The Public Accounts Committee has highlighted technology shortcomings in the implementation of the programme
Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has thrown the spotlight on IT problems at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the slow implementation of the Universal Credit programme.
A report published today by the PAC says the programme - aimed at replacing six means tested benefits with one - is on a sounder footing than it had been before a reset in 2013, but is now moving even more slowly and will not be fully implemented until at least 2019. It has also involved investments in IT that will not be used in the long term.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the committee, said: "The IT infrastructure for Universal Credit continues to be of particular concern. The department has spent £344 million with suppliers developing its 'live' service systems for claimants who have straightforward initial claims which do not involve all six benefits, yet it expects to re-use just £34 million worth of this IT in the longer term.
"The live systems are technically limited and expensive to operate because they require manual intervention."
A twin track approach has been followed since 2013, when the programme was reset in response to criticisms from the Major Projects Authority. The systems in which the DWP had already invested have been used in the live service, while a new digital service for more complex claims is being developed and tested, although this is already six months behind schedule.
Hodge said the DWP has not been sufficiently open and should set out what it has gained from its spending so far, including the investment in IT systems for the live service.
"The department should set out publicly its current milestones for what it expects to achieve at different points in the programme, and clearly explain any future changes to the scope, cost and timings of these," she added.
Out of kilter
The report raises a number of criticisms around a failure to identify benefits from spending, and points to issues that need to be resolved, such as the effects of further devolution for Scotland and the whether the payment of housing benefit to claimants rather than landlords is working. It also says the strategic outline business case, which has been approved by HM Treasury, is"out of kilter" with the delivery of Universal Credit.
Among its recommendations are that the Treasury should press the DWP to continue to identify and assess realistic options for delivering the programme, the department should make more contingency plans for handling delays in the digital service, and that it should ensure the twin track approach does not continue for longer than required.
The report says that £700 million had been spent on the programme between its beginning in 2014 and the end of October 2014, and that the DWP expects the total to be £1.7 billion by 2022-23. By October 2014 only 18,000 people were claiming Universal Credit, although the DWP expects the number to rise significantly over the next year.
Pictured: Margaret Hodge, courtesy of House of Commons Public Accounts Committee