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Universal Credit “reset”: was there an attempt to bury the bad news?

Low expectations remain for the government's flagship welfare reform as a watchdog deems it a high risk of failure. Was the report deliberately released amid coverage of the local elections to avoid bad publicity?

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

After chronic delays, multi-million pound write-offs and the emergence of major design flaws, Universal Credit was hit last week by the latest missile in the fusillade of bad publicity that has beset it. And more could be on the way. All of which prompts the question: what happens to the ambitious IT system now?

Last Friday, the Major Projects Authority (MPA) released its annual assessment of the Government’s major infrastructure projects, in which it scrapped Universal Credit’s former amber/red status – reflecting its high risk of failure – and instead labelled it “reset”.

It is the first time a major project has received this curious classification. It signals that the original plan for the pioneering IT system, which aimed to simplify and digitise the British welfare system, has been modified in scope and nature to such an extent as to designate it an entirely new project altogether.

The MPA report only deals with this worrying new classification in a page 12 footnote: "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."

Eyebrows have been raised at the report’s timing too. Critics in SW1 have noted that the report, thought to have been ready for days, was finally published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the midst of local election coverage, leading to accusations of a botched attempt to bury the bad news.

The DWP’s current woes over Universal Credit do not stop with last week’s report, however. The department is allegedly fighting to block the publication of four reports that contain further indictments of the system.

According to Politics.co.uk, the DWP has appealed against a series of information tribunal rulings in a bid to prevent the release of risk register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review documents. The department has claimed that release of the publications, which contain “candid” and “imaginative pessimism” about Universal Credit, would have a “chilling effect” on the project’s progress.

Given the latest setbacks, what are the realistic prospects for Universal Credit? The horizon hardly looks promising in the near future. DWP spokespeople continue to confirm that the project is “making progress” and recently announced that it is being rolled out to job centres across the North West from next month. Unfortunately the exact timescales for the regional, let alone nationwide, rollouts are unavailable, according to a department spokesperson, as were projections of the number of likely users of Universal Credit by the end of the summer.

Confidence is further undermined by the DWP’s insistence that the scheme is “on track”, as a spokesperson told me yesterday. In fact it was supposed to be rolled-out nationwide last October – three years after the Government released its white paper on welfare reform – with a million users predicted by April 2014. As of February this year, however, only 6,000 claimants had used Universal Credit according to DWP figures.

Despite Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith assuring Parliament that the project was “proceeding exactly in accordance with plans” last March, the true severity of the troubles surrounding the project emerged a month later.

The soft launch of the scheme was radically scaled back last April. Three areas postponed their trial, while Tameside Council, the only participant, expected only 300 people to claim Universal Credit. The cautious trial was limited to those claiming only Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) – just one out of more than 30 types of benefit – and only single claimants at that. This summer’s extension of the scheme in the North West will now see couples, as well as singles, able to claim JSA.

Initially, there was enthusiasm for the project across the political spectrum, but the government’s ability to deliver it has lead to widespread criticism in the past year. In addition to censure from the Office for National Statistics and the Public Accounts Committee, Labour has repeatedly raised concerns about the scheme’s continuing problems. Last week Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves urged the Prime Minister to “urgently get a grip of this failing policy before any more taxpayers money is wasted”.

She added: “The fact that Universal Credit was the only one of the 200 projects assessed by the Major Projects Authority to have been singled out is extremely concerning. It's increasingly clear that Universal Credit is lurching from one crisis to another with incompetent ministers failing to deliver the savings they promised.”

Despite the criticism, Labour is still keen to see Universal Credit, or at least some form of the scheme, succeed. The Government conceded last November that its flagship welfare reform will not meet its 2015 deadline. While initially 1.7 million people were expected to be on Universal Credit by then, now there will be just a handful.

In response to queries, a DWP spokesman told the New Statesman yesterday: "The reset is not new but refers to the shift in the delivery plan and change in management back in early 2013.

"The reality is that Universal Credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way... Jobseekers in other areas are already benefiting from some of its positive impacts through help from a work coach, more digital facilities in jobcentres, and a written agreement setting out what they will do to find work."