By Tony Collins
The “good news” headlines over the weekend suggest that Universal Credit is finally rolling out nationally, the implementation problems having been ironed out.
But do senior officials at the Department for Work and Pensions know themselves whether the IT will ever work at scale, handling millions of UC claims?
The national roll out begins today (16 February 2015) says a brochure on the success of the programme “Universal Credit at Work – Spring 2015“. It’s issued by the Department for Work and Pensions and has a foreword signed by Iain Duncan Smith and his welfare minister Lord Freud.
“Throughout the report, robust evidence shows that Universal Credit is working,” says the brochure, which adds:
“Over the last four months, the roll-out of Universal Credit has continued and from 16 February, it will be available to:
• single claimants in 112 jobcentres
• couples without children in 96 jobcentres
• families in 32 jobcentres
• all claimant types in a limited postcode area in London (Sutton) to test the enhanced Digital Service.”
Ahead of national roll out, DWP officials have been briefing the media on the success of the UC programme. Hence the headlines yesterday.
BBC Online’s headline: Universal Credit roll-out £600m under budget”
Even the Guardian was positive. The reinvention of Iain Duncan Smith – is he the man to save the Tories?
The Sunday Times declared that Universal Credit “will be operating in every jobcentre across the country by this time next year if the Conservatives remain in power, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has vowed”.
The Telegraph’s headline was supportive of IDS: Coalition’s welfare shake-up is working
When Andrew Marr asked IDS about Universal Credit’s IT, IDS suggested that the computer systems to handle complicated claims are already in place.
Marr: “This roll-out across the country is only for single claimants, not for families, so it’s nothing like universal at this point. Do you think you have a computer system able to cope with much more complicated claims?
IDS: “Yes we have. In fact we rolled it out first in the North West where we rolled it out to singles, to couples and to families so it is now complete pretty much across the North West …
“What we are doing now is exactly what we did in the North West – roll it out stage-by-stage, so singles first, to every jobcentre by early Spring next year, and then you’ll do couples and then you’ll do families.
“And then you’ll do the final development which is digital which will allow much more things like apps on your phone.”
Is the UC programme really on track for a national roll-out? Are the concerns of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee about the slow and troubled UC programme unfounded?
The reality can be gleaned from the DWP’s plans for the roll-out, as inspected by the National Audit Office, and by documents on the gov.uk website on who is entitled – or rather who is not entitled – to claim UC during the roll-out.
It’s true that UC is being gradually extended from single claimants to couples and families, but the DWP has issued such a long list of exemptions on eligibility that numbers of claimants will continue to be tiny at least until the middle of this year (election time).
The small number of claimants will allow the DWP to continue handling more complicated claims using, in part, manual processes. This means that a fully-automated UC system to calculate benefits need not be in place for the time being.
The small number of claimants also means that the risk of implementation problems coming to public attention in the next few months is minimal.
In two days time – Wednesday 18 February 2015 – gov.uk is due to reveal the latest figures on UC take-up. As of today, the latest figures available show the total number of successful UC claimants at 30, 850 on 11 December 2014 – whereas the system needs to be able to cope with around 7-8 million claimants.
It’s good news that UC is rolling out nationally and that it’s being gradually extended to couples and families as well as single people. But the IT has not been tested properly because the numbers of eligible claimants is so small. The DWP has narrowed the band of eligibility for UC by a long list of exemptions.
You cannot claim, as a single person or a couple, if, say, you receive Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment. You cannot claim if you own, or partly own, your home, or are homeless, or in supported or temporary accommodation. Many other exclusions apply.
The result is that nobody knows yet whether the main UC IT systems, and its dependent business processes and systems, will work at scale. Shouldn’t the DWP come clean on the technical and business change challenges it still faces?
UC will not be an economic proposition on the basis of the partly automated processes that exist at present. It’s possible, though, that the cheap-to-build digital systems – which are on trial in Sutton, South London – will work and will eventually take over from the mixture of legacy, new and manual systems and processes that are now in place. Nobody knows whether they will work at scale.
The reality is that the UC programme, despite years of IT coding and a spend of hundreds of millions of pounds, is still at an early stage of development. It could be at an early stage of development for several more years, even though the positive headlines at the weekend give a different impression.
It may also be worth mentioning that the UC programme has yet to gain Treasury approval for the full business case – or indeed the outline business case. There is therefore no Treasury approval for the scheme long-term funding. There are still questions to be answered over its economic feasibility.
None of this has been said by the DWP or IDS. We’ll have to wait for another National Audit Office update to know the facts.
Thank you to Dave Orr for his emails to me on Universal Credit