Universal Credit

Part of Estimates 2014-15 — Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 7th July 2014.

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

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.