DWP refused to release Universal Credit IT review to MPs

DWP has refused to provide MPs with a copy of a review of the IT for the troubled Universal Credit project by programme chief Howard Shiplee

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to provide MPs with a copy of a new report into the state of the IT developed for the troubled Universal Credit project.

Universal Credit director general Howard Shiplee was asked by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at a hearing last month to report back once he had completed a review to assess whether the IT developed so far for the government’s flagship welfare reform programme had any value.

The National Audit Office (NAO) had previously revealed in a report that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had already written off £34m of IT work that could not be re-used. MPs on the committee subsequently heard that as much as £200m of Universal Credit IT work could yet be scrapped – but that Shiplee’s review would provide the answers.

Computer Weekly has seen a copy of Shiplee’s follow-up letter to PAC chair Margaret Hodge MP, in which he suggested that much of the IT can in fact be re-used, but avoided providing details.

“I explained at the recent hearing that I had brought in independent experts… to review the existing IT build, only part of which has so far been deployed in the Pathfinder... This has led me to conclude that there is substantial real and intellectual value in the work undertaken by the department and its suppliers up to February 2013,” wrote Shiplee.

“My response therefore to the question is that it is clear that there is existing utility not yet deployed that, with some investment, would be scaleable through to 2017. The economic case to support this will be in the refreshed business case for agreement with [HM Treasury].

“In agreement with the Ministerial Oversight Group, who provide a steer on Universal Credit delivery, I am progressing work to review the comparative costs and benefits of the end to end digital solution, as recommended by the MPA (Major Projects Authority) / Cabinet Office, with the option of utilising the existing IT utility in full or in part. I trust this provides the assurance you were seeking.”

Computer Weekly has learned that members of the committee were not satisfied with this response, calling it “clearly inadequate” and asked DWP to provide a copy of Shiplee’s report, but the request was declined.

Among the many criticisms of Universal Credit made by the NAO was the existence of a culture of secrecy around the project, and DWP’s refusal to provide Shiplee’s report will be seen by some as evidence that culture has not been addressed.

DWP said further details on the IT development plans will be outlined later in the year.

"We continue to work closely with the PAC - and writing to the committee as requested in respect of the technology developed so far is clear proof of this," said a DWP spokesman.

Shiplee was brought in to the troubled programme in May with a brief to get a handle on the problems and put the project back on track. He conducted a 100-day review that concluded in October, but was not complete at the time of the PAC hearing.

Meanwhile, a report in The Guardian suggested that DWP is considering two options to take the Universal Credit IT forward.

According to leaked documents quoted by The Guardian, one option involves a faster development of a web-based system that would involve writing off £119m of existing work, with an additional cost of £96m for development.

The article said that fixing the current system would cost £226m, and would keep the write-off down to £21m, but warned that this option may not prove to be value for money and could still suffer from security flaws.

DWP has brought in the Government Digital Service to help with work on the web-based front-end for Universal Credit, while key suppliers IBM, Accenture, HP and BT continue to work on back-end systems.

The Universal Credit IT system had long been rumoured to be having serious problems, but until the NAO report was published in September, DWP had continued to state publicly that the project was on track.

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