The digital service for Universal Credit is set to start testing with benefit claimants in Sutton, south London, in the next two months.
The system, which recently passed a key development milestone, had always been scheduled for an initial public test in Autumn 2014, but the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now confirmed where the trial will take place.
“We will commence the controlled testing of our enhanced digital service for Universal Credit in a limited postcode area in Sutton, south London, this Autumn. This will test the full scope of Universal Credit, beginning with a small number of claimants,” said a spokeswoman.
So far, Universal Credit has only been offered to people with the simplest of claims – single people without children and who do not own a home – and has only recently been tested for the first time with couples and parents.
Only 100 of 700 job centres are expected to be offering Universal Credit to relevant new claimants by the end of the 2014, although a nationwide roll-out for simple claims is due to start in February 2015. The DWP originally intended for one million people to claim Universal Credit by April 2014.
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The digital service will eventually replace the system being used for claimants so far and, when it is tested in public, it will be the first time that more complex benefit claims will be used. In a recently published progress report on the controversial welfare reform programme, the DWP said the digital system will offer “enhanced features and functionality” over the current IT.
“For example, enabling households to report changes online as well as via existing phone and face-to-face channels; and enabling households to make changes to their Claimant Commitment to-do list online, with face-to-face support remaining available, especially for those who need extra help,” said the report.
“The digital service builds on the experience of and learning from the Universal Credit service currently operating, and makes use of key assets already developed overall. The digital service will increase the efficiency of the existing service and improve value for money.”
Early IT development for Universal Credit was beset by problems. By the time the welfare programme is fully rolled out, it will have scrapped at least £130m of IT development work.
Under the original plans, all claimants were expected to be on Universal Credit by 2017/18. The DWP has now said all new claimants will be on the system by 2017 – leaving open the question of when existing benefit recipients will be transferred.