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DWP knew of Universal Credit problems in mid-2012 despite insisting all was well

Documents released after a four-year legal battle show that DWP officials knew of problems with Universal Credit in 2012 despite insisting it was on time and budget

Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) knew by mid-2012 of issues with Universal Credit that could cause the welfare reform to be delayed and run over budget, and yet continued to insist for at least a year that the controversial project was not experiencing problems.

The status of the programme in 2012 has been revealed by documents released under freedom of information (FoI) laws after a four-year legal battle by independent project manager John Slater. DWP had argued in court that the risk register and issues log should be kept secret, until a tribunal in March 2016 ruled they should be released.

The Universal Credit issues log shows reviews conducted in the first week of May 2012 that raised warnings over a lack of resources, commercial arrangements and costs.

The document says that a “resource shortfall” means that skilled staff were “not in the right place at the right time”, which was flagged as a “red” status warning.

“Lack of skilled resource will affect successful delivery of the Universal Credit programme to planned timescales,” said the issues log, with a review date of 3 May 2012.

A red warning was also given to commercial issues. “Commercial activity and processes required to support contractual deliverables are affecting the programme’s capability to deliver,” it said, also reviewed on 3 May 2012.

Among the actions proposed to resolve this issue were the need to replace the security team working on Universal Credit, and a warning that “all commercial key areas are affected”.

Cost problems were raised as an “amber/red” status warning: “A number of areas are pushing above the programme funding envelope for SR10 [Spending Review 2010]. As a result, the UC Programme Business Case may be affected,” said the issues log.

The actions proposed for resolution included targeting sign-off for the business case by July 2012. The Strategic Outline Business Case for Universal Credit was finally approved by HM Treasury in September 2014. The Full Business Case is not due to be approved until the end of 2017.

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The 2012 issues log also flags “amber” status problems with quality assurance: “There is not a robust framework of assurance across the programme. As a result, we may be building in rework at a later point in time if we subsequently identify that our products (IT and business) and processes do not meet the required level of quality, policy and strategic intent, and are not fit for purpose,” it said.

In September 2013, a highly-critical National Audit Office (NAO) report revealed that at least £130m of IT work would have to be written off by the time Universal Credit finally goes fully live.

The issues log also details a number of proposed resolutions to the problems highlighted, but it is not clear from the document which of those were subsequently completed. The documents represent a snapshot of the project at a particular point in time.

The DWP pointed out that the documents are nearly four years old and said they have no bearing on how the programme is running today. The department said the documents demonstrate staff actively thinking through and managing potential problems or risks to the programme on a daily basis.

"Universal Credit is revolutionising the welfare system and this type of planning is normal and sensible for a project of this scale. These documents are nearly four years old and out of date. The reality is Universal Credit will be available in every jobcentre across the country by the end of the month and claimants are moving into work quicker and earning more than under the old system," said a DWP spokesperson.

Problems and delays

Despite the warnings over cost and timescales in 2012, DWP officials and ministers continued to state that Universal Credit was on time and budget until the NAO report in September 2013 revealed that the project had been “reset” that year to address the numerous technical problems and delays.

In November 2012, DWP responded to reports of problems caused by software issues by telling Computer Weekly: “Universal Credit will be rolled out nationally from October 2013 as planned, and we’ve been clear that people will come onto the new benefit gradually. We are bound by the budget we have been set, and remain on track to deliver Universal Credit within that budget.”

In July 2013, the then director general of the programme, Howard Shiplee, told the Work and Pensions Select Committee that reports of problems with the project were not true. “The existing systems that we have are working, and working effectively,” he told members of Parliament at the time.

National roll-out

The national roll-out of Universal Credit finally started in February 2015, but using an IT system that will largely be replaced by the time the programme is fully live for all benefit claimants. A new, digital system for Universal Credit is currently being trialled in a few London locations, ready for national roll-out to begin in May 2016.

Universal Credit is likely to be in place for all benefit claimants by 2019. A programme plan for the project in April 2012 – released in 2015 as part of John Slater’s FoI campaign – showed that the DWP was at that time targeting a “go-live” date of 28 October 2013.

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