Universal Credit

Estimates 2014-15 — Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:46 pm on 7th July 2014.

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[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2013-14, Universal Credit implementation: monitoring DWP’s performance in 2012-13, HC 1209 and the Government response, HC 426.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2015, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £45,438,318,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1233 of Session 2013-14,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £74,721,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £44,850,071,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(John Penrose.)

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 5:56 pm, 7th July 2014

Universal credit is a major welfare reform. It will eventually replace tax credits and most existing working-age benefits, including out-of-work benefits and housing benefit. It is estimated that, by the time it is fully implemented, universal credit—or UC, as it has now become known—will be paid to 7.7 million households, and we hope that that will be the case.

During last week’s debate on work and pensions, I said that the problem with welfare reform was that it was devilishly complex, took a long time to implement, and always had unintended consequences. I think that all three of those things apply to universal credit. We can agree that its design should bring some advantages. It should improve the position of claimants when they move into work or take on more work, because their benefit will be reduced gradually on the basis of how much they earn, rather than suddenly being cut off if their working hours exceed a certain limit. It should remove many of the “cliff edges” that exist in the current system. Because it is both an in-work and an out-of-work benefit, it will remove the constant applying and reapplying for different benefits as someone moves in and out of work.

However, it is wrong to talk about UC’s “simplifying the benefits system”, because that is not possible to any significant extent. The benefits system is complex because people’s lives are complex, and are constantly changing. UC will be a more streamlined system, but it will not be a simple one. That is clear from the problems that have been encountered in efforts to implement it. The national roll-out of new UC claims was due to take place between October 2013 and April this year. Existing claimants of “legacy benefits”, including jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and housing benefit, would then be migrated to UC between April 2014 and the end of 2017. However, problems with IT systems meant that major changes to the implementation timetable were made in July 2013, and then again in December last year. That slowed down the process dramatically.

UC claims were introduced on a very small scale from April last year in a few jobcentres in Greater Manchester, which were initially called “pathfinders” but are now referred to by the Department for Work and Pensions as “live service sites”. In the event, national roll-out from last October amounted to the expansion of new UC claims to only a further six jobcentres around Britain, and it has recently been expanded again to a further nine sites in the north-west, bringing the total number of jobcentres where UC is available to 19, less than 3% of the jobcentre network—hardly a national roll-out.

New claims to UC are now not expected to be extended to the whole of Great Britain until 2016 and the bulk of existing claimants will not be moved on to UC until 2016-17. The process will not be completed until later than the original target date of 2017.

The Secretary of State brushes aside any criticism of the very small number of people who are on UC by arguing that the Government are

“taking a careful and controlled approach to achieve a safe and secure delivery.”—[Hansard, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 645.]

I think we would all agree that it is right to ensure that the system works properly before extending it, but, as the Work and Pensions Committee said, there is a difference between cautious progress and a snail’s pace.

The facts are clear. Since UC started in April last year fewer than 7,000 claims have been processed. By comparison, more than 1 million people claim just jobseeker’s allowance. In January this year alone, there were almost 250,000 new jobseeker’s allowance claims. That is how much churn there is in the system. Almost all the 7,000 UC claims are from people in the simplest circumstances: young, single, and usually recently unemployed. Last week, 15 months after UC began, claims from couples started to be accepted—but only in a handful of the live service sites. We have been told that claims from people with children will begin “later in the summer”. We all know what Parliament’s timetables are like and we wonder when “summer” actually is, so can the Minister give us an idea of what “summer” means in this context?

Achieving only that tiny number of claims to date illustrates the scale of the challenge still facing the Government in trying to replace existing working-age benefits and tax credits with UC by 2017, including migrating all the claimants of the relevant existing benefits over to it. Given the excruciatingly slow pace of roll-out to date, it is hard to see how the target date can be met.

To put this into context, the other new benefit which has had its implementation slowed down is the personal independence payment, although even PIP has more new claims in payment than UC. By March this year 83,900 PIP decisions had been made, which is far higher than for UC, and that involves a smaller cohort and has been done in a shorter time scale. In our report, we asked the DWP to set out its revised estimates of UC caseloads and costs for each year to 2017-18, to reassure Parliament and the public that there is a clear and detailed revised implementation plan. The Government’s response to our report did not include any of that information.

The problems with implementing UC arise largely from failure to get the IT right. Problems with Government IT systems have happened so frequently that they have almost become a cliché, but the UC IT challenge seems especially difficult to tackle and to be throwing up particular challenges. Some £40 million in IT expenditure had to be written off in 2012-13, and a further £90 million is being “written down” in five years instead of 15 because the useful life of the software is much shorter than anticipated. That may seem like an accounting detail, but it shows that the use of public money has not been cost-effective to date, and a great deal more public money is at stake in the UC programme.

The Government’s current approach to the IT problems is to continue to spend millions of pounds—between £37 million and £58 million—on the old IT system during 2014 to extend its functionality so that it can cope with a wider range of claimants in the live service sites. At the same time, extensive sums are being spent on developing IT for the long term. That has had various names and various incarnations: first it was called “the digital solution”, then “the end-state solution”, and the latest terminology seems to be the “enhanced digital service”. Unfortunately we on the Select Committee still do not know what that means. The Secretary of State’s explanation last Monday did not help us clear that up.

The National Audit Office has summed up very well the lack of information available on how the IT for UC will be taken forward. It said last December that the uncertainties include the following: how it will work; when it will be ready; how much it will cost; and who will do the work to develop and build it. We still do not have answers to any of these questions. It would be helpful if the Minister provided some answers to those key points in her response to the debate, because the Work and Pensions Committee has still not had an explanation.

We have asked Ministers for more information about the IT during three evidence sessions over the space of nine months. We repeated this request in our report, including asking the DWP to set out the costs of the IT development work, because the published information on IT costs does not take us beyond November 2014, but we received no answers in the Government response to our report. All it said was that UC will be delivered via

“a multi-channel service that makes greater use of modern technology to ensure the system is as effective, simple and transparent as possible.”

I still do not know what that means, and I do not know if anybody does.

The one thing we do know is that the new “enhanced digital service” will not be ready to test before the end of this year, and even then it will only be tested on 100 claimants to start with. We still have no indication of when it will be possible to test it on a bigger and more representative group of claimants. The challenge of getting from an IT system that is capable of processing 100 claims by the end of 2014 to one that can deal with frequently changing claims from more than 7 million households by 2017 is clearly an extreme one.

Our report recommended that, given the small number of people currently claiming UC, the Government should consider whether it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to abandon further development of the existing system and focus solely on the end-state solution. The Government said in answer to a recent parliamentary question—although this was not set out in their response to our report—that the enhanced digital service will be integrated with the existing UC service where

“it is both practical and operationally sensible”—[Hansard, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 434W.]

Again, I am not sure what that means, so perhaps the Minister can translate those vague phrases into something more meaningful and detailed when she responds.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

The Chairman of the Select Committee talks about the enhanced digital solution, which I think has the characteristics of a front-end which is then fed by a number of the legacy systems, which is why applications development work must be done on both of them. In terms of the technical architecture, I do not think that is altogether surprising, different or new.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I have to say that that is a better explanation than anything I have heard from any of the Ministers—although I am not sure I even understand that explanation—but the question of what this digital solution actually entails is concerning; is it a complete rewriting of the IT or is it, as the hon. Gentleman says, about bringing the legacy systems in and developing them? That was not the original impression we were given, however. Is there to be an original design or the use of the original IT—although, as we know, there is a failure to develop that or to adapt it to cover the different circumstances that people have?

The Committee was also concerned—we expressed this quite forcefully in our report—about the DWP’s lack of co-operation with our formal role in scrutinising UC. I am sure the House would agree that, as our report says, effective Select Committee scrutiny depends on the provision of accurate, timely and detailed information by Government Departments. The DWP has not always provided that to the Committee in the case of UC.

As well as publishing a highly critical report on UC last September, the National Audit Office was then involved in a long-running dispute with the DWP about how much it should write off for the wasted IT. Because of the accounting concerns, the NAO refused to sign off the DWP accounts for 2012-13 for six months, which delayed their publication from June to December. The Secretary of State was, not unreasonably, unwilling to appear before the Committee to give oral evidence about UC until the accounts were published, so our own scrutiny process was delayed and hampered.

The DWP has also been very reluctant to provide us with information about UC and the serious problems it has encountered with it. When the NAO reported on those problems in September last year, it came as news to us, because the Government had not told us about their own concerns about UC and the actions they had taken to address them during 2012 and early 2013, even though our Select Committee had held several oral evidence sessions during that time and published a substantial report. On two occasions the Government published details about major changes to the timetable for UC implementation only when forced to do so by the prospect of the Secretary of State having to appear before us to give oral evidence. Information was released at the session itself on one occasion, and two working days before on another—even then, very little detail was available. That, of course, gave the Committee no time to assess the implications of these announcements properly before we put our questions. We believe that it is unacceptable for the Government to provide information about major policy changes to Committees only when forced to do so by the imminent prospect of being held to account in a public evidence session.

The Committee does not, as the Secretary of State has suggested, want to run his Department—far from it—but we do expect to have access to the information we need to scrutinise it effectively. However, the Secretary of State told us in February:

“I do not have to tell the Committee everything that is happening in the Department until we have reached a conclusion about what is actually happening”.

That view was reiterated in the formal Government response to our concerns, which said that the DWP

“does not regard it as necessary to provide a running commentary on the day to day management of the many large and complex programmes currently underway”.

I will let hon. Members come to their own conclusions about what that implies in terms of respect for accountability, transparency and the formal scrutiny role of departmental Select Committees.

