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?