Universal Credit

Part of Estimates 2014-15 — Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 6:31 pm on 7th July 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

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

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.