Our report also highlighted the problems the UC delays are causing for other key organisations, particularly local authorities. Local authorities currently administer housing benefit on the Government’s behalf but were expecting the introduction of UC to mean that new claims for housing benefit would end by April this year. The UC implementation delays mean that local authorities will now be administering housing benefit until at least 2016. It is very difficult for them to know how best to run and staff their housing benefit departments until the Government clarify what funding they will make available for that. We asked the DWP to clarify the funding that will be available in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to cover the additional costs to local authorities, but no details were provided in the Government’s response; they simply said that they would ensure that they were in a position to inform local authorities of their individual budget allocations

“in sufficient time before the start of the 2015/16 financial year”.

Local authorities will also have an important role in helping more vulnerable claimants cope with the transition to UC. Our 2012 report on UC examined the implications for vulnerable people in detail. Since then, the fundamental problems with implementing UC have, understandably, dominated public debate and the Committee’s attention. Ensuring that vulnerable people are not excluded from, or disadvantaged by, UC should remain a priority for the Government, and how vulnerable people will be supported through the transition remains a key concern for the Committee. The Government have acknowledged that vulnerable people will need support to adjust to UC. Lord Freud, the Minister with responsibility for welfare reform, told us that how support would be provided for vulnerable people was almost as important as UC itself. But it is still far from clear how that will work in practice, and a great deal still needs to be clarified about how that support will be provided and funded.

Working with the Local Government Association, the Government produced the first version of the local support services framework—LSSF—last year. That sets out how they expect support for vulnerable people to be provided, in partnership with local authorities, housing providers and the voluntary sector. However, there is little detail on how the LSSF will operate in practice and how it will be funded, even though an “update” was published at the end of last year. The Government said last December that the final version of the LSSF would be published in autumn 2014, but in their response to our report that date had changed to autumn 2015. We understand that the delays to UC implementation mean that the timetable for providing support to claimants will also need to change, but the organisations DWP expects to deliver this support—local authorities, housing providers and voluntary organisations —all need to know what they are expected to provide, so that they can plan and budget for these new responsibilities.

In all the debate about IT systems, costs and case loads, it concerns me that the central point of UC is being lost: it is meant to make the benefit system work better for millions of claimants, help them to move into jobs or work more hours, and make it less complicated for them to move on to and off benefit as their lives change. Until we have more clarity, transparency and detail from the Government about progress with the UC project, it is difficult for anyone, including my Committee, to make a proper assessment of whether UC will genuinely deliver the improvements for claimants that this costly and complex welfare reform was intended to deliver.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster 6:15 pm, 7th July 2014

The DWP is delivering the biggest welfare reforms for a generation, improving services for claimants and cutting costs concurrently. The objectives are: to control the costs of welfare; to get as many people as possible into or back to work; to strengthen incentives to work by making it pay; to support people who need welfare; and to be fair to the taxpayer. Benefits have been capped so that no household can receive more on out-of- work benefits than £26,000, which is what the average working family earns. That is still very generous, as many people in full-time employment do not earn as much as £26,000; we are talking about an equivalent of £500 a week for couples and those with children and £300 a week for single people. Housing benefit has also been capped so that benefit claimants face the same lifestyle decisions as other working people have to make—living where they can afford and limiting the size of their family to what they can afford.

The most radical reform is the introduction of universal credit, a new single benefit integrating income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit. At the heart of this hugely ambitious UC programme is the intention to make work always pay. The scale and complexity of administering UC cannot be overestimated, and its introduction will necessarily be incremental. Under UC, 1.1 million households will keep more of their earnings when starting work of 10 hours per week; and 3.1 million households will have a higher entitlement, with 75% of those being the poorest households. Replacing that complex range of benefits with one new single benefit offering incentives to work and protection for those who cannot work is a significant challenge, and a policy of incremental expansion is the right way in which to introduce it.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Will the hon. Lady consider the fact that UC is not going to be a single benefit? Some recipients will be the equivalent of jobseeker’s allowance claimants now, and they will have one set of conditions and so on, and another set of claimants will be people who have been deemed to be unfit to work. Inherently, UC will not be a fully singular benefit.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster

As my hon. Friend—I will call her that as we are co-members of the Work and Pensions Committee—will know, there are component parts to UC and different claimants will be entitled to different components. As the Chair of the Committee has said, people’s lives are immensely complex and they change, which all adds to the complexity of running any benefits system. Let us consider housing benefit, for example. Family members move in and out of the home, which changes the entitlement, and people have fluctuating health conditions, which make their circumstances change. It will always be a complicated system, but the intention is to simplify it and to minimise the cost of administration.

The National Audit Office has said that the United Kingdom will benefit by £38 billion as a result of universal credit. This Government have grasped the nettle that the previous Government avoided. After 13 years of Labour, welfare spending increased by 60%, costing every household an extra £3,000. Housing benefit increased by 35%. Between 1997 and 2010, spending on tax credits increased by 340%. Long-term unemployment almost doubled between 2008 and 2010, from 396,000 to 783,000. The number of households where no member had ever worked doubled. The maximum housing benefit award reached an eye-watering £104,000 a year. Labour subsidised people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working people could not afford.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Will the hon. Lady tell us how many claimants received the sum of money that she just mentioned? How many claims were in that region?

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster

I am not for one moment giving the impression that that was typical of the average claim; of course it was not. The fact that there was no cap meant that it was possible, in certain circumstances, to rise to those really out-of-control levels.

The reforms to the welfare system will ensure that as many people as possible who are fit for work are helped into work, and only those people who are either unable to work for a whole complex range of reasons or who are on very low incomes are eligible for benefits. The scale of that task is gargantuan, but we have made good progress and we continue to progress towards improving the lives of the long-term unemployed and bringing the welfare budget under control for the benefit of the working people who pay for it through their taxes.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn 6:22 pm, 7th July 2014

If ever a debate title were a misnomer, it is this one, because it should be “The failure to implement universal credit”. Failure is pretty much par for the course for the Department for Work and Pensions, certainly in the implementation of its policies, which aim to reduce costs to the benefit of claimants and taxpayers. My hon. Friend Dame Anne Begg, the Chair of the Select Committee has detailed the fantastic amounts of public money that have already been lost in a failed IT system. She has also touched on the unwillingness of Ministers in the DWP to answer questions from the Select Committee. I point out in passing that every Select Committee is appointed by this House of Commons, and its sole purpose is to scrutinise the Department which bears the same name.

We see constant failure in the implementation of the work capability assessment. On four occasions, Professor Harrington has attempted to ameliorate the agonies which individuals who are subjected to the work capability assessment are put through, yet we are still receiving letters from our constituents detailing the humiliating experiences. This is a really serious matter. An individual claimant can be sanctioned for failing to attend a work capability assessment. We have all had examples from constituents of the letter detailing the appointment arriving two or even three days after the specified date. We have also heard about those who have turned up for the assessment only to be told by the assessors, “Sorry, we can’t take any more people today.”

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

As usual, my hon. Friend is making a passionate speech. I have mentioned this story before, but let me repeat it. One of my constituents was sanctioned for having a heart attack during his work capability assessment. The nurse undertaking the assessment told him he was having a heart attack, but he was still sanctioned.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

It is not usual for me to be gobsmacked, but I certainly am by that story, even though I have heard from constituents who, while not necessarily experiencing heart attacks, have had absolutely disgraceful treatment. We are also seeing a rise in the number of appeals concerning employment and support allowance, and the appeals that have been lodged are taking longer and longer to come to a conclusion. I will not go into the whole debacle of the personal independence payment, but it is simply scandalous that some of the most vulnerable people in our society, whom the DWP is supposed to be assisting, are being left in many instances with no financial support whatever. To add insult to injury, this Government have also reduced funding of local authorities. Many local authorities were absolutely central to ensuring that people with disabilities could live human, productive lives. That money has now been taken away.

I hope to bring home to the Chamber the absolute chaos out there at the moment, and to concentrate on the questioning that an individual claimant has to go through and the kind of questioning to which the Secretary of State responds. It is clear that he is burdened with delusions of adequacy, but some of his responses to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee at his most recent appearance in front of us were absolutely disgraceful.

Let me detail the experience of an individual claimant. A 71-year-old pensioner, dubbed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be self-employed, applied for housing benefit. It has now taken 17 weeks and still there is no final cut-off point where she has been assured that she will receive housing benefit. The most recent inquiry that came to her was to detail the cost of a bill of £3.40; the second was to detail the cost of a bill of £7.47. Both of those claims took place in 2012. The mind boggles at that, when the Secretary of State, who has lost millions and millions of pounds on a failed IT system, has categorically refused to give the Select Committee any detail whatever about his newly trumpeted business plan. He has refused to discuss the costs of the plan or whether there will be any direct savings either to the taxpayer or to the overarching benefit system. It is an absolute disgrace that the Select Committee, which has been appointed to scrutinise the DWP, is being buffeted away. It seems that the Department is opting for some kind of bunker mentality, but it will not work.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Was she as surprised as I was to learn in the evidence given by Sir Bob Kerslake to the Public Accounts Committee this afternoon that the business case that she has just mentioned, which, according to the report, is due to be finalised by the end of April, has still not been agreed by Her Majesty’s Treasury?

