Universal credit – stand by for the next rollout delay

Today I’ve written for the think-tank Progress on the next Universal Credit roll-out delay. I’ve reproduced my piece in full below.

There is a bit of a theme when the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and his minister David Freud appear before the Department for Work and Pensions select committee to talk about universal credit. They admit there have been ‘problems’, announce that the ‘rollout’ is slowing down, but claim that all is now under control. Next time around it turns out that despite these reassurances, all has not gone as expected.

In early 2013 DWP was still stating that universal credit – which combines jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance, housing benefit and tax credits into one monthly payment – would launch for all new claimants in October of last year.

Major changes to the implementation programme were announced in July and again in December, so that by the end of last year there were only 3,780 people on the new benefit. And these were limited to the ‘easiest’ to handle – those who would otherwise have been on JSA, under 25, and without partners, children or homes to pay for.

In April 2014 it was announced that from June there would be a further rollout starting in jobcentres in the north-west, and from ‘summer’ claims from couples would be started (but still only those who would previously have been on JSA). In the select committee’s April report, we concluded ‘due to the very slow pace of the rollout to date, it is difficult to envisage how the volumes required to meet the most recent timetable are to be achieved’.

The information technology processes for universal credit remain shrouded in mist. At the outset, ministers claimed they had a process that would deliver in a way that no previous government IT projects had, but clearly they did not. Now the promise is of an ‘open source web based end state digital solution’. It is one of those sentences where you know the meaning of the individual words but as a whole. This is to be ready to test on 100 – yes one hundred – claimants by November 2014.

The select committee has asked that future reports and updates use clear, plain English explanations of the plans and outcomes, so that we can judge whether they are working. We need to know how much this new ‘solution’ is going to cost, and when we will know whether it will work for the large and varied number of claimants universal credit is meant to cover.

The previous mantra of ‘digital by default’ has been dropped. Freud said that they had decided that this approach was not sufficiently secure where large sums of money were being paid out. It seems that little thought was given at the outset to issues of verifying identity, and early concerns of commentators were initially brushed aside.

While the move away from digital by default is not altogether a bad thing, as many people were concerned at how this would work for those who do not have easy access to the internet, some of the administrative savings were to come from the fact that so much was to be done online; this must be having some impact on overall costs.

There is also a worrying vagueness about what it really means to be ‘on universal credit’ if your circumstances change. We asked what is happening when the ‘simple’ cases become complex – for example when someone falls sick or acquires a partner with a child. We did not get a clear answer and were left with the impression that all such changes were being done manually. In that case how does it differ from what happens at present?

Bringing benefits together into a ‘single system’ is not a new idea but the incoming coalition might well have asked itself why such a seemingly sensible idea of simplifying and streamlining benefits had not been introduced before. In reality it is a hugely complex undertaking but there is still little sign that ministers realise this, and even less that they are willing to be open about the problems. Stand by for the next rollout delay?

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PIP: IDS needs to get a grip

Today I’ve written for Progress on the huge delays disabled people are experiencing when applying for Personal Independence Payment. I’ve reproduced my article in full below.

It is almost a textbook example of how not to do government. Today my colleagues and I on the work and pensions select committee have released a report on the performance of the DWP, and the roll-out of personal independence payment stood out for its incompetence.

PIP replaces disability living allowance for people of working age, and is intended to help with the additional costs of living with a disability.

This change took effect for new claimants in June 2013. Systematic reassessment of existing DLA claimants will not start until October 2015, but in certain areas anyone who turns 16 or reports a change in circumstances, or whose time-limited award ends, will have to apply for PIP (so-called ‘natural reassessment’).

By the time both processes are complete in 2018, the Department for Work and Pensions expects 450,000 existing DLA claimants to lose all support, while 510,000 will receive PIP but at a lower level than DLA.

The main issue our report highlights is the long delays people are facing before they are given a decision on their eligibility. Take my constituent Jane, for example. She suffers from Huntingdon’s Disease and applied for PIP in September. Although she had a face-to-face assessment on 18 November, she was told on 14 February that it would be another six weeks before she got a decision. This means the process will have taken six months from start to finish, and could last longer if Jane is refused and chooses to appeal.

