Just ahead of the bank holiday weekend – and just as parliament went into recess – the DWP put out a press release which announced that three out of the four planned local trials of Universal Credit would be delayed for three months and that the trial in April would start in just one Job Centre.
New applications for benefits in Ashton-under-Lyne will be given Universal Credit while applicants in Wigan, Warrington and Oldham will get the new benefit from July. The rest of the country will supposedly join them in October. This looks unlikely, though, given that £500 million computer system required for Universal Credit is not ready and the DWP have been forced to admit that applications during the early trials will be processed manually using spreadsheets. Given that the complex computer system is absolutely essential to Universal Credit this is astonishing and renders the trial pointless.
Universal Credit requires an unprecedented level of IT integration. It pulls together information from multiple benefits and the tax system. Universal Credit will be dependent on real-time pay and tax information from HM Revenue and Customs but HMRC RTI is a massive project in its own right with its own major problems. It places strenuous requirements on employers and self employed people to report earnings continuously and is unlikely to go off smoothly on the 6th of April. We may end up in a situation where HMRC chase employers to report only for those claiming Universal Credit (Which is anyone claiming housing benefit or tax credits, not just those not in work) which may lead to employers considering those people as more trouble than they are worth to employ. If employers fail to report earnings properly then benefit overpayments, underpayments and benefit stoppages are likely to be the result for those on low incomes.
There were signs of trouble for Universal Credit in February when David Pitchford was appointed new head of the project. Pitchford is known for being brought in to rescue failing IT projects. Even worse, it seems that staff at six IT suppliers have stopped work on the system. When confronted about this minister for work and pensions Mark Hoban only issued a statement from HP that they still working on it – HP wasn’t one of the six suppliers mentioned in the question so this is hardly encouraging.
Also mentioned in the DWP press release is the fact that Job Centres preparing for Universal Credit will be “ensuring all new JSA and UC claimants are automatically signed on to Universal Jobmatch”. Universal Jobmatch is the flawed online job listing service from the DWP that when it is not busy getting you to sign up to fake jobs or handing over your details to scammers will automatically report back to the DWP about which jobs you look at and demand to know why you haven’t applied for particular jobs. It is not known if “because it is hundreds of miles away” or “because I am not remotely qualified for it” are acceptable answers but they are common ones. Yet more proof of the incompetence of government IT projects, as if we needed it.
Given that Universal Credit is such a massive upheaval and replaces so many benefits if it fails after starting it will cause misery for millions of people, potentially leading to homelessness and starvation. The social fund and emergency loans are also in turmoil so there is no safety net. Given that the government refuse to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reform their failure to take real life into account in implementing Universal Credit is not surprising but it is terrifying.