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

I am sure that my right hon. Friend, and I would hope every Member of this House, would be shocked to realise that the DWP is still not giving the right answers—it is ludicrous to expect the right answer to come from the Department of Work and Pension, as simple humility is not part and parcel of its make-up. The Committees and Government Departments that scrutinise where public money goes are being pushed to one side. I have already referred to the bunker mentality of the DWP, and the example that my right hon. Friend gives me is just par for the course; it happens constantly. Arguments are not even being put up. We are all being told, “Oh no, it’s none of your business; it’s our business.” My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee has given details of the actual answers. There is a pattern, which I find very disturbing. I have already touched on the issue of disregarding any serious questioning on costs. Ever since this major benefit change came into being, the Department has employed what I would call a programme of black propaganda, and every single one of the red tops has taken it up with glee and run with it. That black propaganda told the people of this country—I am paraphrasing; the DWP would never be this cogent—that everyone who was claiming benefits was doing so because they were too lazy to work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have already touched on the agonies that are being endured by people with serious mental and physical disabilities, and the pattern is ongoing.

A report from the Office for National Statistics last week scrutinised the level of complaints made against all the Government Departments about the misuse of statistics, and guess which one came top of the list! It was the Department for Work and Pensions. Throughout the time I have been a member of the Select Committee, we have raised again and again the issue of the misuse of stats and the misuse of the English language to proselytise this black propaganda and to confuse and distort what should be central to the Committee’s concerns—namely, the well-being of the people who require benefits, not because they are lazy or workshy, or even because there are no jobs, but because they should be supported by the people of this country, as they always have been.

After the last debate on this issue, I was touched to receive a response from the people of this country. If there is a silver lining to the black cloud that is the DWP, it is that the majority of people in this country still believe that the welfare state should do what it was meant to do, which is to support people who, through no fault of their own, cannot maintain themselves without the support of the rest of us. That support is alive and well out there in the country. The one place where it is certainly dead is within the Department for Work and Pensions.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 6:31 pm, 7th July 2014

We are having an interesting debate. I should like to pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee, on which I serve—Dame Anne Begg does a fantastic job, and she painted a good picture in her opening remarks, in which she set out all the facts. We must recognise, however, that this is a complex area. Governments and Oppositions of all political flavours have, over decades, contributed to the challenge. Many have been well-meaning and tried to resolve all the problems. Simplicity is a great objective, but it is probably one of the hardest things to deliver.

Listening to the debate so far, I have heard those who see the glass half full and those who see the glass half empty. A couple of the contributions from the Opposition have seen it has half empty, but let me remind the House of what we have in common. Both parties have said that universal credit is the right way to go.

We also need to be mindful of the fact that the purpose of a Select Committee is not, frustratingly, to look at what is right and what is working. We never look at that. Rightly, we look at the areas that are not working and need improvement. It is absolutely right, as Glenda Jackson said, that we should ensure that those who are vulnerable get the help they need. Like her, I get constituents coming into my surgery who have not had fair treatment at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions, but that problem has been growing for years and years. It is to the credit of this Government that they have tried, for the first time in 60 years, to consolidate the system and to simplify it and pull it together so that it works better in the future.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

The flaw in the hon. Lady’s argument is that the Select Committee has been consistent—there has been complete cross-party unity on this—in presenting to the Department for Work and Pensions the areas where we believe improvements could be made and, in many instances, putting forward ideas about what kind of help is needed. There has also been a consistent response from the Department—namely, total rejection.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Select Committee has put forward a number of arguments, but that is what we are there to do. We are not there to tell the Department about the things it is doing well—more’s the pity, as that would give our work some balance—so she is right in that respect. I think that she is describing issues of obfuscation and not getting the facts, but my hon. Friend David Mowat was instructive in that regard when, earlier in the debate, he said that communication was the key. The devil is in the detail, and it is very difficult—when talking about, say, technology —to communicate with people and tell them exactly what is being done. I would love to say that technology was simple, but it is not.

Let us remind ourselves of the objectives of the change, to which both sides of the House agreed. The objectives were simplification, reducing costs and smoothing the transition from benefit to work. The Chair of the Select Committee talked about dealing with the wretched precipices that make people’s lives so difficult. The Committee has worked to hold the Government to account, and we should be trying to get a better result rather than just point scoring for the sake of it. The Chairman has done a good job of trying to get that balance right.

Let us look at where we are going. When we get this sorted out, 3 million households will be better off by £177 a month. We will have a system that provides better child care support, with an extra £200 million for child care helping 100,000 extra families working fewer than 16 hours a week. We will also have an extra £400 million to increase child care support to 85% of all working families. Let us look to the longer-term future: in 10 years’ time, UK plc will benefit by £35 billion. That will be a worthwhile and significant achievement. The path must continue to be trodden and the Committee must continue to fight the fight to keep the Department for Work and Pensions honest in all that it says, and to strive to get the best possible results. This must be a partnership, however.

Progress to date has included the launching of pathfinders, and we also have additional schemes such as the long-term schemes in our jobcentres. After the initial launch in the north-west, we now have universal credit rolling out in 14 jobcentres. By the end of this year, it will be in place in 90 of them. That will mean that universal credit will have been rolled out to one in eight jobcentres. That is not an insignificant achievement in that period of time, given the complexity involved. We already have 6,500 people on universal credit. I appreciate the Chairman’s view that that is a small number, but it is a start and a move in the right direction.

A point that has not been raised is that this is not just about nuts and bolts, IT systems and budgets. It is about a fundamental culture change, and as we know, changing a culture is one of the most difficult things to do in any organisation, never mind in the country as a whole.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Conservative, Finchley and Golders Green

My hon. Friend may recall that during my short time on the Select Committee, we visited the pathfinder in Oldham and Bolton. I was struck by the enthusiasm of the user groups and the staff for the new culture of helping people into work, and by the fact that people in those user groups were able to work for longer hours without falling off the precipice. Given the good news on working and benefits, should the Government not continue to press forward with universal credit?

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and he is absolutely right: that what indeed what we heard. It points to the suggestion that the Government’s movement is beginning to deliver results.

The claimant commitment has now been rolled out in every job centre. It is quite a challenge, because we are saying to those who claim that benefits should absolutely be there for anybody who needs them—there are some basic things that we all believe to be the absolute right of any individual, because they are about respect for the individual—but that the taxpayer must also feel that his or her interests have been properly represented. The claimant commitment is a move in the right direction, ensuring that there is no longer any opportunity for an individual to believe that a life on benefits is a lifestyle choice. No taxpayer would believe that that is right, and I do not believe that any Opposition Member believes it is—they would say that this is about helping those who really need it: the vulnerable, the disabled and those in really difficult positions. I think we should all agree that this is an important step forward, and 600,000 claimant commitments have been signed.

By 2016-17, the vast majority will have moved to universal credit. Although that is perhaps not what we would ideally have wanted, it seems to me that it is not bad progress. However, I and my fellow members of the Select Committee have obviously been privy to a number of the issues that have already been alluded to as a big challenge, and one of them is undoubtedly the IT systems. I share the concerns, frustration and lack of understanding about how the pilot worked, about what the end state solution will be, and about the fact that £40 million has effectively been wiped off and £91 million amortised.

I think the real issue is that as a Committee we needed context. Having worked in the private sector, I know that when very large IT systems are introduced, there will always be a write-off. When we sit in the public sector looking at a new IT system without the context of what it takes to roll out such systems and what the normal practice is for write-offs, we find it hard to judge. It would have been fair to want and to effect more explanation from the DWP. Indeed, would it not have been wonderful to have more input from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South who, I think, might have been able to give us the necessary language and understanding? He has explained why the two systems have to carry on in parallel whereas we, perhaps because we do not know very much about IT, naively thought that that was a waste of money and that we could just move straight to end state. I hope that the Minister will give us a little more clarity about that.

The Chair of the Committee also mentioned one of the challenges with housing benefit. Although universal credit has been rolled out and although it is right to have done that in slow steps, checking them as we went, it still does not include housing benefit, ESA or tax credits. I share the general concern about how exactly the Department will incorporate some of those more difficult pieces into the system. At the moment, as the Chair of the Committee said, the cases we have been considering have been the easy ones, but we have now moved on from single people to couples. It is a matter of communication and understanding how things will be done effectively. With housing benefit in particular, it is important that advice and guidance are produced for local authorities and that the local support services framework is produced in its final form earlier rather than later. Financial information, early information and the final LSSF are undoubtedly needed sooner rather than later, and I share the concerns about the current timeline.

Although some are frustrated with the slow development of the system, it seems to me that going slow and steady to ensure that we treat vulnerable people with the care they need must be right. We must get this right for the vulnerable and nothing would be worse than rolling the scheme out early and getting it wrong. That would be a serious mistake.

Despite some of the challenges, there has been a significant achievement. When we get this done—and I hope that there will be cross-party support for it—it will be the biggest transformation in the system for 60 years. It will also make it clear that there is a proper balance between society and the taxpayer and those who need proper support to enable them to participate fully in working life. The fact that the claimant commitment has been so successful in beginning to change that mindset must be a good thing.

I would question the fact that although the Opposition support universal credit as a concept, they are now suggesting that if they were in government after the next election they would freeze it, but not the pilot, I understand. It seems to me that we do more damage if we start stopping and starting programmes. If the Opposition support universal credit, as I believe they do, they should support what is being done. Of course we should hold the Department to account, but let us also consider sensible steps forward. I cannot see that freezing something is a sensible step, because all it does is stop the progress that we all agree would be a good thing in the longer term.

