For Ministers and civil servants alike, the recent National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reports on progress implementing Universal Credit (UC) will have made uncomfortable reading. The PAC described management of the UC programme as “extraordinarily poor”, pointing to a “shocking absence of financial and other internal controls.”  The Government says the reports don’t take into account progress made since problems emerged, but how it intends to proceed with delivering UC still remains unclear following its “reset” of the programme earlier this year.  Whatever IT solution is chosen, it seems likely that a good chunk of the £303 million spent on systems so far will need to be written off.  The Opposition claims the programme is in “chaos.”

Where now for the flagship Universal Credit project?  Delivering UC to nearly eight million families by 2017 was always going to be a tall order.  The Government remains committed to the overall timescale, but its priority is to deliver UC “safely and securely.”  The PAC believes that while DWP needs to be realistic about costs, deadlines and milestones, meeting any specific timetable from now on is less important than delivering the programme successfully.

The prospect of meeting the 2017 deadline seems more remote however if, as recent media reports suggest, there has been disagreement within Government about what sort of IT system should underpin Universal Credit.  According to reports, while DWP believes carrying on with the existing IT work is the best way forward, the Cabinet Office favours scrapping much of what has been done so far and developing a more web-based system instead.  Neither option is risk free, in terms of cost and timescales.  Whatever is decided, the reports suggest that by the next general election there will be far, far fewer UC claimants than was envisaged under any of the implementation timetables published so far.

One option for the Government might be to examine whether there are any elements of the Universal Credit package that could be jettisoned, or at least postponed to a later date, to allow the programme as a whole a better chance to proceed according to the original timetable.  The problem is that the UC programme has been presented as a coherent whole.  Furthermore, it is difficult to see how the basic model underpinning UC – a single, working age benefit for people both in about out of work, delivered largely online, where payments adjust automatically following changes in income and other circumstances – could be delivered without each of the key components functioning reliably.  UC involves more “hard dependencies” than perhaps any other major Government project in recent history.

An alternative approach might be to take forward certain aspects of the UC package in advance of the introduction of the single benefit itself.  The Government is to an extent already doing this – for example by rolling out the “claimant commitment” to Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants starting from October 2013 – but there may be limits to what can be achieved within existing legislation.  In addition, extending the “stronger and clearer” conditionality and sanctions regime to claimants of existing benefits in advance of the introduction of UC itself could lead to accusations that the Government was introducing “sticks” before “carrots”.

Some may consider a pause in the Universal Credit programme not altogether a bad thing.  Welfare rights organisations have expressed unease about the potential impact of UC on vulnerable groups who might have difficulty with online claims, direct payment of housing costs and single, monthly payments.  In evidence to the PAC, Citizens Advice expressed concern with slow progress towards developing the Local Support Services Framework to help people prepare for UC, manage their claims online and manage their finances.  A delay in the programme could offer a breathing space to address these and other issues, including how in the long term entitlement to passported benefits should be determined.

The Secretary of State has said that a detailed plan and programme for the full roll-out of Universal Credit will be set out in the next couple of weeks.  The NAO, PAC and others will no doubt scrutinise these plans closely, to determine whether they are realistic and deliverable, and set clear milestones against which the Government can be held to account.

Author: Steven Kennedy