The new digital solution for beleaguered benefit reform project Universal Credit is already six months behind schedule just 22 months after it started being developed, according to a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report published this week.
The digital solution started being developed when Universal Credit was ‘reset’ with new management and a new timetable in April 2013. Delays up to that point were wiped out in what was effectively a 'Year Zero' move.
The MPs report stands in stark contrast to claims by Ian Duncan Smith, work and pensions minister last week that the programme was on track and being expanded nationally.
In addition to criticising the delays, MPs condemned ongoing legal action by the ministry to block the publication of delivery plans and risk registers for the project - vital information for any public scrutiny of the Universal Credit system.
The scheme adopted a ‘twin track’ approach of developing existing error-prone systems, but with a view to replacing them with the new digital solution, currently being trialled on first-time single claimants in Sutton.
The committee criticised this approach as “complicated and expensive” and said the department must not allow it “to continue for longer than is required”.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has not published plans for the development of the digital solution or a timetable for when it expects it to replace the existing systems.
The DWP estimates a further six month delay to the new digital system would reduce the net present value of the programme by £2.3 billion in lost societal benefits, according to a National Audit Office report published last November.
The PAC report warned problems with Universal Credit are exacerbated by an ongoing lack of transparency in the DWP and an unwillingness to “face up to past failings”.
The department has been fighting a legal case since 2012 to stop publication of documents on the management, deliver plans and risk register for Universal Credit, the report said.
Despite spending £700 million on the programme so far, successful delivery of the project is still in doubt, according to the report. Just 0.3 percent of the potential claimants are currently claiming Universal Credit, the committee said.
This is despite the fact the existing ‘live’ system for Universal Credit started being rolled out in April 2013 and is available in one in eight jobcentres.
The report called for the department to publish current milestones for what it expects to achieve and when, and clearly explain any future changes to their scope, cost or timing.
“We simply cannot judge the value for money of this expenditure at this stage,” PAC chair Margaret Hodge MP said.
“The IT infrastructure for Universal Credit continues to be of particular concern. The Department has spent £344 million with suppliers developing its ‘live’ service systems for claimants…yet it expects to re-use just £34 million worth of this IT in the longer term.”