One can strive for the perfect, but one can never achieve the perfect. We have made good steps as a Government but there is more that can be done. Most important, the lesson I would like the Department to take away is about better and timely communication, particularly on complex issues such as IT, a subject on which I do not claim to be an expert and on which I suspect that not many members of the Select Committee would claim to be experts either.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 6:46 pm, 7th July 2014

Although I have huge regard for Anne Marie Morris, I must disagree with some parts of her speech, most notably because there has been a swathe of errors not just in universal credit but, as we debated last week, in the other programmes for welfare reform. My hon. Friend Glenda Jackson remarked on the unfortunate way in which the welfare reforms have been framed and debated in the media, including irresponsible press releases that perpetuate the vilification of people on benefits and paint them as the new undeserving poor. I have found that deeply offensive and such an approach has been used in Ministers’ speeches. Many people have found that offensive.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

The hon. Lady is a fine contributor to our Select Committee and adds a lot of intellectual rigour and brings a lot from her previous background.

My challenge is: would it not be lovely if we could control the media? She is absolutely right, I am sure, that some inappropriate things have been said by the wrong people, but when it comes to who said what and whether what is reported in the press is true I find it a very hard leap of faith to make to accept her other point. I do not believe that any member of the Government would wantonly wish to put out any message in the way that she describes—

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Lady has already had 14 minutes. Let somebody else in—we need short interventions.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Language such as that about “shirkers” and “scroungers” has been used in the House by Ministers, and I reiterate that I find this deeply offensive.

If we consider welfare reforms in the round, we can see that there have been huge errors in how they have been delivered. If we consider them in the context of other reforms to the welfare state, we can see that we are experiencing a decimation of the welfare system that was set up after the second world war with people who are sick and disabled through no fault of their own increasingly being denied access to a basic standard of living. In addition, the changes to access to health care and to justice are also affecting benefit claimants and because of the changes there has been a 20% reduction in the number of benefit claimants whose appeals are successful. We need to look at the situation in the round. I find it disappointing that a debate such as this is not seen in the context of everything else that is going on.

On the implementation of universal credit, I do not understand how the Secretary of State can still be in a job. Mistakes and errors have cost hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. That has been accompanied by cover-up and claims that the system has been reset.

I endorse all the positive comments that have been made about the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Dame Anne Begg. She is a fantastic Chair, always allowing people to engage and giving them the opportunity to speak, but she has been shown such disrespect. If anybody has not seen how the Secretary of State behaved in that Select Committee meeting in February, I invite them to watch it. It was a disgrace.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. I hope she will also allow that the Secretary of State was sorely provoked. If we are going to look at the behaviour of one person, we need to look at the behaviour of others who took part in that exchange.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I am sorry, I do not agree with that. The exchange is on record and people can watch it. It was clear that when the Chair of the Select Committee asked in February why we had not had the information that was available, the democratic role that Select Committees play in our parliamentary system was ignored. The response to the Select Committee’s report is a further justification for my comments. I am not alone in my views. There has been criticism from the Major Projects Authority and the National Audit Office.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

The previous Conservative Government had form in this area, particularly in relation to benefits, although my hon. Friend probably was not in the House at the time. We heard a lot of ballyhoo about the horizon project, but at the end of the day it cost billions to put right. Again, it was the people on benefits who suffered as a result. The Conservatives have form. They come up with all sorts of excuses over the years, and claim to be compassionate. They are not. We have only to look at people with disabilities, who still have to go through medical tests.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. No, I was not in the House at that time. We recognise that we did not get everything right either—I am sure there will be an intervention about that—but this Government and this Secretary of State are now in power. It is their programme that we are scrutinising and it is a categorical failure. It is a mess. I have spoken about the waste of money. The Major Projects Authority said that there have been so many changes to universal credit that it cannot be seen as the same project: it must be seen as a new project.

As I said last week, and as was mentioned also by the Chair of the Select Committee, we started off with four pathfinders, including one in my constituency, Oldham. Those were announced in 2011 and were meant to be followed by a national roll-out in October 2013. On the day that the Secretary of State was supposed to provide evidence to the Select Committee, we learned that there was not to be a roll-out. Again, he was very indignant that we were questioning him about that. It was appalling arrogance.

As we have heard, there are supposed to be 7.7 million people on universal credit when it is fully implemented. Currently about 6,000 people are on it. The Secretary of State thought it was highly amusing when I asked him last week how long it would take at the present rate for 1 million people to be on UC. It is a matter of simple maths. Perhaps he, like the Chancellor, has problems with that. The answer is 2091. The Secretary of State did not like answering that.

Last September the National Audit Office reported IT problems that the Government had known about for 18 months but had failed to tell us about. That is deceptive and dishonourable. Some £40 million spent on software has had to be written off and a further £91 million written down. Good money is being poured after bad as the Government continue to spend £37 million to £38 million on the old IT system, while at the same time spending extensive sums on an end-state solution or, as it is now called, enhanced digital—whatever.

In addition to saying that it was now treating universal credit as a new project, the MPA, together with the NAO, reported its concerns on significant issues of governance, transparency, financial controls over supplier spending, and ineffective departmental oversight. It could not get worse. How is the Secretary of State still in his job? In any other profession, he would have gone. Why is he still there?

We supported and still support the principles of a simplified benefits system and one that makes work pay, but whether that will happen is questionable. There is real concern that the aim of making work pay will not be achieved. Recent evidence has shown that by 2018 cuts to the basic and work allowances will mean that universal credit is £685 a year less generous for a lone parent with two children, saving the Government £1.7 billion a year. There are also concerns that UC will weaken the incentive for second earners in couples to work. One in five children in poverty now lives with a single-earner couple. Ensuring that more second earners, principally women, are able to take up employment will be critical to reducing child poverty rates. Finally, the decision to leave council tax support out of universal credit means that the aim of simplicity is being undermined, with many claimants facing two rates of benefit withdrawal when they move into work or when their income increases.

The introduction of universal credit has been a car crash—a demonstration of how not to implement policy and of how the policy intention of making work pay is failing. This Government and this Secretary of State are failing to reform our welfare system. Of course, we need to make sure that welfare spending is not profligate, but in reforming our welfare system so that it is fit for the 21st century, we must remember why we developed our model of social welfare, retaining its principles of inclusion, support and security for all, protecting any one of us should we fall on hard times or become sick or disabled. It is a hand-up, not a hand-out.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 6:57 pm, 7th July 2014

It is a pleasure to follow Debbie Abrahams in what seems to have become a very large meeting of the Select Committee. We will see whether that changes by the end of the debate. It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber talking about universal credit again. I forget how many times in the past year we have done so in the course of ministerial statements, urgent questions or other debates on the same topic. We may have spent more hours debating it than people have spent claiming it, but I hope that will not continue to be the case.

When my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris spoke, she confirmed that there is still general support for the principle of universal credit. I took issue with the Chair of the Select Committee in a debate last week when she rightly set out how hard welfare reform is, but we have to bite the bullet. We cannot keep tweaking and expanding over-complex systems. At some stage we need to start again with a new system that meets modern needs. We must accept that the existing architecture will not last much longer without falling over in an awful heap. We need to find a new welfare system that works for the people who claim from it, works for the taxpayer and achieves the outcomes that we want.

I hope the Government will press on with universal credit. I hope they can find a smoother path than there has been so far, but the direction of travel is right. I hope we can reach the end position more quickly than we fear. It is worth reiterating what we are trying to replace. The NAO report set out that we are trying to replace six different benefit systems that have about 13 million annual claims and pay out about £67 billion a year. Those are huge amounts of money and huge complexity that we are trying to sort out.

For the investment of £2.4 billion—perhaps the Minister could clarify whether we are expecting a higher cost for universal credit than the original estimate—we are expecting

£38 billion worth of savings by 2023. The Government response quoted a £35 billion benefit; I assume that that is the net of those two numbers, and not that the estimated saving has drifted down a bit. Again, it would be helpful to understand what savings we think there will be over the period. I think there is to be an annual saving of £7 billion, so there is a huge prize for making the system work. It should be better for claimants, who will understand what they will get, and better for the people administering UC, who will understand what they should be giving out. I think that we have all been in that awful situation of hearing someone ask, “Am I better off in work or on benefits?” That is not a simple calculation. It is hugely complex to work out the answer, but we need to be able to answer that clearly.

I agree with what my hon. Friend Mike Freer said when we went to see UC at work in the north-west. What sticks in my memory is the genuine enthusiasm on the part of everyone who was working with UC for the system, the ideas and the changes. However, I also remember the horribly clunky and complex IT systems that we saw, which did not seem able to talk to each other, and which required a lot of manual interventions to make the processes work. I am looking forward to going to Hammersmith in October to see the latest iteration of how UC works, and to see whether we have managed to get a much slicker and smoother system. I certainly hope that we have.

There have been two benefits from this change. We hear that the claimant commitment, which has been rolled out in my constituency, is bringing about real changes in behaviour. The contract part of that helps to make it clear to people what they are expected to do; that is working. The other area where we have seen real advantages is in the use of real-time information. Many of us perhaps wrongly and cynically feared that that would be the bit of the process that would fall over; we feared that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs would struggle to make it work, and that trying to add it to its complex systems might be a bit too much. That has actually worked fine; the data seem to work, and there are even more enhancements that we can make to the use of that in the meantime, before we get to see the whole UC in action. So there have been some positive steps so far.

Only about 7,000 people are claiming UC. We have to be honest: that is a long way short of where the Government, the Committee, and indeed everyone, were hoping the UC would be. We have to accept that that is disappointing, but it is far better than rushing on with the system only to have it completely fall over, and creating a tax credits-type fiasco of the kind that we all remember from a decade or so ago. I do not remember the person who headed the Department responsible for tax credits, or the responsible Minister, having to resign. I do not remember the then Chancellor holding his hands up and saying, “I think I’ll resign in embarrassment at this farce.” It is a bit rich to call for the Secretary of State to resign when these implementation mistakes were not his fault; as I understand it, he spotted what was going wrong and sorted it out. There is no call for him to resign at all; that was a cheap and unnecessary shot.

