Why watchdogs are warning that councils need more time and information to make digital delivery of Universal Credit a success.
A progress report on the Universal Credit programme is likely be cold comfort for local government IT chiefs charged with implementing the flagship online-only scheme.
The Department for Work and Pensions has told the parliament’s influential Public Accounts Committee that Universal Credit will be rolled out across more than 100 local authority areas during the next financial year.
And the department expects that by June 2018 all 381 local authorities will be involved in the digital delivery of the new welfare system, combining six existing benefits – including housing benefit – into one.
A huge issue for local government, according to the committee’s report published on 3 February 2016, is that the DWP has failed to share its digital service roll-out plans with them.
The committee learned that the DWP is in ‘discussion’ with councils where digital services for Universal Credit are likely to implemented in 2016-17. But the department has admitted that, in some cases, local authorities will have less than six months to prepare for what will be sweeping digital reforms.
“The lack of specific and timely plans for digital service roll-out, and only being able to say instead 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 MPs say.
In his evidence to the committee James Bowler, director general of tax and welfare at the Treasury, spoke about the risks involved in the programme and highlighted the need for the DWP to work closely with councils.
“This is a massive project that will continue to be rolled out and there continue to be risks,” he told the MPs.
“We have asked the DWP to focus on certain areas to ensure that we look to manage those risks … such as the need to ensure that the DWP works closely with local authorities, particularly with the more complex cases. Local authorities have on-the-ground experience of dealing with complex housing benefit cases.”
And he warned: “They (the DWP) haven’t consulted with local authorities about how it’s going to work on the ground.”
The Local Government Association has been positive about the shift from the current complex benefit system to Universal Credit, with its aim of providing a single streamlined payment that is flexible and can accommodate changes in personal circumstances.
But its local support services framework for Universal Credit says that the day to day management of locally identified risks is likely to be the responsibility of local staff and not the DWP.
Additionally, it says that a survey of existing claimants found that although 78% already use the internet, only a small proportion use it to make benefit transactions.
A further complication, identified by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is the decision to leave council tax support as a separate benefit, designed and administered by local authorities. It will mean that some individuals may still need to interact with HMRC to deal with any income tax or National Insurance issues.
“This complicates the overall system and potentially reintroduces some of the very high benefit withdrawal rates that Universal Credit would otherwise have abolished entirely,” says the IFS in a report published on 3 February 2016.
Meanwhile the Public Accounts Committee wants local authorities to be given more time to prepare for Universal Credit. And it is calling on the DWP to publish a ‘set of clearly stated milestones’ by May 2016, which must include plans for different claimant groups, local authority areas and for the development and use of the new systems.
Perhaps the MPs’ call will be heeded and councils will get the lead-in time they need. But a side effect could be further delays to a programme which has already been pushed back several times.
There are those who are sceptical that it will ever be fully implemented. Frank Field, the Birkenhead MP and former government ‘poverty tsar’, told the House of Commons: “To be truthful but gentle about Universal Credit, its progress is very modest … at some stage somebody in government has to look at how slow the progress of rollout has been and question whether a full flowering will ever see the light of day.”