Benefits reform under threat after IT glitch
National roll-out of flagship policy delayed by at least a year as costs soar and key personnel quit
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Sunday 11 November 2012
The Government's flagship reform of Britain's welfare system, which is being piloted by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, has been placed on a Treasury list of projects in crisis, The Independent on Sunday has learned.
Despite assurances from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that universal credit will be rolled out on time and on budget, its national launch – scheduled for October next year – will now be limited to small regional projects. Sources within the DWP have told The IoS that a realistic national roll-out – regardless of the department's public assurances – is already a year behind schedule amid fears that "technical issues over computer software" could push that back further.
Senior DWP staff working on the project are understood to have reported concerns to their Treasury counterparts. The issue was a factor in Mr Duncan Smith remaining at the DWP during the recent Cabinet reshuffle.
A government adviser on information technology said: "IDS, like other ministers before him, has been hypnotised by promises of what an online system can deliver. Warnings were given to him more than a year ago. They were ignored."
Universal credit has a development budget of £2bn. It is supposed to be a paperless online IT system for claimants that would bridge the DWP's data with the Treasury. Six separate benefits are to be combined into one payment.
However, the project, according to senior Whitehall sources, is already suffering a £100m overrun. There are also concerns that a further £300m is being hidden by rising costs reallocated to child support payments.
A reorganisation of the complex IT system, following the departure this month of key senior civil servants in charge of universal credit, could mean an overrun of £500m by next spring.
Universal credit potentially affects 19 million people in the UK. Failure to deliver the reforms because of expensive IT errors and design flaws will be deeply embarrassing for David Cameron.
The last Labour government was estimated to have wasted £26bn in botched IT projects, which included the national programme for the NHS and the fiasco over the national identity card scheme. Mr Cameron – when in opposition – promised a move away from big IT projects.
Mr Duncan Smith has claimed the current benefit system was broken, trapped people in welfare dependency, and was not fit for purpose. In its place, the former leader of the Conservative Party wanted a system that claimants will manage themselves through online accounts. Those without computers or internet skills would use high-street outlets or telephone services.
The programme's director, Malcolm Whitehouse, and the DWP's head of IT, Steve Dover, last week announced they would be leaving the department. The senior civil servant on the project was described as being "on extended sick leave". Other key personnel have also left.
Six pilot projects that are currently testing direct payment of benefits to tenants in housing associations have reported errors including the wrong amount of money being sent on the wrong date. The IoS has been told that one project involving just 400 claimants initially proved chaotic. When fully implemented, universal credit would need to deal with almost five million housing-benefit claimants a year.
The staff changes were played down by a DWP spokeswoman. She said: "The programme is moving from design to delivery and these personnel changes are quite normal." However she did not know if Mr Whitehouse or Mr Dover and others were hired knowing they would ask to leave in late 2012. "I have no idea what their contracts were," she said.
Fears that the project was over budget were also dismissed. "Universal credit is on time and on budget. It will be delivered in a controlled way, starting in April 2013 in Manchester and Cheshire, to ensure it is fully tested before being rolled out nationally from October 2013."
Labour's work and pensions spokesman, Liam Byrne, said yesterday: "Universal credit is in danger of descending into total chaos. Iain Duncan Smith's flagship scheme is late and over budget, top officials are heading for the hills and no one seems to believe the massive IT system is on track. Ministers must take urgent action before it becomes a multibillion-pound disaster."
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Perez Hilton apologises for publishing Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak
Jennifer Lawrence 'nude photo hacker' claims there are hundreds more celebrity images to come
Victoria Justice on naked photo leak: 'Let me nip this in the bud right now – pun intended'
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
Ariana Grande nude photos leak: Pictures are completely fake, say singer's representatives
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage
£80 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Permanent post for a Key stag...
£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Geography Teacher urgently ...
£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...
£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...