Little progress

It’s time for another peek inside the workings of universal credit. IDS look away now.

The work and pensions secretary told us about his latest triumph two weeks ago: the start of the national roll-out heralded a new benefits era; it was £600 million under budget; and it was helping people find work quicker. The commentariat seemed to agree: in his final Telegraph column Peter Oborne was gushing; and in The Guardian Matthew d’Ancona wondered if IDS might even be ‘the man to save the Tories’.

However, as I’ve blogged before, universal credit exists in two states at once: triumph and not-triumph. It didn’t take long for the other state to be highlighted: Nigel Keohane pointed out that only 0.3 per cent of claimants are on universal credit so far plus a host of other practical problems; and a claimant who advertised it told the BBC he now thought it was a nightmare.

And today’s progress update from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concludes that ‘very little progress has been achieved on the frontline’.

  • The DWP needs to reflect on how it will tackle direct payment to claimants and that it faces extra costs for introducing a different system for the housing elements of universal credit in Scotland
  • The DWP has spent £700 million so far on the promise of benefits in the future but ‘we cannot at this stage judge the value for money of this expenditure’
  • That includes £344 million on developing the technically limited ‘live service’ systems being used for the current roll-out: ‘It expects to re-use just £34 million of these systems when it launches the digital service.’
  • The DWP is fighting a protracted legal case to prevent publication of programme milestones to which it could be held to account publicly.
  • The twin-track approach (live service plus the digital one) is ‘probably the right course of action’ but also ‘complicated and expensive’
  • The DWP now believes the live service system is ‘a viable alternative option’ if the digital system fails but it has not carried out any analysis of the potential cost or whether problems including security concerns and limited functionality could be overcome.

In its last report, the PAC highlighted ‘a flawed culture of good news’ at the DWP. In the body of this one, it says that, despite improvements in management and staff perception, ‘a lack of openness remains within the Department, as does an unwillingness to face up to past failings’. Publication of the milestone schedules, which the DWP is resisting through the legal case, ‘would be helpful in making sure everyone’s expectations regarding progress were set in the right place’.

The PAC notes fears raised by housing associations and claimants about rent arrears under direct payment. DWP officials told the committee in December that it had direct payment demonstration projects around the country but could not discuss the findings as they had not yet been published. It also had systems for vulnerable claimants and retained the option of payment to the landlord.

When the findings were published a month later, the DWP sent the committee a summary. It would be fair to say the MPs were not impressed with the editing:

‘We were disappointed that the Department was rather selective in its summary. For example it chose not to mention that: 72 per cent of tenants on Housing benefit said they preferred it to be paid to their landlord directly; the proportion of tenants reporting they were behind with their rent increased from 16 per cent in summer 2012 to 30 per cent in early 2014; and five of the single most important reasons for rent arrears were related to the direct payment of Housing Benefit.’

On the ‘live service’ roll-out, the DWP needs to train 10,000 people by April 2016. However, it has acknowledged that it cannot afford to use the same approach as in the North West pilots and has cut its planned training budget by 68 per cent up to April 2016. ‘The Department, however, was unable to explain how it would maintain its current quality of service when Universal Credit is dealing with hundreds of thousands of people in the future, compared to fewer than 18,000.’

The DWP has ‘barely started testing’ the digital service which is meant to take over. It started a two-week trial in Sutton in November and handled 17 claims. It is still in a ‘test the service’ phase and has to pass that plus two further phases before the planned launch in 2016.


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