We recommend that DWP invoke penalty clauses in its contracts with Atos and Capita – who carry out the face-to-face assessments – and clear the existing backlog before it rolls out natural reassessment to different parts of the country.

But why have these delays arisen in the first place?

It starts with the fact that the decision to abolish DLA and replace it with PIP was driven by a desire to save money. ‘Justifications’ for needing a new benefit were crafted to fit. The DWP has come to believe its own propaganda, claiming far too many people were receiving DLA without time limits or assessments. This in turn has driven the shape of the new processes and what the contractors have been asked to do.

Then, fatally, the DWP failed to properly pilot the assessment process. Although new claims opened in the north of England in April 2013, this was only two months before PIP went live nationwide. Within weeks we were told that far more people were being called in for face-to-face assessments than expected, because the initial forms proved to be badly designed. In addition each assessment was taking twice as long as expected and all assessments were being audited internally, raising questions about skills and training.

All of these issues could have been ironed out with a proper pilot.

My committee raised doubts about this in advance, but these were brushed off. Our new report should put ministers in no doubt about the scale of the problem they face – Iain Duncan Smith and his department need to get a grip.

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Iain Duncan Smith: Using Disabled People as Guinea Pigs Since June 2013

A couple of days ago I blogged for The Huffington Post on the (slow) rollout of Personal Independence Payment. I’ve reproduced my piece in full below.

My constituent Jane suffers from Huntingdon’s Disease. In September she applied for Personal Independence Payment – the benefit the government introduced following their abolition of Disability Living Allowance – which is intended to help people with the extra costs they face as a result of living with disabilities.

She had a face-to-face assessment with one of the government’s contractors – Atos Healthcare Ltd – on 18 November. By the end of January her application was still with Atos. On 14 February she was told her application had now been returned to the Department for Work and Pensions, but it would be another six weeks before she got the decision. That will mean the process will have taken six months from start to finish.

If Jane gets an award, her payments will be backdated to September, but if her application is refused and she appeals, there could be further months of uncertainty.

Jane is a single parent with five children. Anxiety and depression is common in sufferers of Huntingdon’s, but my constituent’s state of health is worsening as a result of the delays. In her own words “I am struggling with everyday life, it’s always on my mind”.

Delays, delays and more delays
This is by no means the longest period of delay being reported by other PIP claimants, and it’s not just a problem for Atos – already notorious for their role in Employment and Support Allowance assessments – but also for the government’s other contractor Capita.

The delays are clear from the government’s own interim management figures, which show that by December 2013, 220,300 applications had been submitted (excluding claims for terminal illnesses) but only 34,200 awards had been made.

Ministers stated that their expectation before the system “went live” was that processing of claims would take 12-15 weeks. It is taking at least twice as long for most.

Pilot? What pilot?
PIP has been available to new claimants since June 2013. Most of those who are currently on DLA will not go through the reassessment process until October 2015. However those whose award runs out before that date or whose circumstances change will still be called in, potentially piling delay upon delay.

There was a pilot in some parts of the north of England, but this ran for only two months before the new benefit went live nationwide. The Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – raised doubts about such a short pilot in advance, but our concerns were brushed off. One oddity is the contrast with Universal Credit, where the roll out has been slowed to a snail’s pace.

Excuses, excuses
In December the disabilities minister told the Select Committee that all assessments were being internally audited by the providers before being passed back to the DWP. That suggests a lack of confidence in the training provided by contactors – something the government should have realised was an issue when Atos and Capita were tendering for this work.

Then in February the secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, he argued that PIP was being rolled out “carefully” and they were adjusting the process as they went along. Given the experience of people like Jane, I’m afraid this just doesn’t wash.

The reality is that disabled people are being used as guinea pigs because of the government’s total failure to properly pilot the PIP application process and ensure its contractors were up to the job. IDS and his ministers should be ashamed.

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