7th November, 2013
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith MP) issued a Ministerial Statement yesterday, in advance of giving evidence to the Work & Pensions Committee, on the current state of play with Universal Credit, explaining how the new scheme would be rolled out nationally from October, 2013 In the statement IDS claimed:
- The Universal Credit Pathfinders in Ashton-under-Lyne and Wigan had be successfully launched, on time, this year;
- Starting from October, 2013 the national roll-out will be comprised of three strands:
a) Firstly, all Jobcentres we will roll out “conditionality” (claimant commitment to find work and/or increase existing hours) with 20,000 Jobcentre Plus advisers being retrained to deliver this and enhanced job-search support nationally. Ten “in-work” conditionality pilots will test how best to encourage claimants to progress in work;
b) Secondly, DWP will roll-out improved access to digital services across Jobcentre Plus by installing 6,000 new computers across the country, “embedding digital technology and ensuring that jobseekers become used to online transactions”;
c) Third, and most importantly, DWP intends expanding on the Pathfinders by rolling out an almost identical approach in six other regions (six Jobcentres – Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath, Shotton) all supposedly taking new claims to the benefit but only from carefully selected claimants.
Dame Anne Begg, Chair of the powerful committee, said the department was moving at “snail’s pace”. She claimed the department had promised there would be a national rollout this autumn, and not just in 10 jobcentres, representing only 1.5% of the jobcentres in the UK. She also said all the evidence pointed to the Government being currently unable to cope with the more complex claims, including the housing element. Liam Byrne Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary responding to the statement said: “David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have spent £420m of taxpayers’ money to deliver universal credit in the grand total of just ten job centres – that’s less than 1.5% of the nation’s job centres…………………..the biggest White Elephant in Whitehall”. Despite Lord Freud and IDS’s valiant attempts to convince us that Universal Credit is on track, reading the statement and listening to their confusing and often contradictory evidence, suggests it’s still very much a work-in-progress, especially on the IT side of things. Committee Members speaking about their experiences when visiting the Pathfinders claimed that DWP staff were taking down claimant’s names, addresses, NI numbers, DOB etc. on pieces of paper and were then triple keying the information into 3 different IT systems – not exactly the “agile” development claimed not so long ago. Speaking to the work and pensions committee, Lord Freud admitted there had been a change of approach since the original autumn 2011 timetable. He said: “We have gone massively over to testing and building systems around it. It is really important that we have systems that cope with the most vulnerable people.” His boss IDS said: “We are trying to land this at the right time and not according to an artificial timetable.” He insisted the scheme was still able to meet its final target of completion by the end of 2017. You can view the full Committee proceedings at: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=13572 As you’ll have gathered from earlier bulletins none of this is really surprising. We’ve known for some time the IT system is not ready, despite DWP claims to the contrary. My attempts to see it in action have all been thwarted by DWP hierarchy. Without the full system, including “real time information” Universal Credit can’t get off the ground. That’s why they’re still focusing on the simplest of cases. Yesterdays’ statement, particularly about the Pathfinders being extended to only a handful of Job Centres, and only the simplest of cases, is further evidence the IT system and related processes are not currently fit for purpose. Last year’s W & P’s Committee warned the October 2013 rollout date was “very ambitious and leaves little opportunity for dealing with any problems which arise”. The government’s Major Projects Authority also warned that the introduction of universal credit was one of more than 30 flagship schemes at serious risk of failure. Less than 4 months to go to the original national delivery date, we’re still seeing nothing more than a work-in-progress. The good news is, at this rate, Housing Benefit should be around well beyond 2017.