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Universal Credit now seven years late

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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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Politics

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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Politics

Local Assembly Member praises the work of Therapy Dogs

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Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Assembly Member Angela Burns met with Jed the Therapy Dog and his owner during their visit to the Senedd recently.

Jed and Georgina were there along with other therapy dogs and owners to meet with Assembly Members and tell them about the valuable role that the therapy dogs undertake at hospitals, hospices, schools, residential homes and prisons throughout the country through the charity Therapy Dogs Nationwide.

Jed is a regular visitor to Skanda Vale Hospice in Carmarthenshire and provides an excellent service to some of the patients there.

The charity provides calm and happy dogs to visit facilities to undertake emotional and relaxing therapy to those who may not have access to pets themselves.

Commenting Angela said

“As a dog owner myself I know the companionship and emotional support that they can provide.

“The Therapy Dogs Nationwide is an amazing charity with some lovely dogs of all shapes and sizes who I have had the pleasure to meet today. We often forget about the value of mental wellbeing when it comes to health or emotional issues and these dogs provide an invaluable service.

“I also want to pay tribute to the owners who volunteer their own time to accompany their pets on visits. It would be great to see more people have access to this therapy in the future.

“I look forward meeting Jed or one of his colleague again soon when I next visit the Skanda Vale in West Carmarthenshire.”

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Welsh councils fail audit requirements

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JUST two-thirds of Wales’ town and community councils met the statutory deadline for publishing their audited accounts
The timescales for councils to publish their accounts are set out by law, and yet only 486 of Wales’ Town and Community councils (66%) met this deadline in 2019.
There are 735 community and town councils in Wales. As a tier of local government, they are elected bodies, with discretionary powers and rights laid down by Parliament to represent their communities and provide services for them.
As at 30 November 2019, while a further 51 audits had been completed, 38 community councils still had not submitted accounts for audit. The number of qualified audits is still too high at 218 councils. This is according to a report issued today by the Auditor General for Wales.
The audit arrangements for community councils are designed to provide residents with a reasonable level of comfort that public money is being handled effectively. With councils handling more public money than ever, it’s increasingly important that councils follow the process set out in law.
However, the Auditor-General’s report shows that the number of councils failing to submit their accounts on time has risen compared to last year.
The failures have led to 218 qualified audit opinions to date, which means 218 councils either failed to comply with their statutory requirements or misstated information in their annual return. While this is less than last year, this number may rise once work on the remaining councils has been completed.
There are circumstances in which issues are of such significance that the Auditor General brings these to the attention of the public. During 2019, twelve such reports were issued in the public interest due to significant failures in the management of public funds by local councils.
MAENCLOCHOG A CASE IN POINT
One of the reports issued in 2019 concerned Maenclochog Community Council, where the Wales Audit Office identified a worrying series of governance failures for the financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Maenclochog’s Community Council, with an annual precept of £4,000, is one of the smallest Community Councils in Wales. However, in spite of its small budget, councillors – who are ultimately responsible for ensuring public money is fully accounted for – failed to check proper accounting records had been maintained. The absence of bank statements reconciled to items of expenditure meant that the Wales Audit Office couldn’t provide an opinion on whether or not the annual accounts properly present the Council’s receipts and payments.
As a result, the WAO qualified the Council’s accounts for both 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The Auditor also mad a swingeing criticism of councillors for failure to ensure compliance with basic governance requirements. The Maenclochog report discloses that in the two financial years covered by the report, councillors had signed off on statements that they had fulfilled their statutory duties when they had done no such thing.
While the then clerk’s tardiness was a significant factor in the Council’s failure to comply with its statutory responsibilities, the Auditor points out council members sitting at the time bear responsibility for the Council’s failure to file accounts on time, or at all, until the WAO intervened in January 2018.
Since that time, a new clerk has been appointed to the Council, while the failures took place in a period which bridged the 2017 community council elections.
The report found no evidence that the Council took any steps concerning the overdue accounts. The Council’s minutes do not record any concerns related to the delayed submission of the 2015-16 or 2016-17 accounts.
The Auditor concluded, therefore, individual councillors did not understand their responsibilities about the accounts.
There was also no evidence the Council had prepared a budget either for 2015-16 or 2016-17, as required by law.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Auditor General, Adrian Crompton said: “Local councils are expected to play an increasingly important role in the delivery of public services and local communities. While I am delighted to see the positive response from some councils to our recommendations from last year,
“I am disappointed that some councils still receive qualified opinions for multiple reasons. I recommend that all councils consider the issues raised in this report and reflect on whether any of the issues may apply to them.”

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