I agree with the concerns expressed about the engagement with the Select Committee; that was a bit of a disappointment to us. Clearly, there had been a long period in which it was known that there were issues with UC. A lot of money had been wasted, and there had been lots of changes to the programme; the Committee was just not aware of that. I accept that the National Audit Office was involved, and that the Public Accounts Committee had various runs around this, but it would have felt a lot better for us, when we were trying to scrutinise the Department’s performance and finances, and the programme as a whole from a policy perspective, if we had had some kind of understanding that there were pretty major issues that will make the project look a lot different from how it was meant to look. That would have been a slightly more respectful way to treat the Committee. I do not expect daily updates on everything that is happening, but we are talking about something fundamental. That could have been handled a little better. Perhaps we would then have had a slightly less tense meeting with the Secretary of State earlier this year. I personally do not recall finding him offensive or unhelpful; the meeting was a little bad-tempered, but I suppose that when one is scrutinising someone, it can be a little difficult. I suspect that there was fault on all sides in that very long meeting.

I will come back to the Committee’s recommendation on how many IT systems we should be working on. My hon. Friend David Mowat may have clarified something, but I am not sure that we can say that the new digital end-state solution is an enhancement of the current one. I think that we have always understood that a twin-track approach was being taken; we were working on two different systems at the same time, one of which would succeed the other. There are reports that the Cabinet Office recommended moving to the end-state solution earlier this year, rather than staying with the twin-track approach.

There is a fundamental question here: if we are working on two different systems, one of which will succeed the other, and there are only 7,000 or so people claiming on the first one, is it better to focus all resources on the final end-state system, and divert people, money and time to that, rather than trying to work on both at the same time, even if that means a slightly longer implementation period, and a slight further delay? Perhaps testing just one system may get us to the right position; I do not know. It may be that to make this work, we have to go through the first system before we can move on to the second. The answers that we have had on that are not clear. It looks to quite a lot of people as though there may be a more cost-effective way of achieving this, given the timetable that we are on.

I reiterate my view that this is a great reform; everyone should want to see it work. I ask the Government to press on and make it work.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 7:05 pm, 7th July 2014

Some social security commentators have described a universal credit-type proposal as the holy grail of social security thinking. It is certainly true that the idea is nothing new. It was not invented by the current Government; it has been debated and investigated by previous Governments. In an earlier debate on the subject—I think it was an urgent question —my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh

South West (Mr Darling) made it quite clear that when he was Secretary of State for Social Security, he looked at the project and concluded that without very significant time and money being invested, it would be too difficult to deliver.

There has obviously been a learning curve to which, for whatever reason, the current Government seem to have decided to pay no attention. If we sometimes seem quite cynical and sceptical about the whole process, it is because of a lot of what we have heard over the past four years. There was total confidence that UC would be the answer to all sorts of questions, and would be relatively easy. I do not think that many people present, except my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, were on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee in 2011. The then Minister of State for Employment, Chris Grayling, who responded to most of the debates in Committee, was prone to describing his proposals as an empty bookcase. The Bill was the architecture; a lot of other things would come along later. I think he spoke more truly than he thought he did, because clearly it was a rather empty bookcase; a lot of the issues had not been fully bottomed-out and talked about in the way that they should have been.

One example of that—I will come on to others—is free school meals. We discussed the issue in the Bill Committee in 2011. Various people made written submissions and proposals, and there were discussions, about how that might or might not work as part of the project. We learn now that the Department still does not know how it will deal with free school meals in the further roll-out of universal credit. Three years later, we have not made much progress on something quite important and basic.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that anyone building a bookcase has to know the size of the books that will be displayed on it before they can get the architecture right? Perhaps that was a lesson that the Minister forgot.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

That is a very good analogy for how we have arrived in this position. The trouble is that it is not some sort of blunder: my hon. Friends have referred to some of the other big changes going through the DWP, and the same pattern has been seen with disability living allowance and the personal independence payment. First, a straw man was erected: there was a statement about certain things in the previous system, some of which were not entirely accurate, being really bad and having to be changed. There was then a brief initial consultation period before the Department went ahead with the change, which was not properly piloted. As a result, every new PIP applicant since June 2013 is part of the testing process. That is not a pilot, unless it is a pilot on a gigantic scale. Many people who are anxious and worried while they wait for their PIP payments to come through, are being treated as guinea pigs, after a failure to analyse the problem, implement the scheme or test the proposals. The pattern is not unique to universal credit.

Had we been told from the outset that there would be a slow roll-out because of the need for testing, we might not be standing here now debating whether the glass is half full, but we have been told so often that the glass is full and everything is going well. When the Select

Committee prepared a report in November 2012, we concentrated on vulnerable claimants. At that time we were told that all the implementation plans were on track for 2013, which was not the case. By February 2013, the Major Projects Authority told the DWP to reset the entire project—that was an internal, private report of which Members had no knowledge at the time. That information did not come out clearly until July 2013, when the Secretary of State told the Select Committee that there were major changes to the roll-out. The NAO reported in September 2013, and the Secretary of State’s response was, “Oh, I knew about all those problems all along.” Perhaps he did know about the problems all along, but he did not tell many people about them. There were further changes in December 2013.

Some speakers, in trying to support universal credit, suggested that at least we have some people on it. There are 6,000 people on universal credit, and it will be rolled out to more jobcentres, but those are the very simplest cases. In essence, for those claimants universal credit is little different from jobseeker’s allowance. There is little to say that universal credit is a big breakthrough to a different form of benefit, because until now claimants have been single people. Apparently, we are now able to roll out universal credit to some couples, but the claimants so far have been single people. Some 70% of claimants are relatively young. They are new benefit claimants who do not have complications, basically. If universal credit is to bring together various benefits successfully, the difficult cases will be the real test, not the straightforward ones.

One bit of universal credit thinking that has been rolled out is the claimant commitment, which has been rolled out to JSA claimants, not merely those who are technically in receipt of JSA-style universal credit. The Government have rolled out the stick without rolling out the carrot. One of the problems with the claimant commitment is not necessarily getting people to agree what they will do to find work but that minor breaches of that agreement can lead to loss of benefits. The carrot—the bit that is meant to help people not only to find work but to make work pay—has not yet been introduced because the vast majority of people are nowhere near being on universal credit.

Since our original debates on the Welfare Reform Act 2012, we have experienced obfuscation through the use of computerese. MPs, like many lay people, are not IT experts. Initially, concerns were raised about the size of the IT project—various Governments have run into trouble with IT in the past—and people asked, “How do we know this will be different?” Any concerns were simply brushed aside because the Government had a new “agile” way of doing things that meant everything was going to be fine. About 18 months later we learned that that way of doing things had been abandoned, so clearly everything was not fine, but that is what we were told.

Other things that were “fine” included security, establishing people’s identity and the difficulties with online transactions. Those concerns were raised from the outset. I recall an informal briefing at which the Minister, Lord Freud, was asked questions by people who were expert, such as people who had served on housing associations. They asked, “What about the verification of people’s housing claims? How is that actually going to be done?” At the moment, those claims are done fairly intensively with people having to produce information, although housing associations have been allowed to verify that information because they have seen the lease, and so on. Lord Freud simply ignored all that and said, “No, universal credit will have far less fraud and error, and it will all be fine.” But of course it has not been fine, and it is now recognised that the notion that everything could be done online has not only been delayed but will never happen. One reason why that will not happen is that security has been recognised as a major issue. The same Ministers who told us that security was not a problem have now told us that it is a problem. When a Department is paying out substantial sums of money to millions of individuals, doing it fully online is not practical. After Ministers initially enthused about how everything would be straightforward, and after having been told different things at different times—even when the reality was that something else was going on—we are somewhat sceptical.

As other speakers have said, we were told that a certain type of IT is being used for the very small number of current claimants but that, at the same time, the Department was working on what in February 2014 was called the end-state, open-source, web-based solution. [Laughter.] Exactly. I know the meaning of each individual word, but I have never been clear about what the phrase means. We were told that it was a digital solution—it therefore seems to be an important aspect of the whole programme—and that it would be ready to be tested on 100 claimants by November 2014. As the Select Committee report found, the system is still a long way from being viable. There is a huge difference between operating something like that for a small group of 100 claimants and operating it for far more people.

The Select Committee thought that what we were being told about was a different and digital way of doing things, and we specifically asked for more detail. The Government’s response to the Select Committee report evaded the question, and it is all there. First, the response talked about the claimant commitment, which I have already mentioned and did not have anything to do with the digital solution. Secondly, the response talked about a

“more challenging and supportive relationship between claimants and coaches.”

“Coaches” is the new name for jobcentre advisers. Again, that does not really tell us anything about the digital solution. There are concerns about how scalable those intensive relationships will be. Thirdly, we were told that there will be more online services, but many JSA claims are already made online, so again it is unclear whether that has anything to do with the end-state or digital solution.

Therefore, having gone around the houses about the claimant commitment, the things that are already happening online and the more supportive relationship, all that we have been told is that the digital solution is

“a multi-channel service that makes greater use of modern technology”—

I am glad that it makes use of modern technology, rather than ancient technology—

“to ensure the system is as effective, simple and transparent as possible.”

Those are all worthy aims, but they tell us nothing about what the end-state solution actually is, what it does, how much progress has been made towards it, how many people are working on it, what it will cost or what the interface will be between claimants and the system. It is nothing more than an aspiration.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making some extremely pertinent points, but many of my constituents who are in work receive varying pay packets. For example, one week they will work overtime but the next week they will not. Some of them, such as school meal supervisory assistants, are employed only in term time. Does she have any confidence at all from what we have heard so far that the system could be sufficiently sophisticated and robust to take into account natural human activity, which does not consist of people earning exactly the same wage for 52 weeks of the year and with exactly the same family circumstances?

