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PAC criticises Universal Credit programme for lack of transparency

Public Accounts Committee report slates lack of transparency around Universal Credit and calls for specific plans for the roll out of the digital service to be made public

The lack of clear milestones for the roll-out of the Universal Credit digital service creates uncertainty, according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The national roll-out of the Universal Credit digital service will begin in May 2016 onwards, starting with five job centres a month, as previously reported by Computer Weekly. This will then increase to 50 centres a month once it’s confident “the system can cope with the higher volume”.

The roll-out will only be completed in March 2021, which puts the completion date six months later than previously planned.

“The Office for Budget Responsibility also forecasts a further six-month delay to the full implementation of Universal Credit,” the report said.

The report also criticised the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for having “not yet shared its digital service roll out plans with local authorities or other delivery partners”.

“The lack of specific and timely plans for digital service roll-out – and only being able to say that roll-out will happen ‘soon’ – not only affects local authorities, it also creates uncertainty for claimants and those whom they turn to for advice,” the report said.

“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the DWP to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays.”

According to a report by the Major Projects Authority, the total lifetime costs of the programme will be £15.8bn

DWP must provide clearer information

In a PAC hearing in December 2015, the DWP was heavily criticised for its lack of milestones available in the public domain, which meant that the committee and the general public had no way of knowing if the programme was going well or not.

“The programme’s lack of clear and specific milestones creates uncertainty for claimants, advisers and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the department to account,” the report said.

The PAC recommends that the DWP puts in place several milestones, such as criteria for “each tranche of transfers to the digital service and plans for integration testing and remediation of systems”.

It also calls for specific plans for closing current systems and processes and the end of migration from live to digital service.

Chair of the public accounts committee Meg Hillier said that the DWP has to provide clear information on the programme.

“The lack of transparency surrounding a programme with such wide-reaching implications for so many people is completely unacceptable,” she said.

Concerns over delay of government programmes

Universal Credit intends to replace six existing benefits. The DWP aimed to finish rolling out a limited version of the system by the end of 2015, but only targeting the simplest of claims and using an IT system that will mostly be thrown away once the digital service has been completed.

The digital version supports a wider range of applicants – including more complex cases – and is being developed in-house by DWP’s team.

The PAC also calls on the DWP to set out the main risks to the programme and which contingencies are in place should something go wrong.

“The department’s contingency plan for problems with the digital service is to delay the programme further, which may increase costs. If problems arise, the Department will adjust how fast and how far it rolls out the digital service,” the report said.

In particular, HM Treasury has asked the department for contingencies should there be delays with other systems the programme depends on, such as Gov.uk Verify, the identification verification scheme run by the Government Digital Service.

The concerns come as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has had problems using Verify for its Common Agricultural Policy – CAP online service, which allows farmers to submit information about how land is used to claim subsidies under CAP. 

Read more about the Universal Credit roll-out

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