DWP should scrap existing Universal Credit IT, say MPs

Department for Work and Pensions should consider scrapping its existing IT for Universal Credit and focus solely on the new digital solution, say MPs

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should consider scrapping its existing IT systems for Universal Credit and focus solely on the new digital solution that will support the welfare programme when it goes live, say MPs.

In a report today from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, the DWP has again come under fire for its approach to the IT development for the controversial benefits scheme.

MPs on the committee said there is still “worrying uncertainty” about the Universal Credit IT systems, and called for DWP to provide more information about “how it will work, how much it will cost, and who will develop it”.

The report criticised DWP officials for wasting £40m by scrapping IT work already completed, and for a further £90m that will be written off before the system goes live in 2017.

The department has adopted a “twin-track” approach to IT, whereby the existing system is being used for pilot projects and still being further enhanced, while separately an “end-state” solution is being developed that will support full roll-out.

The committee said that because so few people are currently using the existing system, it may be better value for money to scrap it entirely and focus solely on the end-state system.

"Only 4,280 people were claiming Universal Credit (UC) by December 2013 and the majority of these claims were of the simplest nature. While it is right to ensure that the system works properly before extending it, there is a difference between cautious progress and a snail’s pace. Given the excruciatingly slow pace of roll-out to date, it is hard to see how the most recent implementation timetable can be met,” said committee chair Dame Anne Begg.

“Given the small number of people currently claiming UC, the government should consider whether it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to abandon further development of the existing system and focus solely on the end-state solution.

“Despite the millions being spent on the end-state IT solution, it is still not clear when the system will be ready or even how it will work. It is still not ready for testing on the first 100 claimants, and we have no indication of when it will be possible to test it on a bigger and more representative group of claimants."

The fate of the existing systems used for the Pathfinder pilot projects has been the subject of controversy before. IT experts from the Government Digital Service (GDS) recommended last year that DWP scrap the existing system and start from scratch on the digital solution, but secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith preferred to adopt the “twin-track” approach to avoid the political fall-out of scrapping all the IT developed to that time.

As a result, GDS effectively withdrew from further day-to-day involvement with Universal Credit, leaving DWP needing to rapidly recruit 50 digital developers to work on the end-state project.

The committee called on DWP to provide more details about the costs for the digital system, and about the timecales for key milestones such as a planned trial with 100 benefit claimants, as well as when full implementation can be expected.

DWP permanent secretary Robert Devereux told a meeting of the work and pensions committee in February that “we are still many months away from having a system that can do 100 people.”

The DWP continues to state that the Universal Credit IT is going according to plan.

"Universal Credit and its IT systems are very clearly working well, with claimants receiving the new benefit and moving into work,” said the DWP in a statement.

"We deliberately started in a slow, controlled and safe way, which the committee itself has long recommended, so we can expand Universal Credit securely to more people. Universal Credit is on track and we will start expanding it to other Jobcentres from this summer."

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