Universal Credit Full Service is now available in every jobcentre across the UK, after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) completed the roll-out.
The department began deploying the “full service” countrywide in May 2016, covering the entire complexity of the scheme to replace six different in-work welfare benefits with a single payment.
DWP chief digital and information officer (CDIO) Mayank Prakash told Computer Weekly the roll-out of the full service to more than 700 jobcentres nationwide had been completed today (12 December).
“It’s done,” he said. “We have finished the national roll-out.”
Prakash added that this was “the result of over 100 releases as a result of agile, digital product development, delivering every fortnight, and now often every week, iterating to get better”.
The roll-out is a milestone for the troubled Universal Credit (UC) programme, which has suffered criticism and struggles.
The UC programme first began in 2010, before a restart at the end of 2013/early 2014 when DWP began rolling out the new benefits system in stages. By the end of 2015, it had rolled out a limited version of the system, referred to as the “live service”, but targeting only the simplest of claims and using an IT system run by external providers that was rarely updated.
The full service roll-out means any new benefits claims will be processed through the new digital system. However, those on legacy benefits and tax credit claimants, whose situations have yet to change, will be subject to a “managed migration”, which is expected to begin in July 2019 and completed by March 2023, according to a House of Commons briefing paper on UC.
Despite delays, DWP’s business case, which was published in June 2018, claims that UC remains “deliverable, affordable and provides value for money, with a net present value of £34bn” over 10 years, generating £8bn in economic value. However, the National Audit Office (NAO) is sceptical.
In a report published in June 2018, it added that the department had got a “better grip” on the programme, but that the value of money could not be judged on the “current state of programme management alone”.
Verification and digital skills hurdles
There have also been issues with claimants making online applications through the digital system.
It is designed to rely on the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) Gov.uk Verify identity assurance system when claimants make their applications online, but this has not gone as smoothly as planned. In January 2018, Computer Weekly revealed that most claimants were unable to use Verify successfully, which means Jobcentre staff still need to manually check people’s identities.
The NAO put the figure of claimants able to confirm their identity at 38%. Speaking to Computer Weekly last month, Cheryl Stevens, deputy director of identity and trust services at DWP, admitted UC was achieving a lower success rate than Verify’s 44% average.
This means that perhaps as many as 60% of claimants need a face-to-face session at a jobcentre. Observers can only speculate at the extra costs associated with staff, time and resources for DWP in setting up 60% of users manually, instead of the originally anticipated 90% use of Verify.
Another issue has been around digital skills. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has raised concerns over UC and its digital approach. In his report, published in November 2018, he said there was a belief within DWP that claimants are online and digitally skilled, which completely contradicts view from some officials and organisations.
He added that although job centres offer online access, he found there was very little digital assistance available “and official policy is to keep ‘face-to-face’ help at a minimum”, again putting the digitally excluded at a disadvantage.
Alston’s report also highlighted problems with the process of data collection in UC: “The collection of data via the online application process and interactions with the online journal provide a clear stepping stone for further automation within DWP.”
Benefits are automatically calculated through information DWP receives from HMRC on earnings. However, Alston highlighted the potential for automation errors, which could have a huge impact on claimants.
“Because the default position of DWP is to give the automated system the benefit of the doubt, claimants often have to wait for weeks to get paid the proper amount, even when they have written proof that the system was wrong,” his report said.
Despite concerns, DWP has remained steadfast in its plans to roll out the new benefits system.
Read more about Universal Credit
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- Government plans to plough on with Universal Credit, despite calls to pause the project as people struggle to make claims.
- National Audit Office is uncertain DWP’s flagship benefits reform programme, Universal Credit, will ever achieve value for money, but says it’s too late to turn back.