Thursday 7 November 2013

Universal Credit - another update

Well here we are in November, and Universal Credit continues to sweep across of the country: or perhaps not.

In July I reported that the full 'roll-out' was to be replaced by a more modest programme of increasing the number of pilot areas from October.

On 28th October I read a press release with the exciting title: 'Universal Credit expands to London'[1]. On reading a bit further, I realised it wasn't quite that exciting: this exciting new opportunity only applies to jobseekers in Hammersmith. 

Then I realised that Hammersmith was one of the pilot areas announced in July. 

This is what the government was saying in July[2]:

'Universal Credit will expand to 6 new Jobcentres starting from October 2013. The following Jobcentres will be included:

  • Hammersmith
  • Rugby
  • Inverness
  • Harrogate
  • Bath
  • Shotton'
This is what they are saying now:

'Universal Credit will expand to Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton by the spring.'

I think that there's at least a difference of emphasis here...

In any case, it's a very limited pilot. As the government itself makes clear, only single jobseekers can claim Universal Credit at present. Nobody else. As its name implies, Universal Credit is designed to cover all working age claimants of mean-tested benefits (rolling six benefits into one), this seems to be a bit unwise.

Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) certainly thinks so. In their latest,  highly critical, report about progress and management of this project[3], they say:

'The pilot programme is inadequate as it does not deal with the key issues that Universal Credit must address: the volume of claims; their complexity; change in claimants' circumstances; the need for claimants to meet conditions for continuing entitlement to benefit; and the security of information to prevent fraud. The scope of Pathfinder is much narrower than originally planned. It is now restricted to only the simplest new claims of people who are single, have no dependants and would otherwise be seeking Jobseeker's Allowance. The Pathfinder does not deal with most claimants' circumstances or examine how the behaviour of different types of claimant might change with the introduction of Universal Credit. Pathfinder also includes limited IT functionality, with staff having to enter some information manually, and it lacks the identity assurance and anti-fraud components that the full system will need. While Pathfinder will provide some useful information, we are sceptical that it will adequately inform the full roll-out of Universal Credit.' [conclusions and recommendations, paragraph 6].

There has been wide coverage in the media of the PAC's criticism of the project's management and oversight, particularly with regard to the IT infrastructure, so I'll resist the temptation to go on about them myself (a good example is at ). 

However, what worries me - as it worries the PAC - is how on earth this is all going to get sorted in time to meet the original deadline of 2017: a deadline that Iain Duncan-Smith still insists will be met. If the government were acting pragmatically, they would extend the deadline to ensure that the  infrastructure was robust, and to include realistic and comprehensive pilots. The PAC states in the report summary:

'The Department must be realistic and transparent about its expected costs and timescales, and the milestones against which we can hold it to account. We believe strongly that meeting any specific timetable from now on is less important than delivering the programme successfully.'

Unfortunately it seems unlikely that the government will follow this advice. 

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