Universal Credit — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:33 pm on 19th April 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham 3:33 pm, 19th April 2017

Universal credit is often described as a troubled programme, and the problems with it go right back to the initial naivety of Ministers about implementing a programme of this scale. My hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell pointed out in her excellent opening speech that we were originally told that it was all going to be done and dusted by October 2017. I was the Opposition spokesperson in this area at the time that was said, and I pointed out that that was not a plausible timescale. We are now told that it will be done by 2022, which is five years’ late, and it will be delayed further still.

The most astonishing example of naivety was in “21st Century Welfare”, a document published in July 2010. Paragraph 7 of chapter 5 says:

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

That is the heart of the problem. There was an utter failure at the outset to grasp the scale of what was involved; there has been not just one major IT project but several.

There is an enduring problem, which probably underpins a number of the difficulties that we have heard about today, including the unexplained overpayments that my hon. Friend referred to in her opening speech. That problem is the fact that real-time information does not work properly. RTI is the system through which employers notify Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in an automated way about how much they are paying to each of their employees in each month. It appears that there are serious inaccuracies in the data being sent to HMRC. Of course, those data are then sent on to the Department for Work and Pensions, and as a result errors are being made in the calculation of how much universal credit is due. It looks as though that will become an increasingly major problem.

It is well-known that there have been problems with RTI. We were promised that a post-implementation review was going to be published last month. It has not been published and there is no sign of it as yet, which reflects the scale of the problems that HMRC is facing. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales submitted evidence to the post-implementation review almost exactly a year ago, saying:

“There is a significant risk to the successful roll-out of universal credit…if immediate steps are not taken to resolve the underlying system issues that lead to data corruption within HMRC systems, which are then passed on to universal credit claimants.”

Can the Minister give us any reassurance that these very serious problems will be fixed by HMRC before we have more problems of the kind that we have heard about today, or can he at least tell us when the post-implementation review of RTI will finally be published?

There are benefits, in principle, from universal credit; Justin Tomlinson has a point. Community Links—which works with jobseekers and claimants in my constituency and which has pointed out repeatedly what a grim experience going to the jobcentre has become since 2010 because of the changes that have been made—also says: “At its best, universal credit has transformed client-coach relationships for the better”. There is real potential and the system could be significantly better, but it will not improve and its potential will not be realised unless these major technical problems are resolved. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some encouragement that they will be resolved.