By Tony Collins
Iain Duncan Smith has had nothing but criticism in the media for his extreme caution over the go-live yesterday of the innovative Universal Credit scheme. But he told Radio 4’s Today presenter Justin Webb he was learning from the NHS IT scheme and the implementation of tax credits.
[With the NPfIT the Department of Health threw caution to the wind and spent billions on IT work and contracts that were unnecessary. After working tax credits went live the Office of National Statistics estimated that, of the £13.5bn paid out in tax credits in 2004, £1.9bn was in overpayments; and IT-related problems led to delays in issuing payments, which caused hardship for those on low incomes.]
“What I have introduced here is a deliberate and slower process introduction because I learned from the chaos of tax credits where it collapsed and the chaos of the health department’s changes to their IT systems. I want to do this carefully to make sure we get it right.”
Justin Webb: But your critics say you are not testing the things that could go wrong – children and homeless people are not involved. When are you going to involve them in a pilot?
IDS: They are all going to be involved as we roll out.
Webb: There will be a pilot that includes those more difficult groups?
IDS: These pilots are to test two things; first of all that the base process works and secondly that all the other issues …
Webb: No homeless people involved in that. The difficult people are not involved?
IDS: What we are doing is testing the basic process. As we roll out from October onwards we then complicate the process and we roll it out in such a way as we are able to bring those people in and ensure that we also test them as we are going through. It’s a perpetual process of rolling out and checking, rolling out and checking. That is the better way to do it. I have done this in the private sector and Lord Freud [work and pensions minister] did this in the banking sector. We have insisted on it because this is the right way to do it. Get it right. Not get it early.
Can IDS be too cautious?
Universal Credit is live on GOV.UK. To claim it now you need to live in an OL6, OL7, M43 or SK16 postcode, have just become unemployed, fit for work, have no children, not be claiming disability benefits, not have any caring responsibilities, not be homeless or living in temporary accommodation, and have a valid bank account and national insurance number.
But still it’s a test of links between UC and HMRC’s RTI systems. If the links are working properly the systems should verify that the new UC claimant has recently left PAYE employment. The pilot in Ashton is also a test of the UC payment system and whether the new scheme will encourage claimants to find a job and stay in work longer.
On Sunday, on BBC Radio 5’s Double Take, I praised the Department of Work and Pensions for an ultra-cautious approach in going live with UC.
But IT consultant Brian Wernham, author of Agile Project Management for Government, pointed out to BBC’s World This Weekend that thousands of people will need to claim UC every day from the official start of the scheme in October 2013 to the end of 2017 if the DWP is to complete its UC roll-out within the coalition’s promised schedule.
The Financial Times quotes Iain Duncan Smith as saying that one million claimants would be receiving universal credit by the end of April 2014.
This is now unlikely if not impossible. Even in October when the UC roll-out begins nationally, it will start with simple cases. By April 2014 it is hard to see that there will be 100,000 people claiming UC, let alone one million. Indeed the most complex cases may be handled outside of the main UC system, possibly manually or on a spreadsheet.
Why should the coalition care if the 2017 deadline is not met? A general election on 7 May 2015 means that UC will become the responsibility of a new government. IDS is then unlikely to be the DWP’s secretary of state. He could argue at that time that he should not be held responsible for any delays in the roll-out. Indeed the Tories could be out of government by then.
So what the coalition says now about UC’s future means little or nothing.
That said, the coalition seems to be learning lessons from past IT-related failures. It deserves praise for its extreme caution over the introduction of UC.
It is not doing everything right: the DWP is refusing to publish any of its expensive consultancy reports on the progress of the UC IT systems. Partly that is because of DWP culture and because shadow ministers are waiting to jump on any putative weakness in the UC scheme. Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said on yesterday’s Today programme that universal credit was “a fine idea that builds on Labour’s tax credits revolution”.
He added: “The truth is the scheme is late, over budget, the IT system appears to be falling apart and even DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] ministers admit they haven’t got a clue what is going on.”
But when Byrne was in government he was an unswerving advocate of the disastrous NPfIT. So can his criticism of the UC project be trusted now?
Despite a generally negative media there are no signs yet that UC is a disaster in the making. Indeed RTI is working so far, which was the biggest single risk.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is said to remain concerned that UC could prove an electoral disaster, and his concern is good for the UC IT project. It means the coalition will continue to roll out UC with extreme caution.
Such a play-it-safe approach might never have occurred before on a major government IT project. So does it matter that UC takes years to roll out?
Perhaps the roll-out may continue well beyond 2017 but it’s better to complete a simplification of the benefits system over an extended time than pay claimants the wrong amounts or leave the vulnerable without payment altogether.