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.

Lies, Damned Lies and Tory Jobless Statistics

Misleading statistics for the dole queue.

Misleading statistics for the dole queue.

I see from the excellent Vox Political blog that a row has broken out over claims  by Conservative Central Office of big reductions in the number of jobless claiming benefit under the last coalition government.

The BBC reports a row over the way Essex Tory MPs are presenting falls in unemployment figures. The row concentrates on them using the claimant count. ( Jobseekers Allowance only) rather than the number of people seeking work who are not on benefit. This makes a huge difference to the numbers unemployed in constituencies.

Central Office defended their stance by saying : “This  (questions surrounding the use of JSA figures) is nonsense. This unemployment measure is provided by the independent House of Commons Library – and for constituencies they are the most up to date and most reliable numbers to use.They are used by MPs and candidates across the country, regardless of political party.”

However as readers of this blog will know this is not the true and accurate picture because since Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, introduced universal credit – those transferred from JSA and still on the dole  were no longer counted in the JSA figures. So where there are jobcentres already implementing universal credit in constituencies these figures were  much less.

So it is rather outrageous for Tory Central Office to quote the very House of Commons reports that reveal this as the correct interpretation of the claimant count particularly if they only use JSA..

The very latest statistics available have for the first time started showing both but the situation is a mess as this report  from the Commons library covering unemployment in February 2015 shows. For the first time it does try to show those on Universal Credit and those on JSA who are the dole – adding about 27,900 to the JSA total.

As  the report says : “From April 2013, some unemployed people attending certain jobcentres are claiming Universal Credit rather than JSA. Consequently, simply looking at the number of JSA claimants in the areas affected may not give an accurate reflection of the number of people looking for work. At the national level, the effect of Universal Credit on the total claimant count remains minor.”

But given the distortion between those on the dole in the prosperous South and less prosperous North these figures are still significant. In the North West of England it accounts for another 25,000 on the dole. In London it is just 400.

To make matters worse trying to breakdown accurate figures for the long-term employed and by age group is impossible at the moment. The figures are just not available.

As the report says: “Data on the number of Universal Credit claimants who are out-of-work by age are currently not published at the constituency level. However, data are available on JSA claimants by age.
In constituencies where Universal Credit has been introduced, the number of JSA claimants may not reflect the actual number of unemployed claimants in a particular age group.”

It adds: “Similarly, data on the number of Universal Credit claimants who are out-of-work by duration of claim are currently not published at the constituency level.”

So beware of false claims and people quoting official House of Commons documents to back them up. They are not necessarily giving the full picture.

Distorted and Massaged: How the dole claimant figures show a divided nation

George Osborne at the Despatch Box in Parliament pic credit: video snatch from www.csmonitor

George Osborne at the Despatch Box in Parliament
pic credit: video snatch from http://www.csmonitor

George Osborne’s great claims that the UK is on the road to jobs recovery has already been attacked for producing a mass of new low paid jobs, zero rated contracts and a boom in part-time working.

A closer analysis recently provided by the House of Commons library breaking down unemployment by constituency reveals a rather different disturbing and divided picture. And it officially shows the current claimant count is being massaged by Iain Duncan Smith, the works and pensions secretary, to underestimate the number of dole claimants on benefit.

As I report in Tribune magazine the figures reveal huge differences in the claimant rate between constituencies with up to 25 times more people on the dole in the worst parliamentary seats than the best. It shows that the “recovery” is by no means universal despite the creation of hundreds of thousands of low-paid jobs.

The worst place in the United Kingdom is undoubtedly the Foyle constituency of Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP. Here there are more than 6,600 on benefit representing 13.2 per cent of the population.

The recovery has by passed Foyle – with a drop of just over 5 per cent in claimants in the last year – compared to an average drop of 30 per cent in the UK and more than 45 per cent in Epsom and Ewell, the Surrey seat of Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary.

The best place in the UK is still fuelled by the Scottish oil boom – the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine constituency of Liberal Democrat MP, Sir Robert Smith – with just 0.4 per cent on benefit – 221 people claiming benefit with only 30 unemployed for more than a year.

