By Tony Collins
When asked whether Universal Credit will work, be on budget and on time, Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office, gave a deft reply. He told Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke on 13 March 2012:
“From where I sit today, I think all the signs are very positive. I am never going to predict that something is going to be on time and on budget until it is.”
If the plans do not fall into place who, if anyone, will be responsible? In theory it’ll be Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. But as Watmore told the Public Administration Committee, there are several other organisations involved. Although the DWP and HMRC are building the IT systems, the success of Universal Credit also relies on local authorities, which are overseen by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
There are also the Cabinet Office and the Treasury whose officials seek to “ensure that what is going on is appropriate” said Watmore.
If Univeral Credit goes awry all the departments may be able to blame the private sector: the employers that must pass PAYE information to HMRC so that the Revenue’s Real-Time Information element of Universal Credit can work.
David Gauke is the minister responsible for HMRC so would he take some of the blame if Real-Time Information didn’t work, or was not on budget, or was delayed?
Or would the main IT suppliers Accenture and IBM take any of the blame? Highly unlikely, whatever the circumstances.
There is also a dependency on the banks.
But nothing is wrong … is it?
All those putatively responsible for Universal Credit continue to say that all is going well.
Duncan Smith told the House of Commons on 5 March 2012:
“We are making good progress towards the delivery of universal credit in 2013, and I have fortnightly progress meetings with officials and weekly reports from my office. I also chair the universal credit senior sponsorship group, which brings together all Government Departments and agencies that are relevant to the delivery of universal credit.
“Design work is well under way and is being continually tested with staff and claimants, and the development of the necessary IT systems will continue in parallel.”
He said that universal credit will reduce complexity by putting together all the benefits that are relevant to people going back to work – though benefit systems that are not relevant to the coalition’s “Work programme” will not be included in the DWP’s Universal Credit IT consolidation.
To reduce risks Universal Credit will be phased in over four years from October 2013, each stage bringing in a different group of claimants.
Campaign4Change has asked the DWP to publish its various reports on the progress of Universal Credit and it has refused, even under the Freedom of Information Act. It seems the DWP’s secretiveness is partly because all of the risks related to Universal Credit have not been mitigated. We will report more on this in the next few days.
Meanwhile to try and answer the question in our headline: who’ll be responsible if Universal Credit goes wrong? The answer is: the private sector probably. Or rather nobody in the public sector.
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