By Tony Collins
Worrying uncertainty about the Universal Credit IT system remains, says the Work and Pensions Committee in a report published today.
Dame Anne Begg MP, Committee Chair, said:
“Only 4,280 people were claiming Universal Credit by December 2013 and the majority of these claims were of the simplest nature. By comparison, in the same month, 1.22 million people were claiming Jobseekers Allowance. This demonstrates the scale of the challenge still facing the Government in trying to implement UC by 2017.
“Whilst it is right to ensure that the system works properly before extending it, there is a difference between cautious progress and a snail’s pace. Given the excruciatingly slow pace of roll-out to date, it is hard to see how the most recent implementation timetable can be met.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has a “twin-track” approach to the IT. One project allows existing “Pathfinder” projects to go ahead but is limited in what it can do. At the same time the DWP is working on an entirely new web-based “end-state solution” which is based on open standards.
The Committee says it is unclear how much the IT will cost and whether it will work at scale. The end-state solution has yet to be tested on the first 100 claimants says the committee.
MPs want the government to “provide more detail on what the end-state solution means in practical terms, including how much it will cost, when it will be ready to test on the first claimants, how it will be extended, and when it is expected to be fully implemented”.
Anne Begg said:
“The money wasted on Universal Credit so far – £40 million on IT software that now has no use and £90 million on software with a useful life of only 5 years – is a matter of deep regret. It is vital that DWP learns the lessons of past mistakes.
“At the same time as developing the “end-state solution” the government intends to spend £37-£58 million on further developing the existing IT system. Given the small number of people currently claiming UC, the Government should consider whether it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to abandon further development of the existing system and focus solely on the end-state solution.
MPs say the government has hampered the committee’s scrutiny of UC implementation by “not providing accurate, timely and detailed information”.
The report makes important points about the DWP’s lack of openness.
“It is not acceptable for the Government only to provide information about major policy changes when forced to do so by the imminent prospect of being held to account in a public evidence session.
“DWP should set out how it will improve the frankness, accuracy and timeliness of the information it provides to the Committee on UC implementation.
Effective select committee scrutiny depends on the provision of accurate, timely and detailed information by government departments. DWP has not always provided this to the Committee in the case of Universal Credit.
“The serious problems with UC came as news to us when the National Audit Office published its highly critical report last September, because the Government had not told us about its own concerns about UC, and the actions it had taken to address them, during 2012 and early 2013.
“On two occasions, the Government has made public the details about major changes to the timetable for UC implementation only when forced to do so by the prospect of oral evidence in front of the Committee. This lack of openness and transparency is not acceptable.
“We do not, as the Secretary of State suggested, want to run his Department. We do, however, expect to have access to the information we need to scrutinise it effectively.”