The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has reneged on its commitment to complete the rollout of Universal Credit by 2017. Those receiving Employment Support Allowance will now be migrated to the new system at an unconfirmed later date.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told MPs as recently as September that the rollout would hit its deadline target and DWP has always refuted any suggestion of delays to the welfare reform project.
Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Chi Onwurah, told Computerworld UK that the announcement shows DWP is failing to fulfil its duties.
“This government has sought to politicalise the digitalisation of Government and ICT procurement claiming some revolutionary approach but we see now that that they have neither been able to meet project milestones nor protect the vulnerable, the primary function of government,” said Onwurah.
Universal Credit aims to merge benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working credit. The IT system supporting it will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
However, the project has been plagued with problems and evidence given at a recent Public Accounts Committee suggested that DWP may write off over £174 million of the IT assets that have been developed so far by IBM, HP, Accenture and BT.
It was revealed earlier this year that the Government Digital Service was being brought in to build an ‘enhanced IT system’ for Universal Credit, after the existing IT proved too rigid and was not able to scale up to support the programme.
DWP has insisted today that this enhanced system is viable and it will further develop the work with a view to rolling it out nationally once testing is complete.
A spokesperson for the department told Computerworld UK that the best of the current IT systems will be married with the new enhanced system, but no detail was provided about how much of the current systems would be used.
DWP CIO Andy Nelson also recently said that he is considering a new ‘mobile first’ strategy for the enhanced Universal Credit system.
With regards to timelines, DWP said in a statement: “Our current planning assumption is that the Universal Credit service will be fully available in each part of Great Britain during 2016, having closed down new claims to the legacy benefits it replaced; with the majority of the remaining legacy caseload moving to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017.
“Final decisions on these elements of the programme will be informed by the development of the enhanced digital solution.”
However, DWP has confirmed that those currently claiming Employment Support Allowance will only be migrated after 2017 – with a date yet to be confirmed. New Employment Support Allowance claimants will be claiming Universal Credit.
The BBC has suggested that approximately 700,000 people are currently claiming Employment Support Allowance, but this is yet to be confirmed by DWP.
Universal Credit is currently live in 7 areas across the UK, growing to 10 by spring 2014 – however these pathfinder pilots have been very narrow in scope and only allow for singly claimants to apply. DWP said that after spring 2014 this will expand to couples and families in the 10 live areas and by the end of next year will start to cover more of the north-west.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: “This is a once in a generation reform. And we’re going to get it right by bringing it in carefully and responsibly.
“Our approach will ensure that while we continue to enhance the IT for Universal Credit, we will learn from and expand the existing service, so that we fully understand how people interact with it, and how we can best support them.”
He added: “Early indications show that people are positive about the new benefit, and my department is working hard to ensure this good progress continues.”