Other unemployment blackspots are Birmingham, Ladywood and Hodge Hill, all over 11 per cent and falling at a lower rate – some 20 per cent -than the national average.  There is a similar picture in Belfast North and West;Bradford East and West, Middlesbrough and Birmingham, Perry Barr.

But there are areas where unemployment claims have disappeared. Among those with benefit claims of 0.7 per cent and less are Stratford-on-Avon, Henley-on-Thames, Mid Sussex, North Dorset, Kenilworth and Southam and North East Hampshire.

But there is also a disturbing picture that has gone unnoticed because of the debacle by works and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, in launching universal credit. At  the moment it covers about 0.3 per cent of the population.

The Commons library  reveals that currently statistics are not being collected from people on universal credit to find out whether they are in work or unemployed when they claim the benefit.

As it says : “Some new jobseekers are claiming Universal Credit rather than Jobseeker’s Allowance since the commencement of the Universal Credit pathfinder on 29 April 2013. These jobseekers are not included in the claimant count. ”

“…As a result, the claimant count will understate the total number of jobseekers in the constituencies affected.
ONS (Office for National Statistics) intends to include jobseeker Universal Credit claims within the claimant count statistics “as soon as possible”.”

However the ONS website says :  “No timetable is currently available as to when this will occur.”

This affects claimants at 40 jobcentres. The worst example is the Oldham West and Royton seat of Labour MP Michael Meacher where 1240 people are on universal credit.

The number of JSA claimants in his constituency is 1530, down  51 per cent over the last year but if the figures do not include those on universal credit instead – they are bound to be an underestimate of the real number of claimants on the dole.

A similar situation exists in  Wigan, the seat of Lisa Nandy, where 1020 people are claiming Universal Credit and is recording a 46 per cent drop in the number of people claiming  JSA over a year.

Now it would be remarkable if Wigan and Oldham could post  bigger cuts in dole claimants than Epsom and Ewell in Surrey. It is obviously not true.

So I think Mr Osborne better be very careful if he starts talking up the big drop among the unemployed in the North before the next general election based on these massaged statistics. If he does he will be telling the electorate at best only a partial truth and at worst lying through his teeth.

Iain Duncan Smith’s election present for the Golden Oldies: Bye Bye bus pass and fuel payments

Iain Duncan Smith's endangered species the free bus pass

Iain Duncan Smith’s endangered speciesthe free bus pass

George Osborne has made a lot of noise about how  pensioners  with spare cash are going to get  a fabulous deal under the Coalition – high interest pensioner bonds and the chance to spend, spend their pension  pot.

 All this is seen by political commentators as a  brilliant move by the  Chancellor to get the grey vote out for the Tories next year – with many of the measures timed for the election.

He also made it clear that pensions were going to be exempt from the new welfare cap – which will hit everyone else from lone parents, the disabled.and the working poor on housing benefit.

Sounds too good to be true for  the elderly. And guess what, it is.

Hidden in the specialist publication The House Magazine today is an interview with Works and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith by journalist Paul Waugh. And he asks: What’s your latest thinking about benefits such as winter fuel allowance and other universal, non-pension benefits for the elderly?

 The answer is : “The Chancellor has made it clear that they go into the [welfare] cap. So straight away they will be looked at in the same way as other benefits. Whether we have a specific view on those is a matter for the manifesto. It’s already very clear that they will be part of the overall balance of expenditure within the department for the benefit cap.”

So this broad brush promise on Budget Day is not true. Bus passes, TV licences, fuel payments, all available universally will join the rest of the benefits facing the chop.

What he doesn’t say – but everybody in Westminster  knows – is that the scale of cuts planned after the 2015 will make the last five years look like tiny by comparison. So it is my bet that we will see the end  of free bus passes and most fuel payments – because the size of cuts required will dictate it. And if you take the fact that Labour under Ed Balls is already committed to means testing fuel payments and the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg want to do the same to free bus passes. there is no escape.

And the poorer elderly  will find their social care all but disappear – as a fresh wave of local government cuts come into force.

Great policy from the coalition. Splash out your pension fund on a Lamborghini – but if you can’t afford to pay the full bus fares take up your zimmer frame and walk!

