Universal Credit uptake slows to lowest since infancy

The rollout of the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) troubled Universal Credit system has slowed to its lowest uptake since its infancy

The roll-out of the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) troubled Universal Credit system has slowed to its lowest uptake since its infancy.

In May 2014, only 540 people started claiming benefits through the Universal Credit system, which is designed to reform the welfare system and the way people claim benefits.

The last time uptake figures were this low was in the early days of roll-out. The system began rolling out to the public at the end of April 2013 in Ashton-under-Lyne.

In May and June 2013, 120 new claimants started on the system each month, while in July, 400 began claiming benefits on Universal Credit, which jumped to 780 and 890 in August and September respectively. These figures continued to rise with some slight troughs and in January 2014, Universal Credit saw 1,150 new claimants while February, March and April, saw 800, 760 and 610 new claimants respectively.

But this downwards trend has now continued, with a drop to 540 new claimants in May 2013.

Between April 2013 and the end of May 2014, 8,500 people had started claiming benefits through Universal Credit. Meanwhile, as of 31 May 2014, 6,570 people were on the Universal Credit system, meaning that around 2,000 people have used the system and stopped claiming benefits.

A DWP spokesperson said that since May, the roll-out of Universal Credit has expanded, but the growth in the last two months is not included in the latest statistics.

These statistics reflect the roll-out of Universal Credit to May 2014 and the first 10 job centres, and since then we have expanded the new benefit to 29 more job centres and started taking claims from couples too.

"Universal Credit is a vital reform that will simplify the myriad of benefits and make work pay and it is on track to roll out safely and securely against the plan set out last year,” they said.

The DWP said it expects 90 job centres out of more than 700 will be offering Universal Credit by the end of the year.

The areas with the highest number of claimants are Oldham (1,890), Wigan (1,250), Warrington (1,200) and Tameside (830), which reflect the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) decisions to begin roll-outs in the north-west of the country.

Gender breakdowns of new claimants to Universal Credit show that the majority are males, with a male to female ratio of around 7:3, while the majority of new claimants are under 25. According to the statistics from DWP, over 60% of the Universal Credit caseload on 31 May comprised younger people, under the age of 25.

The shadow work and pensions minister Rachel Reeves recently said in a speech on social security that it could take 1,222 years for Universal Credit to be rolled out across the country, taking us up to the year 3236.

There is little sign that ministers have a grip on Universal Credit. On 23rd June, Iain Duncan Smith said in the House of Commons that ‘there are, at the moment, around 11,000 people making those claims on universal credit'. But three weeks later the Department for Work and Pensions published monthly claimant figures for Universal Credit, which said 5,880 people were claiming the new benefit,” she said.

Troubled IT project

The IT project was under the spotlight for wasting £40.1m of IT work with a further £91m to be written off over a five-year period instead of 15 years as previously planned. This means that by the time Universal Credit is fully rolled out in 2017/2018, at least £131.1m of the planned £397m IT spend on the current system will have been thrown away.

Most of the overall decrease in budget appears to come from the change in approach that sees a new “end-state” digital solution being developed in parallel with enhancements to the existing system, which is currently being used to support the Pathfinder trials for Universal Credit. 

The National Audit Office (NAO) reported last September a catalogue of failures in leadership and project management, and a culture of secrecy and ignoring warnings within the DWP.

The IT system problems are so widespread that “the department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national roll-out” of Universal Credit, despite pilot schemes being underway since April 2014.

“The department will have to scale back its original delivery ambition and is reassessing what it must do to roll out Universal Credit to claimants,” said the NAO report last year.

Duncan Smith announced in December a new “twin-track” approach to resolve the IT problems.

Under the new plan, work continues on the widely criticised IT system developed to support the Pathfinder pilot projects for the new benefits scheme, while an entirely separate development takes place to produce a new “end-state” system – which will be the software that supports the full nationwide roll-out.

But the most immediate risk faced by the DWP is the lack of readily available skills in digital and agile development.

Back in December, the government also estimated that around 700,000 people will be moved over to Universal Credit after the 2017 deadline. But the DWP said between 6.5 and 7 million claimants will be on the new system by 2017.

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