Universal Credit has "not achieved value for money", warns NAO

More bad news for Duncan Smith as the National Audit Office says there are "considerable weaknesses" in the department's financial controls over the programme.

Conveniently for Iain Duncan Smith, this year's DWP accounts were not published to coincide with his appearance at the work and pensions select committee yesterday; some may say it's now clear why.

In the accounts, which have now been released, the National Audit Office states that Universal Credit has "not achieved value for money", noting that the DWP has written off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme "as it will never use them" and that "it also now expects to write down £91.0 million of the remaining assets to nil value by March 2018, due to the considerable reduction in their expected useful life." The head of the NAO comments: "While this is the appropriate accounting treatment, it should not detract from the underlying issue that the Department has spent £91.0 million on assets that will only support a limited service for 5 years, with clear consequences for public value." In addition, it notes that there were "considerable weaknesses" in the department’s financial controls over Universal Credit and that the "size and complexity" of the programme "stretched the Department’s capacity and capability". 

Here's the statement Margaret Hodge, the head of the public accounts committee, has issued on the "truly shocking" figures. 

In 2012-13, the Department for Work and Pensions had to write-off £40.1m for assets that were developed for the implementation of the universal credit system but which they will now never use. They now tell us they will also have to write-off another £91m of assets over the next five years.

Whilst these figures are truly shocking, I do not think we have heard the end of this matter and would not be surprised if further write-offs emerge over the coming period. It is deeply depressing that DWP has chosen to pour more money into the existing IT system in what seems like a short-term fix, rather than showing the confidence and foresight to come up with a solution that will truly stand the test of time.

Even for those people who transfer to the new benefit, the online system is currently not able to deal with issues like frequent changes of circumstances, claims if a couple splits up, or conditionality.

In more bad news for IDS, the report also shows that the amount of money lost to fraud and error in the benefits system has risen from £3.2bn (2% of the total budget) last year to £3.5bn (2.1%). Of this total, £700m (0.4%) was lost due to official error, £1.6bn (0.9%) to claimant error and £1.2bn (0.7%) to fraud. 

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the latter figure is lower than the amount lost last year due to benefit underpayments: £1.4bn (0.9%). But don't expect the DWP to publicise that in its briefings. 

Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.