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Digital problems add to Universal Credit delays

03/02/16

MPs' report says that DWP has been insufficiently transparent about programme's progress

The troubled Universal Credit programme to merge six working-age benefits is threatened by fresh problems with the technology needed for complex claims, MPs have warned.

A planned ‘digital service’ will not be completed until June 2018, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted – six months later than the original target.

Just five Jobcentre Plus offices a month will start using the service from May this year, rising to 50 offices each month only when officials are “confident the system can cope with the higher volume”.

In addition, the DWP’s “contingency plan” is for a further delay – which would require it to use the costlier ‘live service’ system beyond its planned closure date of October 2018.

Meanwhile, some local authorities will have less than six months to prepare for the digital service, creating uncertainty for claimants who turn to council officials for advice.

Persistent evasion

The warnings come in a hard hitting report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which also criticises the DWP’s “persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses”.

Meg_Hillier_MPMeg Hillier (pictured), the PAC’s Labour chairwoman, said: “The Department for Work and Pensions appears either unable or unwilling to level with Parliament and the public about Universal Credit.

“Since our previous report (in 2014), it has emerged there will be further delays before Universal Credit becomes fully operational, the full implications of which are unclear.

“If taxpayers are to have any faith in what is already a complex and controversial project then the department must provide clear information about the impact of these factors and the roll out of the programme as a whole.”

The digital service will allow claimants to “make a claim, check details of payments, notify changes of circumstance and search for a job through a single account”, the DWP says.

But the department does not expect Universal Credit to be fully operational until March 2021, the PAC noted – while the independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a further six month delay.

Slow implementation

At present, only a limited version of Universal Credit is being implemented slowly across the country, targeting the simplest of claims, mainly by single people.

Last year, the project’s director general, Neil Couling, hailed “progress, progress” when the digital service migrated to the cloud to provide additional capacity. But in its evidence to the PAC, the DWP revealed it “had not yet shared its digital service roll out plans with local authorities or other delivery partners”.

The report says: “The department said it was in discussion with those local authorities where digital service roll out is likely to occur during 2016–17 and that it had promised to inform those affected of its plans in early 2016.

“The department agreed that this means in some cases local authorities will have less than six months to prepare.”

Under the original plans, all benefit claimants were due to be on Universal Credit by 2017 or 2018, but – following earlier delays – only new claims will be on the system by 2017.

However, the PAC acknowledges that the project “has stabilised and made progress” since it first investigated in 2013.

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