The revised roll-out plan for Universal Credit will see more than 200,000 benefit claimants transferred on to the new IT system every month in the 14 months leading up to its full launch at the end of 2017, Computer Weekly has learned.
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The nearest comparable migration undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is believed to be the approximately 40,000 claimants transferred from incapacity benefit and income support to the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) in 2008, according to DWP insiders.
Such a huge switchover, so late in the project, represents a major risk that the 2017 deadline will not be achieved. The independent Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) highlighted the risk in a report last week released to coincide with Chancellor George Osborne's autumn statement.
"Given the delays to date, and the scale of migration required in 2016 and 2017, there is clearly a risk that the eventual migration profile differs significantly from this new assumption," said the OBR.
More on Universal Credit
According to a source, senior DWP managers attending a Universal Credit planning event on 23 October were told that, on average, 212,000 claimants would have to be moved from their existing benefits every month in the 14 months leading up to full live running, due to start around December 2017.
There were “audible gasps” from delegates at the event when the figure was quoted, said the source.
The IT system to which existing welfare claimants will be transferred does not yet exist, and is being developed from scratch as part of the “twin-track” approach introduced last week by DWP.
The IT developed so far for the Pathfinder pilot project was described as “not fit for purpose” by Norma Wood, interim director general of the Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority (MPA), during a Public Accounts Committee meeting in September.
But that IT is continuing to be developed to cater for the comparatively small numbers of claimants that will be eligible for Universal Credit as it is gradually rolled out before the new system is in place.
The challenge of migrating so many claimants on to the new system is not only technical. People on benefits will need to be educated about the changes, provided with information about the online system through which they will manage their claims and update personal details, and get used to receiving their benefits on a monthly instead of a fortnightly or weekly basis under Universal Credit.
According to Computer Weekly’s source, DWP may need to bring in as many as 10,000 temporary staff to help process the hundreds of thousands of migrated claimants’ details.
Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith blamed the IT problems for delays in rolling out Universal Credit. He admitted last week that 700,000 people on ESA will not be transferred to Universal Credit by its planned 2017 deadline, but insisted that the project remains on time and budget otherwise.
Duncan Smith is due to be questioned about the problems on Universal Credit by MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee today.