pogonici - Fotolia

DWP blames policy changes for a further shift in Universal Credit rollout

A Public Accounts Committee hearing coincided with news that the DWP is delaying the rollout of Universal Credit

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) says that a change in scope has led the department to shift the goalposts of Universal Credit.

At a Public Accounts Committee hearing today, Neil Couling, director general, Universal Credit, DWP, said: “We have to work with the fact that the scope of the programme has increased. Changes are a mix of policy changes and timetable for Universal Credit.”

When asked about costs of the programme, Couling said the department had spent £1.16bn so far, based on £935m of investment plus £228.5m in operating costs.

Earlier today, Damien Green, the newly appointed secretary of state for work and pensions, issued a written statement to parliament outlining three major changes to the roll-out.

In the statement, Green said: “We will direct new claims from families with more than two children to Tax Credits until November 2018. Thereafter, new claims from families with more than two children will be taken through Universal Credit. Families already on Universal Credit who have a third child after April 2017 will remain on Universal Credit and receive two child elements.”

Second, he announced that the policy to remove the higher rate of child element for the first child in Universal Credit will only apply where the first child is born after 6 April 2017.

The third change concerns rolling Housing Benefit for pensioners into Pension Credit, which Wells said would be delayed until the completion of the Universal Credit timetable.

Read more about Universal Credit

It took four years, several appeals and the persistence of project manager John Slater for the DWP to release documents relating to its Universal Credit programme.

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.

He said regulations on treatment of surplus earnings and self-employed losses would now be implemented in April 2018.

Green also announced that five areas would go live with Universal Credit in January 2017, followed by a further six sites in March 2017.

In the statement Green said: “I believe this plan is the best way to ensure secure delivery of the government’s welfare reform priorities, increasing employment outcomes and supporting claimants at an affordable cost for the taxpayer.”

Universal Credits promises to save the government more than £20bn. But when asked about why the roll-out could not be done  quicker, to enable the government to see the benefits sooner, Couling said: “I don’t think there is a safer way to do this.”

Earlier in the hearing, questions were raised by the committee on how the continuous rollout of software affected staff. Functionality is being added every two weeks and some staff have complained that they are not getting adequate training.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, Universal Credit has been rolled out to new job seekers nationally. But the IT system being used will mostly be thrown away before the scheme is fully implemented.

A recent Freedom of Information request showed that the programme has been beset with problems since 2012, but senior figures continued to publicly state that the project was on time and on budget.

Read more on IT for government and public sector