The National Audit Office has published its ‘early progress’ report on Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship Universal Credit scheme – and it is damning.
The report states that, after years of development in which £425 million was spent on the scheme, the Department for Work and Pensions does not even have a detailed view of how Universal Credit is supposed to work.
I should just stop there and spend the rest of this article discussing that one piece of information. After months and years of listening to ‘RTU’ ranting about how Universal Credit was going to be a revolution in benefit claims, we now know that he does not know – and never bothered to work out – how his revolution was going to be delivered!
Nor does Howard Shiplee, the ‘director general’ who has been talking it up on the media over the last few days.
Universal Credit is an attempt to “simplify” six major areas of social security into one streamlined payment system. They are: Income Support, income-based Jobseekers Allowance, income-based Employment and Support Allowance, tax credits (child and working), housing benefit and budgeting loans.
However: “Poor control and decision-making undermined confidence in the programme and contributed to a lack of progress,” the report states. This is directly attributable to the Secretary of State – it is his failure.
The report – and we should remember that this is from an organisation concerned with whether the government is spending our money wisely – concluded that the DWP has not achieved value for money.
The department was over-ambitious in both the timetable and scope of the programme, the report states. This is interesting in itself. How can its scope be “ambitious” if nobody even knew how it was supposed to work?
According to the NAO: “The Department took risks to try to meet the short timescale and used a new project management approach which it had never before used on a programme of this size and complexity. It was unable to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility.” In other words, from its employees right up to its ministers and Secretary of State, the DWP could not justify the risks it took with taxpayers’ money and never bothered to investigate the likelihood of failure.
“Given the tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan, it was critical that the Department should have good progress information and effective controls. In practice the Department did not have any adequate measures of progress.”
The report singles out for particularly strong criticism the computer system intended to run the new benefit. “The Department is not yet able to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300 million to develop… Over 70 per cent of the £425 million spent to date has been on IT systems,” it states.
Then it says, “The Department, however, has already written off £34 million of its new IT systems and does not yet know if they will support national roll-out.” So the systems are not – to use a favourite DWP phrase – “fit for work”.
In fact, some parts don’t work on any level at all: “For instance, the current IT system lacks a component to identify potentially fraudulent claims so that the Department has to rely on multiple manual checks on claims and payments.” Meaning: In the single Job Centre where UC has been introduced, employees have been working out claims on paper.
“Such checks will not be feasible or adequate once the system is running nationally.” It seems amazing, but Iain Duncan Smith probably needed to see that, written down in black and white, or he might never have considered the possibility.
Problems with the IT system have delayed the national roll-out of the programme (and for that, considering all of the above, we should all breathe a long-drawn-out sigh of relief). “In early 2013, the Department was forced to stop work on its plans for national roll-out and reassess its options for the future… The Department will not introduce Universal Credit for all new claims nationally in October 2013 as planned, and is now reconsidering its plans for full roll-out.
“Instead, it will extend the pilots to six more sites with these new sites taking on only the simplest claims. Delays to the roll-out will reduce the expected benefits of reform and – if the Department maintains a 2017 completion date – increase risks by requiring the rapid migration of a large volume of claimants.”
The DWP intends to spend £2.4 billion on Universal Credit up to April 2023. To put that in perspective, that’s twice as much as the government loses on all benefit fraud – not just those being bundled together here – every year. And this will “increase risks”.
The spending watchdog found that the DWP took some action at the end of 2012 to resolve problems, but was unable to address the underlying issues effectively.
“The programme suffered from weak management, ineffective control and poor governance,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office.
Despite all this, the report incredibly states that “the programme still has potential to create significant benefits for society, but the Department must scale back its delivery ambition and set out realistic plans”.
Liam Byrne will no doubt seize this as an opportunity, yet again, to offer Labour’s help to find a way forward and bring Universal Credit back on track. He should be discouraged from doing so. This ‘flagship’ hasn’t so much sailed as sunk.
Universal Credit is a FAILURE.
It should be SCRAPPED – before that idiot Smith wastes any more of our money on it.