Despite damning assessments, Iain Duncan Smith says the flagship Universal Credit scheme is on track to meet its deadline and budget requirements
Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has insisted that the Universal Credit (UC) welfare scheme is on schedule and will be delivered within its £2bn budget.
However, Duncan Smith admitted that the IT systems being developed for the plan has had to be revamped, and that some welfare claimants will only be moved to Universal Credit after the deadline of the end of 2017.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves responded that the plan has developed into “a complete mess”.
Duncan Smith, along with Howard Shiplee, the official in charge of the project, will face detailed questioning over UC later on Monday by the work and pensions select committee.
All 6.5 million people required to work as a condition of receiving benefit – that is, all “relevant” claimants – will be on UC by the deadline, Duncan Smith said.
“Some 6.5 million people, all of those who have a job requirement on them – which is the key to Universal Credit – all the benefits that are relevant to Universal Credit will be on,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday.
However, the roughly 700,000 claimants on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) support will be shifted at an unspecified later time, Duncan Smith said.
“We could easily have tried to rush those people in but we decided not to,” Duncan Smith told the BBC. “They are the people who don’t have any work requirement on them and they have had the biggest change going through the work capabilty assessment and therefore they need time to get through. I think it is only fair to give them longer.”
He added that the DWP had been “urged to do this by the committee and a number of others” in order to protect “the most vulnerable”.
Critics have observed in recent days that UC is projected to fail to meet several intermediate deadlines, but Duncan Smith said that he had “never been specific” about the number of people expected to be on UC before 2015.
He admitted that the UC rollout plans had changed during the course of the project’s development, in part due to IT problems.
“I do accept this plan is different from the original plan,” he said.
IT systems ‘reset’
He said he intervened in late 2011 to “reset” the UC plan due to concerns that the “security and online aspects” of the IT systems under development were not working.
“I introduced the ‘red team’ of outside experts to look at the plan back at the end of 2011 for the very simple reason that I was concerned we may end up repeating the mistakes that were the last government’s over tax credits and the health departments,” Duncan Smith said. “We are not going to do that because the plan has been reset.”
Duncan Smith confirmed that the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) is now in a merely “advisory” role, having stepped back from direct involvement in developing the IT systems to be used for UC.
GDS is “advising on the enhanced, fully rolled out offering” but the technology is being developed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Duncan Smith said.
The Cabinet Office said last week that following a “proof of concept” demonstration in October, it had handed responsibility for the UC IT systems back to the DWP.
“A team within DWP will now take the digital solution forward, led by the department’s digital leader,” the Cabinet Office said in a statement.
The DWP confirmed in a statement last week that it was taking over responsibility for the development of the “enhanced IT system” being developed for UC.
Duncan Smith told the Today programme that the system “seems to be absolutely fine” and that GDS would continue to oversee testing.
“We believe it will work and they believe it will work,” he said.
‘A complete mess’
Shadow work and pensions secretary Reeves said that in spite of Duncan Smith’s assurances, it was clear that UC was off-schedule and had wasted substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money.
“David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly promised to deliver their flagship policy, Universal Credit, ‘on time and within budget’,” she said in a statement on Monday. “That claim, and the credibility they staked on it, now lie in tatters.
“They have been forced to admit that they have completely missed their targets and Universal Credit will not now be rolled out before the election,” she added. “David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith are presiding over a complete mess and it is taxpayers who are picking up the bill with at least one hundred million pounds of their money written off.”
UC merges several benefits into a single payment, a system that is intended to encourage working and reduce fraud. Currently about 2,000 people are on the benefit through a series of pilot projects.
The project has faced spending concerns, with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) claiming last month that at least £140 million worth of IT assets would have to be written off as a result of implementation failures.
The National Audit Office (NAO) in September issued a damning assessment of UC’s IT systems, finding that £34m spent on them had been written off, while the Major Projects Authority said that another £200m of IT spending could be junked.
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