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Again, there is the theory and then there is what happens in practice. If in all cases the information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs works, it should be reasonably accurate, but when people have very variable earnings there will be considerable problems, particularly with monthly payments, because it will take a long time to adjust for somebody whose earnings vary a great deal. That will leave some people in considerable hardship.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

To answer the intervention made by Stephen Pound, the whole purpose of having the real-time information interface out of the HMRC systems, which was a prerequisite to universal credit, was to address precisely that point.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but obviously there are other complications for people with very variable earnings, and I am not confident that they will all be overcome.

Finally, on the IT that we are expected to believe will be in place at some point, last week the Secretary of State delivered absolutely no clarity when we debated this in the Chamber. When I intervened to ask him what the end-state solution was, he replied:

“It is universal credit completely delivering to everybody in the UK. That is the end-state solution—live, online and fully protected.”—[Hansard, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 645.]

Again, that is describing the end aspiration in a very generalised way, but it tells us absolutely nothing about whether it will work.

Any change of this sort requires a lot of thought and practice. One of the issues about which there remains considerable concern—we have not heard a great deal about this from DWP—is the direct payment of housing benefit to the claimant and then to the landlord. To be fair, DWP has been carrying out pilots for two years to see how that would work, and I think that they have now come to an end. I understand that an independent evaluation is now with the Department, although it has not yet been published—perhaps the Minister knows more about that than I do. However, the data from the organisations that have been piloting it are now in the public domain. They looked initially at some 6,700 people

—in different small groups across the country—that it was tested on. At the end of the pilot, 4,700 were still on direct payments, but 1,993 of the original group had been returned to having payments made directly to their landlord. That is a considerable proportion of the total. That rings some alarm bells on how well it will work. The landlords involved in those pilots have said constantly that it worked only as a result of very intensive work that has been done precisely because they are pilots. There is considerable concern that that will not be scalable to the required extent. Although I certainly commend the Department for running those pilots, we need to hear what lessons have been learnt, whether any further changes to the plans are required and how these things will be made to work in the longer term.

There are many other aspects of universal credit that people have raised concerns about. In many ways we have almost forgotten about some of the downsides, such as second earners being less incentivised to work under universal credit rules, as drawn up by the Government—they could be changed—than they are under the current system, and there is the fact that some families with disabled children will receive less than they do at the moment. There was a lot of debate about those issues, and the fact that we are nowhere near including some of those people is probably why those concerns have gone off the boil, but we should not forget about them. Even if universal credit is properly implemented, it is not a case of all winners and no losers, because a significant number of people will still be worse off under universal credit.

The detailed rules for universal credit can be changed, and in some ways that is where the bookcase has its merits. Some of the concerns about the rate of tapering of income, which has been changed since the original proposals, and how we deal with school meals, child care and families with disabled children could all be addressed. I think that it is a pity that at this stage we are so far away from those people being included in the new system that we do not even need to look for the answers. Just over 6,000 people are on universal credit, and that is predominantly JSA with a few changes, so the simplest of cases and situations. That is not really a fantastic achievement. I am sorry if that is describing the glass as being half empty, but that is certainly how it appears to me.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South 7:27 pm, 7th July 2014

It is always a pleasure to follow Sheila Gilmore. This is the second time in a week that we have had the opportunity to debate universal credit. I will focus my brief remarks on some of the comments made by Labour Members, which I think can be characterised thus: “We are doing our job. If only the Secretary of State would do his job, everything would be okay.”

I had thought that it was agreed that universal credit is a much-needed project. It is a project of national significance. I think that it is analogous to the Olympics, but in fact harder to deliver. Opposition Front Benchers might give that some thought when considering how to conduct themselves in this debate. The project might be harder to deliver than the Olympics, but it is as important to our country. I will comment on the progress and some of the issues around that, and also talk at some length about Labour’s four-point plan—it has now been published—to “save” the programme, and a rattling good yarn it is too. I will not repeat the remarks of my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris, but the project is a national imperative. We are trying to make work pay, to streamline benefits and to mimic the whole process of transition to work.

Developing a set of IT applications to be used by 8 million users is quite difficult. Frankly, neither political party has shown a great deal of success in doing that over the past decade or so. If we accept that it is a hard thing to do, then perhaps Members might try to do a little more than they have today in getting behind the 1,000 or 2,000 people who are working on the programme —working weekends and doing the stuff that needs to be done to get this to happen.

Are there problems with this project? I do not know; I am not an expert on it. I hate to say this, but I do not even serve on the Select Committee. Perhaps I am here as an imposter. I have had some experience of IT. I have spent a large part of my life explaining to people why IT projects are late and why it is not my fault but somebody else’s—I got quite good at that by the end. During a quality assurance test on an IT project—in fact, we do not have IT projects any more; this is a business change project—one of the indicators of difficulties relates to the number of project managers. If the project manager has changed a lot, there will be reasons for that: it is a very clear flashing red light. This programme has been unlucky—I use that word advisedly—in that it has had a number of different project managers who have had to move on for different reasons. Of course, that creates issues about how things are done, as in this case.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said about roll-out. It was not clear that she thought that the Secretary of State was rolling it out wrongly; rather, she seemed concerned that he had not told her in advance, at the start, how he was going to do it. That is an entirely different matter, because sometimes things are changed for tactical reasons. When the Olympics are being delivered, things are sometimes done in a different order. That is not unreasonable and not necessarily wrong.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not want to misinterpret what I said. There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind and trying to adjust as one goes along, but what has been wrong has been the complete confidence, with each turnaround, in everything being fine and in how we should not be worried any more. We have seen that on several occasions.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

As I said, I have not been serving on the Select Committee and I have not heard about the confidence she mentions. My point is that decisions are made during the life cycle of a programme that effect changes, and if, every time that happens—

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

There was a two-week difference between the Department saying that everything was fine in a memo that we received and the NAO’s publication of its cataclysmic report condemning what the Department is doing. Is that the sort of time scale that the hon. Gentleman has in mind?

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

I do not know, because I was not aware of that. The hon. Lady’s intervention, like much of her speech, is along the lines of, “We’re doing our job; if only the Secretary of State would do his job and hurry up and get this delivered, everything would be all right.” My substantive point is that delivering this application is harder than the delivering the Olympics, and it behoves all of us to get behind the 1,000 or 2,000 people who are trying to do it. That is not to say that individual mistakes have not been made. There have almost certainly been lots of mistakes; it would be odd if there had not been.

As to progress, the issue is not that things have not been done; it is what we do now and how we deal with it. I am going to be kind to the Opposition and talk about the Olympics rather than the national health service project that wrote off about £10 billion. The Olympics was a joint success—a success for our country—and yet its budget increased by a factor of four. When Dame Tessa Jowell came to the House and announced that the budget was going up by a factor of four, Members on both sides of the House, broadly speaking, tried to understand why that had happened, accepted it, and knuckled down to get the project delivered. In the end, there was not a cigarette paper between the two parties in terms of the approach to that project of national significance—as this one is. The Secretary of State and his team are trying to do a very difficult thing in delivering this application, to be used by 10 million people, in parallel with existing systems which, every week, continue to be used by 10 million people. Of course mistakes have been made; as I say, it would be odd if they had not. The issue is whether, on the whole, it is being managed correctly and whether, structurally, we are doing the right thing.

I had thought that Labour supported the basic tenets of universal credit, but some of the comments by Debbie Abrahams about scope implied that she has severe reservations. She may be right; I am not an expert. It seems odd that Labour Members are raising issues such as scope at such a late stage of the programme. To some extent, they are the Opposition and perhaps it is reasonable that they oppose, but there is a difference between opposing and what I would call opportunistic carping—not only that, but opportunistic carping that is destructive, not constructive.

That brings me to Labour’s four-point plan, to which Mr Baldrick would have been delighted to give his name. Point 1 is to stop the programme and think about it for three months—not to review it, not to stop rolling it out, but to stop it completely. It is not totally clear to me what they would be stopping—development, implementation, the front end, the legacy systems and interface work, or perhaps all of it. It is not totally clear to me what they would do with the 1,000 people—to take a round number—who are currently doing all these tasks. They are saying, “No, let’s just stop it, with an immediate write-off of all that.”

Point 2 is to get the NAO to have a look at the programme. That is fair enough; one cannot argue with asking the NAO to look at something. Of course, it would have to use people with expertise in programmes of this type, of whom most of the good ones are in the civil service and working on this programme. Nevertheless, let us do it anyway.

The really interesting thing about the plan is points 3 and 4, which represent major, significant scope changes. If we make such changes to a programme right near the end, that is when everything goes wrong—when things have to be retested, budgets change, and all the rest of it. The great thing about these major scope changes is that, according to the four-point plan, they will be done at “no additional cost”. The two points propose to remove some of the onus on self-employed people and to continue to pay the primary carer.

