By Tony Collins
“All our [Universal Credit] IT at the moment is working and it’s working well, which is why we’ve taken the decision to roll it out to the whole of the North West,” said Iain Duncan Smith on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics programme at the weekend.
But IDS is not publishing any of the Department for Work and Pensions’ reports on Universal Credit IT, such as the project assessment reviews, risk registers or issues registers, so it’s difficult to verify independently his assurances that the IT is working well.
Labour, meanwhile, has promised, if it wins the 2015 election, a new National Audit Office inquiry into Universal Credit.
In an interview with BBC One’s Sunday Politics programme, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said:
“We set up a universal credit rescue committee in the autumn of last year because we had seen, from the National Audit Office [and] from the Public Accounts Committee, report after report showing that this project is …not going to be delivered according to the government timetable.
“We believe in the principle of universal credit, we think it is the right thing to do.”
Reeves criticised ministers for not being open about what had gone wrong with the project. “There is no transparency,” she said. “It’s going to cost £12.8bn to deliver and we don’t know what sort of state it is in.
“So we have said that if we win the next election we will pause… the build of the system for three months, calling in the National Audit Office to do a warts-and-all report on it.”
She said the “pause” would not involve halting the pilot schemes that were already in place. She urged coalition ministers to follow her prescription immediately.
“The government doesn’t need to wait for the next election,” she said. “They could do this today: call in the National Audit Office … and finally get a grip on this incredibly important programme.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has announced the roll-out of UC to all job centres in the north west by the end of this year but the IT will handle only the simplest of cases and some of these involve clerical intervention.
Integration with back-office systems is handled manually, and claims from couples or those with dependents are still not allowed.
The DWP said last month that the IT would be handle claims from couples starting this summer but this now seems unlikely.
UC claimants for the time being must be single, without children, newly claiming a benefit, fit for work, not claiming disability benefits, not have caring responsibilities, not be homeless or in temporary accommodation, and have a valid bank account and National Insurance number.
The National Audit Office in a report on UC last September questioned whether the IT will work for the millions of people whose claims are complicated.
Labour’s promise of an NAO investigation if it wins power – and its suggestion that the NAO publish an update to its September 2013 report on UC before the next election – are welcome.
Probably the last thing IDS wants at the moment is an up-to-date report by the NAO on Universal Credit. At present IDS and the Department for Work and Pensions can say without fear of authoritative contradiction that the IT is working well. An NAO update would show whether that assurance is optimistic.
Labour if it wins the election cannot force the NAO to investigate the UC project. No political party instruct the NAO to investigate anything. The NAO is independent of government and decides what to investigate, often in conjunction with the cross-party Public Accounts Committee.
It’s likely, however, that the NAO would agree to publish a new report on the UC project if Labour wins the next election.
Whoever wins the NAO will publish a new report on UC – it is already monitoring the programme – but is likely to do so sooner if Labour wins.
IDS could still win much credibility for the DWP and himself by deciding to publish the UC project assessment reviews, risk registers, issues registers and high-level milestone schedules.