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May 23, 2014

Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit project gets ‘reset’

Major Projects Authority says benefits reform needs to be delivered on “more secure footing”.

By Joe Curtis

The IT project to deliver the Government’s Universal Credit scheme to reorganise the welfare system has gone so badly that it’s not even been given the worst rating in an yearly review, instead getting its very own "reset" category.

The Major Projects Authority (MPA) buried its assessment of the benefits revamp in a footnote on page 12 of its annual progress report on 199 major infrastructure projects published today (Friday 23rd May).

The projects were judged on a traffic light scale of their likelihood of completion, but the Universal Credit project was deemed bad enough for its own category, following major IT problems.

The footnote reads: "The ‘reset’ category has been applied to the Universal Credit project. We have undertaken significant work to develop a ‘reset plan’ to place the roll-out of Universal Credit on a more secure footing, and the ‘reset’ DCA [delivery confidence assessment] reflects this new status of the project."

Universal Credit has come to define the work of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), overseen by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, MP, as the body tries to simplify six benefits systems into one, but it has been plagued by costly IT issues.

However, a spokeswoman for the DWP today told CBR that the scheme "is on track".

She claimed the reset category referred to Duncan Smith’s announcement in December 2013, when he admitted the project was unlikely to hit its original 2017 deadline and announced an "enhanced IT system" for the scheme.

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Universal Credit is currently meeting those targets for deployment in 10 areas across the UK during spring 2014, according to the DWP, and, as of February (the latest available figures), 6,000 people were using it to claim.

The department is set to begin rolling out the project in the north-west of England next month.

"The priority for us is we are rolling it out slowly and securely," the spokeswoman said. "We have said the vast majority of [benefits] payments will be through Universal Credit by 2017."

But watchdogs and committees have accused the department for being coy about IT problems the project has experienced in the past.

In December 2013 the National Audit Office said that IT issues cost taxpayers £91m more than the £41m estimated by the DWP.

And in November the Public Accounts Committee estimated that the project has much of the £425m then spent on it.

The MPA’s report found that more than half the 31 projects listed in last year’s report as amber/red or red in the MPA’s traffic light ranking system have since improved.

They include the DWP’s Benefit Cap, which limits the total amount of benefit money people of working age can receive to ensure they do not receive more than the average weekly wage.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in a foreword for the report: "We have made significant progress. This year, half of the projects with the most significant challenges improved, while our work to develop our people has meant we are relying less on costly consultants. "Delivering major projects will never be easy – they are some of the biggest and most complex things the government will do. But we must not pretend problems don’t exist."

Universal Credit is currently overseen by Director General Howard Shiplee, whose contract expires in May next year.

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