Universal credit all-party report raises fears over workability of system

The Guardian - 08 Feb 2018

Ministers expect the public to “take it on faith” that the controversial universal credit reform will deliver an improved service for claimants, despite an absence of proof that it works or will save money, an all-party MPs’ report warns.

The Commons work and pensions committee says the government has yet to produce a full business case justifying universal credit, seven years after the programme started, and there remains “considerable uncertainty about its costs and benefits”.

“They [ministers] have produced no evidence to back up the key, central economic assumption of the biggest reform to our welfare system in 50 years. William Beveridge [the founder of the welfare state] will be rolling in his grave,” the committee chair Frank Field said.

The committee warns that the improved job outcomes the reform promises are uncertain, while anticipated taxpayer savings rely on it becoming increasingly automated and “industrialised”, despite evidence that significant numbers of claimants find it difficult to access and use the digital-only system.

Universal credit aims to roll six major working-age benefits into one monthly payment, including job seeker’s allowance, tax credit and housing benefit. It has been criticised for design flaws and administrative errors that have left thousands of poorer claimants at risk of poverty, debt and rent arrears.

The Office for Budget Responsibility said last month that political uncertainties and problems with the design and implementation of the much-delayed project, currently around five years behind schedule, meant universal credit presented a “significant risk” to public spending.

The committee’s warning accompanies its assessment of confidential government documents tracking the troubled progress of universal credit over the past five years. These reveal a catalogue of repeated mismanagement, strategic errors and failures to learn from mistakes, it says.

The MPs’ report assesses 10 reviews compiled by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) between 2012 and September 2017. The IPA was established by the Treasury and Cabinet Office to oversee major government projects.

The government has refused to release the reports, despite freedom of information requests, and while the information commissioner ruled last summer that they should be published in the public interest, ministers appealed and they remain under wraps at least until the case is heard at tribunal in April.

However, the Department for Work and Pensions agreed to provide the reports to the work and pensions committee just before Christmas on the basis that they would remain confidential. The committee, while not publishing the reports in full, quotes selectively from them.

The report shows how, from the start in January 2011, the universal credit programme was wracked by chaos. Under the auspices of the then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the reviews show a programme lacking strategic direction and serially failing “to turn vision into practical reality”.

Millions of pounds were wasted amid a “shocking absence of control” over the programme’s IT suppliers such as BT, Accenture, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. “Those suppliers were rewarded handsomely for ultimately pointless design and development work conducted without clear sets of requirements or an overarching objective,” the report continues.

For the first three years of its development, the IPA rated universal credit “amber” or “amber/red” on its traffic-light index of project risk, meaning it considered the programme either unachievable or “in doubt with major risks”, the report reveals.

In June 2013, the programme was “reset” to enable a strategic overhaul. But, by February 2014, the IPA found there was still no “single coherent integrated plan” for universal credit and, even by October 2015, when it noted improvements in the programme plan, it warned it was still “not without significant risk or challenge”.

In March 2017, with the government considering an accelerated rollout of universal credit, the IPA noted that sufficient progress had not been made to “give full confidence that UC was ready for the scale of change proposed”. Ministers went ahead with the rollout in October.

The report says that while in 2013 universal credit was “on the brink of complete failure”, it is to the credit of the DWP that it is now back from the brink, despite extensive delays, and is run more professionally with a “collective sense of purpose”.

However, serious challenges remain, and it said recent IPA reviews have noted that the criteria by which the operational progress of universal credit should be judged should include customer experience, such as payments delays, for which the DWP has been consistently criticised.

The committee’s report is scathing about the jargon-ridden IPA reports, describing the style as a “a combination of the cryptic and the cliched”, dense with phrases such as “operational cost burners” and “developer stand-ups”. It concludes that they are “no loss to the canon of published prose”.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said universal credit continued to be delivered in a safe and secure way, and the IPA supported the improvements it continues to make. “The work and pensions select committee has commended the department for running the universal credit programme ‘more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose’.

“The committee acknowledges that the historic issues raised in this report have now been addressed and ‘substantial achievements’ have been delivered since 2013.”

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “It is completely unacceptable that the government has not provided any evidence to back up their repeated assertion that universal credit will help people into work, a key principle of the programme.”

Patrick Butler, The Guardian