Universal Credit

Part of Estimates 2014-15 — Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 7th July 2014.

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

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.