Universal Credit begins with more of a whimper than a bang

Universal Credit to start at single Jobcentre in Ashton-under-Lyme. Photo: ITV News

Universal Credit is the cornerstone of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms. Today in Greater Manchester his revolution began, but with more of a whimper than a bang.

It is probably because so much is at stake that the Government is only putting its toe into these reforming waters at first with this tiny and manageable pilot in the North West. For Universal Credit is a hugely ambitious IT project to roll out, and a hugely ambitious attempt to change long held cultural attitudes towards welfare.

Today's first trial will involve no more than a few hundred new claimants this month in Ashton-under-Lyne, and only the simplest cases will be involved - single claimants with no dependants will be the only ones invited onto the trial at first.

The Government clearly does not want any Big Bang moments with the world watching. Gently, gently does it - inch by inch...

Critics say one of the reasons for the small size of this trial is that the IT system is not yet fit for purpose.

Today's pilot is one of four originally planned but the others have been postponed, prompting more claims that the IT system isn't yet ready. But today Iain Duncan Smith denied this was the case.

To make Universal Credit work, claimants will have to apply online and HMRC computer systems will have to share real time information with Department of Work and Pensions computers.

Eight million households will eventually be involved. That is a software headache and Whitehall doesn't like those - they can turn into recurring migraines.

This new, "mother of all benefits" will work by rolling six existing means tested benefits into one. The Government estimates that eight million households will be affected by 2017, of which 3.1 million will be better off, and 2.8 million worse off.

Universal Credit roles six existing means tested benefits into one. Credit: ITV News

The Government says Universal Credit will make work pay, make claiming simpler, and bring a labyrinthine and costly system up to date.

The key to it is that it involves a gradual withdrawal of benefits from someone who starts to work, rather than the "cliff-edge" type withdrawal that the current system involves and which can leave someone financially worse off if they start working, even part time. Hence the criticism of the current system that people are financially "trapped on welfare".

I have yet to meet anyone on the left or right who does not support this fundamental change to make work pay.

Therefore these reforms do not arouse the same passions as the changes to the Disability Living Allowance or Housing Benefit.

Claimants will have to apply for Universal Credit online. Credit: ITV News

But nevertheless, there is scepticism and some fear too - fear that the the vulnerable will fall through the cracks, unable to use computers, or budget a month at a time, and scepticism that the Government is a long way from delivering such an ambitious IT project.

For those who are fearful, the Government points out that anyone working and salaried must learn to budget monthly, and that for anyone wishing to play an active part in society in 2013, computer literacy is essential and help will be on hand.

There are however also concerns that with the cuts, not enough "help will be on hand" to stop the vulnerable from falling into rent arrears.

For the sceptics, worried about the complexity of the IT national roll-out, today's softly-softly approach might suggest they're not the only ones with concerns.