DWP’s Universal Credit PR line – all is now well

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions has submitted a statement to the Work and Pensions Committee, ahead of its hearing this afternoon on Universal Credit, that indicates all is now well with the scheme.

At the hearing today MPs will put questions to Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, Howard Shiplee, Universal Credit Director General, and Mike Driver, Finance Director General.

MPs on the committee tend to ask gentle questions of Duncan Smith who is expected to say little or nothing negative about the current state of the scheme. His department’s statement to the committee says that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts produced reports on Universal Credit that were“entirely historical”. 

Under the  new leadership of Shiplee, the Department had “already taken comprehensive action to address issues subsequently cited in both the NAO and PAC reports, including strengthening governance, improving supplier management and tightening financial controls”.

About 6,000 “new” computers in Jobcentres are being installed so that claimants can look and apply for jobs online, as well as make online claims.

“From October we started implementing Digital Jobcentres, beginning in Hammersmith. The Department will continue to roll this out across the whole Jobcentre Plus network, with all sites converted by October 2014.”

The DWP says that in the trials so far 90% of claims were being made online, “with the majority of these completing their application at the first attempt”.

The DWP will “further develop the work started by the Government
Digital Services to test and implement an enhanced online digital service”.

It adds: “The 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.”

Comment:

The DWP and particularly IDS appear locked into the “good news” culture that the health secretary Jeremy Hunt warned about  in the light of the Francis report’s criticism of a “lack of candour” in the NHS.

Before most of the big IT-related disasters in central government, the NPfIT for instance, sets of ministers and senior civil servants praised progress of the projects and dismissed Parliamentary reports as historical.

It’s to IDS’s credit that he has conceded that the 2017 deadline for all claimants to be on Universal Credit will not be met. He didn’t have to admit this. By 2017 IDS may have retired from politics for all we know. But still his optimism may be grossly misplaced.

The signs are that all claimants will not on UC before 2019 at the earliest – and that is subject to the resolution of numerous IT and business practice issues. The NAO report “Universal Credit: early progress” hinted at some of them.

Indeed the NAO revealed that:

“The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will
support national roll-out.” The signs are the DWP still doesn’t know – and may not know for several years.

The last big benefits computerisation project – Operational Strategy – took about 10 years to complete. It did not achieve the promised financial benefits and benefit systems were not integrated as originally intended but the technology worked well in the end.

There is every reason to believe that the UC  project will have a similar roll-out timeframe. But will IDS ever discuss all the current uncertainties and shortcomings with UC technology?

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