On the train this morning, between Watford and Euston, I costed Labour’s four-point plan at £89,611,207.31. That costing—I am very happy to take an intervention on it—includes 11 new applications, 47 new screens, 190 database changes, 201 reports, a 40% test rerun, and 88 new interfaces. I may have spent only 11 minutes on the calculation to come up with that number, but that is 11 minutes more than Labour Members have spent on putting it into their plan and saying they can achieve it with “no additional cost”. I would be delighted if one of them wants to intervene on me—but intervention came there none.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

The hon. Gentleman should be clearer about why he thinks, for example, that making payment to the primary carer would have such huge costs, especially at a point when, it is fair to say, the systems are unlikely to have reached implementation for families with children.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

The problem arises precisely because the systems are nearing completion. Costs in the life cycle of an IT project escalate the nearer to the end we get. To repeat a couple of the estimating parameters I used, Labour’s plan would require 11 new applications and 47 new screens. If the Labour party has its own estimate and it took it more than 11 minutes to put it together, I would be very happy to accept that it is right, but all it has done is write a sentence.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

From the Select Committee’s point of view—not that of Labour Back Benchers—the problem is that we do not know any of those things. The hon. Gentleman has made assumptions, but we do not know whether the IT has developed sufficiently to take account of families with children or whether it would cost anything to make the payment to the primary carer instead. We do not know—that is our objection. We have not been told. We have not been kept in the loop.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable intervention and I understand it, but if Labour Front Benchers, whose four-point plan this is, do not know the cost of their proposed scope increases—which is reasonable, because I do not know how much they would cost, either—we would expect them to say, “We don’t know the costs,” not, “These scope increases will be delivered within the same budget as the rest of the programme.” The point I am making is that that is irresponsible. It is not indicative of Front Benchers who take what has to happen to the programme seriously or who, 10 months from now, intend to be the Government of this country. The reality is that 10 years—two Parliaments—is too soon.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 7:41 pm, 7th July 2014

The Work and Pensions Committee has done the House a service with its report, and the tributes to its Chair from both sides of the House are well deserved.

Anne Marie Morris is absolutely right to say that there is widespread agreement that universal credit is, in principle, a good idea, but I am afraid the universal credit project has had all the hallmarks of disaster right from the start, as a number of us pointed out at the time. Everybody hoped, as we were assured, that the lessons of previous failures had been learned, but unfortunately they had not.

It started to go wrong within just a few weeks of the general election. Ministers published a Green Paper entitled “21st Century Welfare”—I have my well-thumbed copy with me—which introduced the idea of universal credit. Paragraph 7 of chapter 5 stated:

“The IT changes that would be necessary to deliver a more integrated system would not constitute a major IT project”.

There was an utter failure, right at the outset, to grasp the scale of what the Government were about to embark on. How on earth the phrase “would not constitute a major IT project” came to be written in a Green Paper, I have absolutely no idea, but I am quite sure that no official in the Department would have been responsible for writing such a ludicrous claim. I am afraid that from that moment on, things have got progressively worse.

Will the Minister comment specifically on my intervention on my hon. Friend Glenda Jackson about this afternoon’s announcement by the head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, in evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, that the Treasury has not yet approved the revised business case? A week ago today, the Minister said in response to a question from my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions:

“The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement (5 December 2013, Hansard, column 65WS)”.—[Hansard, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 434W.]

The Minister said that the Treasury had agreed the business case, but today the head of the civil service told the Public Accounts Committee that the Treasury has not agreed the business case. The Minister owes us an explanation of the discrepancy between her answer a week ago and what the head of the civil service has said today.

The project has suffered from three levels of failure: policy failure, delivery failure and governance failure. I will say a little about each of them. First, policy failure is perhaps the most serious one. As Dame Angela Watkinson has rightly pointed out, the point of universal credit was to make sure that people would be better off if their income increased because they got a job or did extra hours or for some other reason. However, the difficulty involved in achieving that apparently simple goal was never understood by Ministers, and the hard graft of delivering it has therefore never been done.

Last September’s National Audit Office report, which my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams has rightly described as cataclysmic, noted:

“Throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work.”

That has been the central failure: the Department simply has not worked out what the system is supposed to do.

More than three years after the implementation of universal credit started, we still do not know, as we have been reminded in this debate, which recipients of universal credit will be entitled to free school meals for their children. That is not a minor detail; it is a very serious problem for the aim of making sure that people are always better off if their income goes up. If the truth is that a household will suddenly lose their entitlement to free school meals if they reach a specific income threshold—that appears to be where we are heading—of, for example, £9,000 a year, their income will be a great deal less than it was before the small increase that triggered that change. The Citizens Advice briefing for today’s debate has an example of a lone parent who, if free school meals are decided on the basis of income threshold,

“will be worse off by taking on extra work however many hours she works”.

Solving that genuine policy difficulty is at the heart of what the Government are trying to do with universal credit. As my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore has reminded us, she and I served on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee. On 24 March 2011, the Secretary of State said:

“we have to resolve some of these issues like free school meals…You asked when. I believe that during the Committee stage we should be in a much stronger position to make it much clearer how we will do that.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2011; c. 154-55, Q299.]

The Committee stage ended on 24 May 2011, just over three years ago. When I asked the Schools Minister about the subject last Thursday, he said that an announcement would be made “shortly”. It appears that we are heading for some sort of income threshold. If that happens, it will create a huge new work disincentive in universal credit for a very large number of people that will be far worse than anything in the current system, for all its flaws.

The universal credit rescue committee—I am grateful to David Mowat for drawing attention to its work—submitted its report to the Labour party two weeks ago. It pointed out that the work incentives for second earners in a couple are a good deal worse in universal credit than they are in the current system. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth underlined the importance of that point.

Leaving council tax support out of universal credit undermines simplicity, with many claimants facing two separate rates of benefit withdrawal when they move into work or their incomes increase.

The decision to pay universal credit to only one member of a couple, rather than reflecting the current system in which payment with respect for children is paid to the main carer—an arrangement with which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are particularly familiar—raises significant risks for many women and their children.

Universal credit also creates an extraordinary new red tape burden for self-employed people and partners in small partnerships who want to claim universal credit. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales says that about 60,000 partners in small partnerships will want to claim universal credit and that it will be virtually impossible for them to meet the proposed red tape challenge.

It is the policy failures that are the most serious, but it is the delivery failures that are the most spectacular. As the Minister for the Cabinet Office said in a television interview, implementation has been “lamentable”. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 16 November 2010 to point out that his timetable was unrealistic, and I wrote to him again on 18 April 2011. The Secretary of State wrote a perfectly friendly response on both occasions, but simply denied that he had a problem.

In November 2011, the Secretary of State announced that 1 million people would be claiming universal credit by April 2014; in fact, there were approximately 6,000. In May 2012, he announced that new applications for existing benefits and credits would be entirely phased out by April 2014; Ministers now say that that will not happen until 2016. Even assuming that everything goes well from here, which it will not, the project is at least two years late.

Late last year, it was finally admitted that the transition to universal credit will not be complete by 2017. Everybody has known that for months. Nigel Mills was right to make some very thoughtful comments about that. However, while everybody knew about the problems, Ministers flatly denied them. The Secretary of State told the House on 5 September 2013:

“The plan is, and has always been, to deliver this programme within the four-year schedule to 2017…that is exactly what the plan is today. We will deliver this in time”.—[Hansard, 5 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 472.]

That was complete fantasy. He was still doing it on 18 November, when he said that

“universal credit will roll out and deliver exactly as we said it would.”—[Hansard, 18 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 947.]

Everybody knew that that was untrue. Why do Ministers not simply tell us the truth about what is going on? Some £40 million has been written off so far, with more undoubtedly to come.

I was worried about achieving one universal credit IT system in anything like the proposed time scale, but we are now in the extraordinary situation of building two different universal credit IT systems. How much more will that cost? The Select Committee asked that question—surely that is what Select Committees are supposed to ask about—but the Government response simply does not provide any answers. Surely we can at least be told how much extra it will cost us to have two IT systems instead of one.

Lessons also need to be learned from another group of serious failures—the governance failures in the project. To answer the question quite rightly asked by the hon. Member for Warrington South, five different officials have had responsibility for the project since it started. However, the central problem is that the project has been managed primarily with a view to minimising embarrassment for the Secretary of State. That is essentially what decisions have been about. Problems, when obvious, have simply been denied; information that would have shed light on what was going on has been buried; and the people who have asked difficult questions have been fobbed off. Members of the public have made freedom of information requests to see the risk register, the milestone schedule and the project assessment review, but applications have of course been refused, and when the Information Tribunal found in favour of those members of the public, the Department simply appealed again.

Ministers are absolutely determined that nobody should know what is really happening. With this project, there is an obsession with hiding things; of pretending that all is well when it obviously is not; and, as the National Audit Office has pointed out, of only admitting to good news. That is not a culture that will deliver a successful project, and it certainly has not delivered success in this case. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn referred to a “bunker mentality”, and there absolutely is such a mentality.

Obsessive secrecy has no doubt spared the blushes of the Secretary of State, at least for a time, but it has hindered progress on the project. It has meant that it has taken longer than it should have done to recognise problems and to deal with them, and a large amount of money has been wasted. If, two years ago, the Secretary of State had put up his hands, and recognised that he and his advisers had got it wrong and that the project would take longer than they first said, much of the subsequent waste and delay could have been avoided. Instead, they just kept on denying that there were any problems, so the problems kept on getting worse—and the project is not finished yet.

The project is at least two years late, and it will have wasted much more than the £130 million already acknowledged. It is essential, as the universal credit rescue committee has argued, that the project is now paused. Central policy decisions still have not been made—Ministers cannot spend hundreds of millions of pounds on an IT system, if they do not know what it is supposed to do—and Ministers have not made such decisions. As has rightly been said by the rescue committee, taking advice from the former chief information officer of Rolls-Royce, who served on it with distinction, we need a plan that is published, is audited by the National Audit Office and contains milestones with dates, so that everybody knows how the project is going. Why pretend that it going well when it clearly is not?

