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When the early rollout of Universal Credit begins next month in Manchester and Cheshire most of the benefit calculations will be done manually, rather than using the system being developed by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), according to sources close to the situation.

When the early rollout of Universal Credit begins next month in Manchester and Cheshire most of the benefit calculations will be done manually, rather than using the system being developed by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), according to sources close to the situation.

Computerworld UK has been told that the only part of the final £500 million system that will be used will be to book appointments at job centres, with some personal details stored and used again. However, all final Universal Credit calculations will be carried out using spreadsheets.

Universal Credit will merge benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working credit. The IT system supporting the project will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed with HM Revenue & Customs.

Speculation surrounding Universal Credit's success has been building in recent weeks, with numerous changes in management and rumours surrounding problems with suppliers. 

Earlier this week Brian Wernham, author of Agile Project Management for Government, revealed that the Universal Credit’s programme director, Hilary Reynolds, had stepped down from her responsibilities and ‘moved on to other work’ within DWP just four months after being appointed.

This followed Malcolm Whitehouse stepping down in November last year, amid speculation that the project’s go live date may be pushed back. David Pitchford, who had been working as the Major Projects Authority’s executive director, was taken on as the temporary lead on the development of Universal Credit in February, and will now take on all responsibilities.

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Sources told Computerworld UK that DWP had originally planned to roll out all of the technology , but in a small area, to calculate new claimants’ Universal Credit benefit. This fits with the information that is available on the DWP’s website, which says:

“The early roll out of the Government’s flagship new benefit system is expected to see up to 1500 new Universal Credit claimants coming on stream across four areas – Tameside, Oldham, Wigan and Warrington - each month. It will test the new simpler, single benefit payment system with local authorities, employers and claimants in a live environment before Universal Credit is rolled out across the country in October 2013.”

However, according to those close to the project, a claimant will only be able to book an appointment at a job centre in these areas using the new system. When they come to claim universal credit in person, the calculations of the benefit will be carried out on spreadsheets, instead of using the system that is being developed for rollout.

It is apparently also unclear how much of the technology will be used when the rollout is extended to further job centres across the UK, with suggestions that much of it will still be manually calculated.

Stephen Timms, labour MP for East Ham, recently claimed that IT contractors working on the project had been told to suspend work by DWP – a claim the department denies. He is now writing to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, to ask for access to the five main contractors working on Universal Credit – Accenture, BT, Capgemini, IBM and HP – to establish how the project is going. He said that the timeframes had shifted too many times for the Universal Credit rollout to be on track, as is claimed by DWP.

“I wrote to Iain Duncan Smith in 2010 telling him that I didn’t think the timetable that had been announced was achievable, and sure enough the timetable has gone back quite a lot since then. For a long time it was said that all new benefit applications from people who are out of work would be treated as applications for Universal Credit from October 2013,” said Timms.

“The last time I got confirmation of that was in September 2011. It then went quiet and DWP has now said they are going to be processing a few applications from this date – it looks like it will be one job centre per region, which is about 9 in the entire country. Also, in these job centres it will only be the simplest of applications.”

He added: “They also said that all new in work benefit applications would be treated as universal credit applications as of April 2014. Again, only a few people will get this at this date, not everybody.”

DWP has said that it expects the full roll-out of Universal Credit to be completed by 2017 – a date Timms also expects will not be met. However, he believes the government will continue to push this date until after the next general election.

Joe Dignan, chief analyst at Ovum, commenting on the latest changes in management of the project, said that this is likely to indicate problems with the project.

“Everyone knows the project is in difficulty. They should do less rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic and be more honest in what the difficulties are and how they intend moving the project forward,” said Dignan.

“UC was always going to be a stretch but one that is absolutely necessary and it definitely was never going to be easy. Going for the big bang approach as opposed to a more iterative process was counter intuitive in the face of the past track record of major public sector procurement.”

He added: “The churn of senior staff is the most visible example of those that can, are distancing themselves rapidly. The suppliers are not breaking ranks as this is potentially a massive cash cow and they need a big success in the public sector and the current administration is keeping quiet as they cannot afford another public sector IT debacle.”

A DWP spokesperson has since delivered a statement to Computerworld UK and is insisting that the IT system will be used by the end of April. 

A DWP Spokesperson said:"We will be processing new claims to Universal Credit from the end of April using our new IT systems, as we have always said."