The welfare reform programme, which will merge six benefits, has reached another defining moment and is going through a further rethink. What is clear amongst this uncertainty is that it is unrealistic to believe that the Universal Credit can be delivered by 2017 as planned.
In September the NAO published a critical report which highlighted weak project management, ineffective control and poor governance. It revealed that £34m has been written off because of failed IT programmes. It expressed concerns about the delivery timetable.
The Public Account Committee is due to deliver a report on the programme on 7 November. The Committee asked to see the project review report, due to be produced after the Committee hearing by the recently appointed programme director Harold Shiplee. The report has now been delivered to ministers but it is understood it will not be released to the Committee.
According to the Guardian, the Shiplee report sets out two options for ministers, both of which make delivery by 2017 unrealistic. The least risk option is to fix the system which started was started as a pilot in April 2013 and has now been extended to areas in the north west and to Hammersmith. The alternative is to go back to the drawing board and devise a web-based system. This option would reduce the need for job centre staff, but it would make less use of learning gained so far and consequently carry greater risk. It would also result in writing off £119m spent on development to date.
The Guardian reports that the DWP would prefer to fix the existing system, but the Cabinet Office favours a fresh start with a web-based system.
Whatever course ministers decide it has emerged that by the date of the next election in 2015, a maximum of 25,000 people, or just 0.2% of benefit claimants will be able to use the Universal Credit system.
All the problems which have caused delay to the program and resulted in the write off of costs relate to the technology. The other major issue which is likely to cause as much disruption is the cultural change which is needed to allow Universal Credit to function effectively. All claimants will have to interact with the system online, but only some 60 percent of benefit claimants have online access.
Theoretically claimants can use facilities in libraries to submit claims, but they don’t visit libraries and they need support to cope with the technology and with the benefit processes. Some pilots are experimenting with providing access points in council premises and with staff on hand to support the claimants. Other pilots are exploring various approaches to improving access but have found it difficult to encourage take up.