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

The point I made was that the review could be done in parallel with continuing the programme. Let us say that 1,000 people are working on the programme at the moment. What will the right hon. Gentleman do with those 1,000 people during that three-month review?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

As I have said, the idea for the pause is based on the recommendation of Jonathan Mitchell, the retired chief information officer of Rolls-Royce, who has managed extremely large IT projects in that company—possibly even larger than those for which the hon. Gentleman had responsibility. He has said that when a project is as out of control as this one clearly is, it is essential to stop, to make policy decisions and to draw up a plan before simply shovelling in hundreds of millions pounds more.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I will not, because I should conclude.

Outstanding policy issues need to be decided, the work incentive design flaws need to be fixed and a hard-headed view needs to be taken about whether this project can be rescued within an acceptable time and cost. Opposition Members hope the answer to such a question will be yes, but we cannot assume that it will be. The question needs to be asked frankly and answered honestly. It should not be left until the election; it should be done now.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 7:56 pm, 7th July 2014

I have listened to everything that has been said and I have a hefty set of answers to give, but let me put everything in context by starting with what I hope we can all agree on. In between the doom and gloom that swept across the Chamber from Opposition Members, they seemed to agree that the benefits system needs to be changed, and this Government are bringing about the fundamental reform that is needed. The biggest reform in 60 years will ensure that we reward work, support aspiration, encourage responsibility and help those who need it most. As my hon. Friend David Mowat said, this piece of work is of national importance. We cannot run away from making the significant changes that are so necessary; it is because they are so imperative that we are making them.

Universal credit is at the heart of our reform. Its aim is to make work pay by ensuring that claimants are better off in work than on benefits. It will promote personal responsibility by ensuring that people actively seek work and increase earnings. At the same time, we will continue to provide support for those who need it most. Universal credit will have a positive impact on claimants. Up to 300,000 more people will be in work, and about 3 million more households will gain from universal credit, with an average gain of £177 per month. We are investing £600 million in child care support, with about 100,000 extra families becoming eligible for such support for the first time. From April 2016, 85% of eligible costs will be covered by the child care rate. Alongside that, thousands of disabled adults and children will receive more support, including a higher rate of support for all children who are registered blind.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

If I may carry on for a while, I will then answer the hon. Lady’s question.

I want to thank the Select Committee for continuing to support the policy objectives of universal credit—improving incentives to work and, as has to be key, smoothing the transition from benefits into work. Public and parliamentary debate has focused on IT systems, and IT is an important enabler, but universal credit is much more than that; it is a transformational change that is building a welfare system fit for the 21st century. It is already making a difference to people and their lives: we have stronger work incentives, there is more support from work coaches and universal credit claimants are spending twice as much time looking for work because they have the extra support.

We know that 90% of universal credit claimants are claiming online. Many Members spoke about the IT system.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Is it not the case that very high levels of jobseeker’s allowance claimants are claiming online anyway, so that is not really to do with universal credit? Is it not also the case that the number of hours people are spending looking for work has nothing uniquely to do with universal credit, because the Department has rolled out the claimant commitment far beyond those who are in receipt of universal credit?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Obviously more people are going online because that is key to all our changes. When we were providing support during the roll-out, we were enabling people to get online and use IT. That was part of the system. Obviously it is working and more people are using IT and getting online. As for the claimant commitment, that is an integral precursor of universal credit. We had to ensure that all of our 26,300 members of staff knew how that worked. Of course they are working with JSA claimants, but that is one of the changes towards universal credit that we have put into place.

Members have spoken about the IT system. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South, who has worked so ably on such systems, spoke with much knowledge on this matter. I am afraid that there was no knowledge from Opposition Members on this matter. We all agree that it is a complex IT system. I believe that there is a logic that we can all follow in what is happening. We are ensuring that it is slow, it is steady and it is working. The IT system is probably best described as a series of component parts. Some of it will stay—that is known as the legacy system—some of it will be built on, some of it will be plugged in and other bits will be newly built and form part of the enhanced digital solution. As we are rolling out the system, we will constantly be learning and working on it to inform the enhanced digital solution. It is like a pincer effect: we are rolling out what we have and learning as we go along to inform the enhanced digital solution.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I am not au fait with IT systems, but I am au fait with very complicated plans. This is a very complicated plan, so the expectation must be that it will go wrong and require tinkering and adjustment right to the end. That is what we should expect; not some blueprint that will be perfect all the way through. We know where we want to go. We have to be prepared to make adjustments as we get there.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank my hon. Friend. That is why we are learning as we are rolling the system out and using that to inform what we are doing.

We have a multi-disciplinary team of 90 people, 30 of whom are digital specialists. They are developing the digital system as we go along. It is not a twin-track approach. We are continually learning and informing. We have one system. That is what we are doing. I hope that that goes some way towards answering the questions that have been asked about IT. One thing that we can all agree on is that it is complex. We will learn as we go along and we have the right person doing the job.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Is it the case, as the Minister said in her written answer on Monday last week, that the Treasury has approved the universal credit business case—yes or no?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I have just had the answer that I gave last week checked. It stated:

“The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement

(5 December 2013, Hansard , column 65WS)”—[ Official Report , 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 434W.]

That was the response and I have just had it verified.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Will the Minister tell us, then, why the head of the civil service today told the Public Accounts Committee that the Treasury has not approved the universal credit business case?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will look into that additional point and get back to the right hon. Gentleman. On his last point, I have had the answer checked by my officials and it was correct.

On the roll-out, the new service is now available in 24 areas across England, Wales and Scotland, where it is providing people with stronger incentives and support to get into work, stay in work and increase their income. On 23 June 2014, we began rolling out universal credit for single people to jobcentres across the north-west of England, starting with Hyde, Stalybridge, Stretford, and Altrincham. Last week, it went live in Southport, Crosby, Bootle, Bolton and Farnworth. I am pleased to say that today, Wirral, Birkenhead, Bromborough, Hoylake, Upton and Wallasey began accepting claims for the new benefit. Once the north-west expansion is complete, 90 jobcentres—that is one in eight jobcentres in Britain— will be offering universal credit.

From 30 June, we expanded the service to couples in five of the existing live areas: Rugby, Bath, Inverness, Hammersmith and Harrogate. That meets our commitment to expanding the new service to more areas and to more claimant types from this summer. We will continue to roll out universal credit carefully in a safe and secure manner—starting small, testing and learning from delivery. That remains the right approach. Later in the autumn, it will be expanded to include families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South answered the question about whether somebody will be able to feed in information about how many hours they work per week. Such real-time information is another part of the programme that we had the foresight to put in place. That is working well and the roll out of it is nearly 100% complete—it is more than 99% rolled out.

I have just received a quote from a claimant in Warrington who is working 20 hours a week:

“I’m currently working 20 hours a week but am able to pick up extra hours when overtime is on offer because UC is flexible in that way and I don’t have to worry about my benefit just stopping if I work more than 16 hours. I know I will still get support until I earn enough to completely pay my own way”.

That is what we always intended to happen. There is a cushion of benefit to support people, but they are able to take extra hours and to progress in work without being stopped from working by the old-fashioned rules and regulations that Labour Members allowed to continue for so long. That is what we are trying to change. We all agreed, including the Select Committee, that those changes were needed. That is an example of a claimant saying what is happening to them right now under this system.

Sadly, I come to the questions that were asked by Debbie Abrahams. One thing on which we agree is that the media must talk about people and depict people carefully and sensitively. Nobody wants to point the finger at anybody. Nobody on the Government Benches has used any inflammatory language, because that is not right. I have always been very careful about the words that I use, because we all know people who have fallen on hard times and have needed the support of the state. It is imperative that each and every one of us checks our language, because it means a lot, whether it is on the internet, in newspapers or on the radio. I totally agree with her about that.

However, I totally disagreed with the hon. Lady—I am sure she will understand this—when she asked how the Secretary of State is still in his job. I had to smile at that rather absurd comment, given what he has delivered in four years. We have a record number of people in work. We are delivering on youth unemployment: it has gone down consistently for nine consecutive months. It is now 100,000 lower than when Labour was in office. Under Labour, youth unemployment went up by 45%. We have had the biggest fall in long-term unemployment, which doubled under Labour, since 1998. There is not just a record number of women in work, but a record rate of women in work too. All of those things are why the Secretary of State is still in his job: he has changed things around fundamentally.

The hon. Lady talks about a £40 million write-down. Projects of this size usually have about 30% write-down rate—this has a 10% rate. Labour’s track record of IT failure is £26 billion written off with no scope whatever, so we can move on to why universal credit is so important. Even the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is very clear about the benefits of universal credit, recently stating:

Universal Credit is a once in a generation opportunity to reform a failing and overly-complex system. It will revoke the worst work incentives of the current system, smooth transitions in and out of work and make it easier for people to access all the support they are entitled to.”

Those are the reasons why we are correct in pursuing universal credit.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. She and the Department have simplified the system, making it easier for recipients to understand what they can do to claim benefit. Above all, if they are capable of working, they should be in work. In contrast, the Labour party made the system so byzantine that our constituents had to appeal constantly to get the answers they wanted.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is spot on. Not only was it complex, but people sometimes did not know whether to take a job. People were locked into a life of benefits because they did not know if they would have been better off working. We are changing that.

I have listened to the points raised by hon. Members and I hope I have provided more clarity. I believe that we are making a transformational change. Yes, it needs to be slow and steady—[Interruption.] I am afraid that Helen Goodman is laughing. We are putting people into work. We are getting them off benefits. We are helping them to progress and supporting them into work. That is what those on the Government Benches are about: support and reforming the benefit system to the benefit of all of the UK.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).