The government is to roll-out a limited version of its controversial Universal Credit welfare reform nationwide, starting in February 2015.
The plan is a dramatic acceleration for availability of the new benefit scheme, which as recently as May had slowed to its lowest adoption rate since soon after it was first launched in April 2013.
The nationwide roll-out will only cover new claims from single jobseekers – the simplest of benefit types – which so far has been offered in just 50 jobcentres, with a further expansion to nearly 100 due by Christmas. There are about 700 jobcentres in the UK, and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said that new claims to legacy (non-Universal Credit) benefits will be stopped nationally for single people by 2016.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith also announced that the previous project chief, Howard Shiplee, was standing down as director general for Universal Credit, to be replaced as senior responsible owner by Neil Couling, the DWP executive in charge of jobcentres.
Shiplee has been suffering from ill health for some time, and has not been able to work full-time on the project since the start of the year. He is now taking on a “non-executive and advisory role” on the programme. Couling will be the seventh leader of the Universal Credit project since its inception in 2012.
The accelerated roll-out will be using the much-criticised IT system developed for the initial Pathfinder pilot phase of Universal Credit. Some £40m of work on the IT system had to be thrown away after problems in its early stages, and a further £90m will be written off before Universal Credit is fully rolled out to all benefit claimants, due to take place by 2018.
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A new digital system is currently being developed by DWP, which will be used to underpin the full roll-out. Testing of this system, designed to cater for all types of benefits, is due to start later this year.
“We are going to accelerate the delivery of Universal Credit from the new year, bringing forward the national rollout through 2015/16 to every single community across Great Britain. Universal Credit is going nationwide. I promise you we are going to finish what we started,” said Duncan Smith.
So far, 26,000 people have applied for Universal Credit – mostly single people, the simplest type of claimant to process. More complex claims, such as couples and families, are being trialled in a limited number of jobcentres.
A National Audit Office report in September last year revealed a catalogue of failures in leadership and project management on Universal Credit, and a culture of secrecy and ignoring warnings within the DWP. Duncan Smith has since repeatedly insisted that the department has learned its lessons from those original problems and that the project is back on track.