Government watchdog set for second investigation into Universal Credit IT

The National Audit Office (NAO) is considering a second investigation into the controversial Universal Credit IT project

The National Audit Office (NAO) is considering a second investigation into the Universal Credit IT project before the 2015 general election.

The government spending watchdog's original 2013 report on Universal Credit exposed the scale of problems in the welfare reform programme.

Speaking at an event organised by IT trade body TechUK yesterday, the NAO’s executive leader for digital and innovation, Sally Howes, said it was likely the organisation would produce a further report on the progress of Universal Credit before the next election cycle starts.

Howes said the NAO’s previous report attempted only to “describe what was taking place” in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) project, rather than analysing the reasons for the problems it revealed.

The NAO has been highly critical of Universal Credit. Its 2013 report said that "throughout the programme the department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work".

The report revealed that as much as £40m of IT work was to be written off, with a further £91m planned to be written off over a five-year period.

A subsequent report on the DWP accounts, published in December 2013, said DWP “has to date not achieved value for the money it has incurred in the development of Universal Credit, and to do so in future it will need to learn the lessons of past failures.”

After the first NAO report, the Universal Credit project was “reset”, in favour of a new “twin-track” approach. In this method, the existing IT system would support the gradual roll-out of the new benefit, until a new “end-state” digital system is ready to replace it and the programme becomes live in 2017.

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves claimed this week that Universal Credit was “grinding to a halt” after new figures showed just 560 people started claiming Universal Credit in March compared to 630 in February and 1,010 in January. 

The total number of claimants is less than 6,000 so far, despite government promises in 2011 that more than one million people will be claiming the benefit by April 2014.

Despite continued secrecy around the project, the DWP has consistently said that the programme remains on track and will be completed on time and within budget.

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