Reports of problems with Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit programme are over-hyped and out of date, says a spokesman
New woes have hit the troubled project to build IT systems for Universal Credit scheme designed to overhaul Britain’s welfare benefits, according to media reports. But a spokesman for The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has dismissed the claims as out-of-date and exaggerated.
The Universal Credit scheme is a new payment system for those on low incomes or looking for work, and is designed to consolidate six separate welfare payments into one comprehensive system. Work has been underway to develop the IT systems for the scheme, but has faced difficulties and inter-departmental wrangling according to reports.
Elite IT staff needed?
The project has been delayed by inter-departmental friction between the DWP and the Cabinet Office, which has an overseeing role and did initial work on the scheme, according to the Guardian.
The DWP, led by Iain Duncan Smith (above) is at loggerheads with the Cabinet Office led by Francis Maude (below) over the scheme, which is now causing “high-level” risks to the delivery of the project, according to a leaked document seen by the Guardian.
The meeting minutes say the Cabinet Office has withdrawn its elite team of IT experts (the government digital service or GDS) from the project early, leaving the DWP “urgently searching for new IT specialists to keep the complex software project on track.”
As well as increasing costs, the inter-departmental conflict has brought a “significant risk of delay” to the completion of the final universal credit design according to an unnamed project insider quoted by the paper: “You are losing … people who are in on the ground floor, certainly immersed in universal credit policy and design plans. Now they are going to have to bring people up to speed and probably have to pay top dollar for them because they are going to have to be cutting-edge digital experts.”
Nothing to see here?
However, when TechweekEurope approached the DWP, a spokesperson said the report is based on out-of-date information, as the meeting it refers to took place on 29 November, before the 9 December announcement, when Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, insisted that the Universal Credit (UC) welfare scheme was on schedule and would be delivered within its £2bn budget.
“We set out plans last month for the future rollout of Universal Credit and they have not changed,” said the DWP spokesperson. “Our primary concern remains ensuring that this vital reform is delivered in a safe and secure way.”
“We have been very clear that DWP would take over development of the new digital service following the initial GDS work,” said the spokesperson. “Our current plans will see all new benefit claimants claiming Universal Credit by 2016, with most existing benefit claimants moving onto Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017.”
Meanwhile, another media report claimed that four big IT suppliers (Accenture, BT, HP, and IBM) that have been contracted to deliver the Universal Credit benefits scheme are to be frozen out of developing the new system.
Computer Weekly claims to have seen excerpts of the latest draft of the Universal Credit business case, which says the four supplier will have “significantly less” involvement in the revised digital solution announced last month by Duncan Smith.
While the suppliers will continue to develop the existing Pathfinder system that is being used for trials of Universal Credit, the DWP intends to use its “own resources” to develop the scheme, as part of its“twin-track” approach for the programme.
The DWP spokesman told TechweekEurope that it will continue to work with its suppliers and developers, and it was an exaggeration to suggest that some suppliers are to be frozen out of the scheme.
Whatever the merits of the reports, there is little doubt that the Universal Credit Scheme has had its problems in the past.
In September, the National Audit Office (NGO) issued a damning assessment of the scheme, saying the DWP had not achieved value for money in its early implementation of Universal Credit. Then in November the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) claimed at least £140 million worth of IT assets would have to be written off as a result of implementation failures.
Meanwhile, another report has suggested that the DWP is set to spend a further £90m on enhancing the IT systems for the Universal Credit scheme. However, it seems that the new “twin-track” approach to the project is budgeted to cut the overall IT costs by £135m.
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