Tory prospective MPs give to the environment and climate change – despite the Cameron leadership emphasising the “ Blue  Green “ nature of modern Conservatism. It is almost a Christian view of ensuring the leadership have to turn the other cheek when they face a problem.

This is fine while the party remains in opposition but what would happen if it came to power. Now most of the criticism of Cameron is hidden in a deluge of comment attacking New Labour or as many Tory bloggers call it, Nu Labour. It is very easy to take pop shots at Brown over bullying, or slam Ed Balls for his ruthlessness. Attacking Harman and the Milibands is no doubt very helpful to the Tory leadership. They can be blamed for broken Britain.

  But in power it would be different and the signs are that the real Tory party is nothing like the one the Cameron leadership presents to the electorate. It would be extraordinary if the right wing blogosphere that has none of the old guard deference to the leadership did not organise against it with same ferocity it attacks Nu Labour.

I know this is already happening. Before Cameron even has a chance of putting a foot inside Number Ten, Tory right wing rivals, UKIP, have spotted that Cameron appears to have foolishly pledged to hold a debate in Parliament on whether the UK should stay in the EU. Provided, of course, one million people sign a petition.

Organising a million strong petition on the net is child’s play with Facebook, Guido Fawkes and of course Conservative Home, only too happy to play a part. And UKIP has said to me that with many of their friends on Conservative Home sympathising with their views on Europe, they think that debate would have to take place soon. No wonder Cameron is despatching the old pro European bruiser Kenneth Clarke to Brussels to reassure our partners in the EU.

And why stop at Europe? Big tax cuts, bringing back hanging, demanding the right to kill a burglar, abolishing trade unions, opposing action on climate change, none of which are on Cameron’s immediate         agenda, could  become the new  on line demands.

Lord A could pull the plug on Con Home after a Tory victory. But the genie is out of the bottle and the Tory leadership is in for a rough ride from the grass roots cyber fighters on the right.

This post is also on the Progress website under Tory Tracker at  http://www.progressives.org.uk/columns/column.asp?c=361