By Tony Collins
Iain Duncan Smith has told MPs that the costs of the Universal Credit project are £652m to March 2014 – which is about £36,222 per successful claimant.
The figure includes the money paid to the DWP’s Universal Credit IT suppliers which was £303m by the end of 2012/13. An updated figure will be published in a UC report by the National Audit Office due to be published near the end of this month.
The costs of Universal Credit per successful claimant are disproportionately high for an IT-enabled programme that has been running for more than three years because numbers on the system are small.
If the UC programme were complete, at a forecast cost of £1.8bn, and the predicted 7.7 million people were receiving the benefit, the scheme’s delivery costs per claimant would be only about £234.
As at October 2014 17,850 people were on the Universal Credit caseload. IDS told the Work and Pensions Committee on 5 November, in a hearing that lasted more than 2 hours, that the costs of UC were £652m by March 2014.
That works out at about £36, 222 per successful UC claimant.
Total delivery costs for the programme are expected to be £1.8bn, down from an original prediction of £2.4bn, IDS told the committee.
IDS and the DWP hope many more successful claimants will be added to the systems next year when Universal Credit is rolled out to all jobcentres and local authorities across the country. But the scheme is subject to growing uncertainties, as the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux and IDS made clear to the committee.
DWP drops firm end date for UC
When an MP put it to IDS that he no longer has a concrete end date for when 7.7 million people will be on UC, he paused. Then he said the plan was for UC to be complete “by the end of 2018”. He gave no commitment and did not deny that there is no concrete end date.
“Er yes, yeah,” replied IDS. “We do envisage UC being complete by the end of 2018. That’s our plan.” He said that UC would handle singles, couples, then families. In the meantime the DWP is developing an “end-state digital process” that will deliver benefits for claimants and the departments.
“The roll-out gives us phenomenal understanding of what we need to do to make sure the digital service ultimately comes in and completes that process properly. There is a de-risking of the process.”
UC may never be fully automated
Another uncertainty for UC is its ability to handle an estimated 1.6 million changes per month to people’s claims.
Changes in circumstances are handled manually at present.
Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the DWP, told the committee that the UC systems are, for some claimants, part manual, part automated. Devereux said:
“The peculiar nooks and crannies with individual circumstances – we have deliberately not tried to code every permutation as we go along. We are trying to make sure it can be safely delivered within costs in a sensible fashion.
“It would not be sensible to code every possible permutation back at the start while you are still learning. There are different elements of the system, some of which will be [digital] all the way through, some which are not.”
The committee chair Dame Anne Begg questioned whether UC will ever work effectively if manual processing is applied to some of the 7.7 million claimants. She received no clear answer.
It’s a good thing that the DWP is going slowly and cautiously but a spend of £652m to March 2014 per UC recipient does not seem cautious at all. If the project is being run on agile principles of fail early and fail cheaply, can this sum be justified?
On a more positive note IDS has stopped quoting a firm end date for UC. At first the DWP was saying UC would be completed by the end of 2017, then IDS said the programme would be “essentially complete” by the end of 2017. Now he is saying it may be complete by the end of 2018 but is giving no commitment. His caution is probably because the NAO’s update on UC later this month will suggest that the programme is unlikely to be delivered in any certain time period. Nobody can say with authority or credibility when UC’s implementation will be complete.
It’s also a good thing that the DWP is conceding that UC can never be fully automated. It doesn’t make sense spending disproportionate sums on automating calculations that can be done more cheaply by hand. But if the exceptions prove the rule UC could prove much more expensive to implement than planned.
UC is a good idea in theory but the next government needs to do a full review of its financial and practical feasibility, which the present government is unlikely to do.
Universal Credit could be complete by 2018 – Government Computing