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The troubled benefit reform project Universal Credit is to get its seventh boss since its launch in 2012.

The troubled benefit reform project Universal Credit is to get its seventh boss since its launch in 2012.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) has said its work services director Neil Couling will take over leadership of the project, which aims to merge six benefits into one single monthly payment.

Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith thanked current leader Howard Shiplee, who has led the project since 2013, in a statement and said: “Howard has always been clear that, as the programme moves into national delivery, the programme must be led by someone with strong operational experience.

“So I am pleased to announce that, on his recommendation and with the approval of the Major Projects Authority, the new senior responsible officer (SRO) for Universal Credit will be Neil Couling. Neil currently runs the nation’s Jobcentres, and, most recently, implemented the Claimant Commitment in every one.”

Shiplee, who joined the department in May 2013 after a career in construction which included a six-year stint as construction director for the 2012 London Olympics, will continue to support the project in a non-executive and advisory role, Duncan Smith added.

Couling has worked at the DWP for his entire life in various roles, including as principal private secretary to two work and pensions ministers, Alistair Darling and Andrew Smith, director of Jobcentre plus and director for benefit strategy.

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As director for Working Age Benefits, he has been closely involved in helping to design and deliver Universal Credit, according to a conference speaker biography.

Six previous bosses

Current boss Shiplee had to take extended sick leave for several weeks from Christmas 2013 and returned on a part-time basis.

Before Shiplee, the project was led by former Major Projects Authority head David Pitchford on an interim basis for three months.

DWP CIO Philip Langsdale had been in charge of Universal Credit from May 2012 but passed away in December 2012. Before that it had been led by Hilary Reynolds, who took over from Malcolm Whitehouse, who succeeded Steven Dover.  

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) said rollout of the new benefit will be “accelerated” during a speech at the Conservative party conference yesterday. He claimed it will be available nationally by the end of 2016.

However, the DWP said the expansion, due to start in February 2015, will only apply to new claims from single people claiming one of the six benefits – jobseekers allowance.

The department said Universal Credit is already available in over 50 Jobcentres in England, Wales and Scotland and will be available in 'nearly 100' Jobcentres, of about 750, by Christmas.

The DWP is working on two systems for Universal Credit simultaneously – one that underpins the current rollout to pilot sites, and an ‘end-state’ digital solution which will replace the original system in 2017.

The department said the enhanced digital service will start being tested “later this year”. It said this “will test the full scope of Universal Credit for all claimant types in a limited local area”.

At the end of last year IDS said about 700,000 people receiving Employment Support Allowance will not be moved to Universal Credit until after the 2017 deadline.

The National Audit Office is currently conducting a follow-up study into Universal Credit, due to be published in November.

It released a damning report into the early progress of the project last September, which revealed losses of at least £34 million, weak management and poor implementation.