Parliament has been warned that digital infrastructure needed to support Universal Credit will not be “fully operational” for another five years as the Department for Work and Pensions battles to get the new service working.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it was “disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department [of Work and Pensions] to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays”.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said: “The lack of transparency surrounding a programme with such wide-reaching implications for so many people is completely unacceptable.”
The estimated completion date for the roll-out of the Universal Credit digital service looks set to be six months later compared to when the committee looked at the programme last year. Universal Credit aims to combine benefits such as employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit, and housing benefit into a single payment.
“This is because it will start by rolling out the digital service to five Jobcentre Plus offices a month, and only increase this to 50 offices a month when it is confident the system can cope with the higher volume,” said the report.
“The end date for migrating all claimants onto Universal Credit is now March 2021.The Office for Budget Responsibility, however, forecasts a further six-month delay to the managed migration phase of Universal Credit roll out,” it added.
The report added that in 2014 the DWP estimated that every six-month delay reduces the programme’s benefits by £2.3 billion.
The committee said such delays will postpone the programme’s expected benefits and that delays relating to the digital service, in particular, may increase costs. The DWP was forced to “reset” Universal Credit in 2013 and now has in place a twin-track approach which sees it developing a new digital Universal Credit service while implementing a national roll out of existing technologies.
But the committee said that there were milestones for the programme’s implementation, which it said create “uncertainty for claimants, advisers, and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the department to account”.
It said the DWP should “set out and report publicly against a wider set of clearly stated milestones”
“The DWP appears either unable or unwilling to level with Parliament and the public about Universal Credit,” said Hillier.
“This lack of clarity creates needless uncertainty for claimants and those tasked with running the programme. It’s also an unnecessary obstacle to Parliament and taxpayers holding the government to account.”
She said it was also worrying hat the approved business case for the programme has not been updated to take account of the Spending Review and Autumn Statement.
“If taxpayers are to have any faith in what is already a complex and controversial project then the department must provide clear information about the impact of these factors and the roll-out of the programme as a whole.”