Work Programme providers’ plea is an insult to everyone they have mishandled

This is not good news for the BBC, the work programme or the government. If you take in context the scandal involving A4e which provided placements under first programme I did an extra investigation on top of the work done by the Public Accounts Committee exposing failings in A4e internal audit. My investigation revealed in one small town Bridlington A4 e had placed people with as firm going into liquidation, one run by people from a a house in Rotherham that never filed accounts, another with a company not registered at Companies House, and two with a cafe and taxi firm that subsequently went bust. In other places it turned out they had sent one person to a lap dancing club in Liverpool and a person with a criminal record to a firm which didn’t want to employ people with criminal records. See my own blog https://davidhencke.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/exclusive-how-you-got-state-funded-work-experience-in-a-strip-club-with-a4e/

Mike Sivier's blog

It isn’t very often one can say a news report was shocking – not because of the subject matter, but because of the way it was reported.

That was the situation tonight with the BBC’s item in which Work Programme providers complained that they need more money to “help” the most challenging jobseekers into work.

This group, of course, being benefit claimants in the work-related activity group of Employment and Support Allowance.

This group being the most consistently abused and neglected element of the new underclass created by the Conservative-led Coalition government, demonised and hated by the right-wing press, often attacked in the street (to judge from first-hand accounts), many of whom have been driven to suicide or death caused by their conditions, which have been worsened by the unacceptable (and to most people reading this, inconceivable) amount of stress the DWP, Atos (the private company assessing their fitness…

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Iain Duncan Smith’s most shocking statistical lie yet: Child poverty

what a brilliant solution for a Downing Street Lynton Crosby spin machine. Keep reducing average wages in the UK until they reach the level of China and Bangla Desh and then you can reduce the numbers in absolute poverty because they will need smaller incomes to qualify. That will help meeting your statistical targets. And you can argue that people must only be paid a pittance so Britain can compete, Just one of the many nasty things Iain Duncan Smith is doing at the moment.

Mike Sivier's blog

According to a TUC report, average wages have dropped by 7.5 per cent since the Coalition came into office. This has a direct impact on child poverty statistics, which the government has conveniently ignored in its latest, Iain Duncan Smith-endorsed, child poverty figures.

Child poverty is calculated in relation to median incomes – the average income earned by people in the UK. If incomes drop, so does the number of children deemed to be in poverty, even though – in fact – more families are struggling to make ends meet with less money to do so.

This is why the Department for Work and Pensions has been able to trumpet an announcement that child poverty in workless families has dropped, even though we can all see that this is nonsense. As average incomes drop, the amount received by workless families – taken as an average of what’s left…

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Roast beef rebels plan Cameron Stew

Will Tory Roast Beef Rebels carve up Cameron? pic: courtesy BBC

Today’s first tranche of  spending cuts  will be small beer to rebellious right wing Tories  who are now heading for a serious  battle with David Cameron.

Already angry the he has given too much away to his new coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, Tory conspirators are already gathering in Commons dining rooms to plot the blue lines he should never cross.

The full story is in my blog at http://www.progressonline.org.uk/ in my Tory Tracker column.

  Cameron may have won a vote  by rewriting the election rules for the 1922 committee to allow fellow ministers to vote but his decision infuriated his own whips and some of his own Cabinet colleagues – who seem to have been given no prior warning. And it could come back to haunt him this week. 

All this is going to do is to  further anger some of  his biggest  critics -the Cornerstone group- the Thatcherite No Turning Back Group and  Conservative Way Forward.

The first lot are now dominating Dining Room A  in increasing numbers   where they plot over traditional English Fare -like roast lamb and beef – hence the name the ” roast  beef rebels”. Their champions  vary from Iain Duncan Smith, the new works and pension secretary, to young right of centre Tory blades like Greg Hands.

They are starting to attract support from mainstream Tories who are reporting bad news from the golf courses as angry middle class  Conservative activities find out they may well be paying 40 per cent capital gains tax on their second home or seaside flat – which had been earmarked as their ” second pension”.

One of them faced with people saying to him ” I did not vote Tory for this” had to lamely reply ” It is a Liberal Democrat policy”.

The growing anger means that Camerom will find it an increasingly rocky road- as cuts and tax rises bite. Today covered the easy cuts, tomorrow will be different. And Cameron will have to be careful that the roast beef rebels don’t turn his new coalition into an overcooked stew.