MPs have slammed the Department for Work and Pensions for its failure to provide evidence to justify Universal Credit, a reform they said would leave William Beveridge, architect of the welfare system, “rolling in his grave”.
The cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee said DWP is yet to publish a full business case for the controversial programme to combine six existing benefits into one payment, despite the reform being eight years in the making.
It also warned that while the department had brought the programme, which was beset by “chronic delays” and revisions, “back from the brink”, the biggest challenges such as moving to an online service were yet to come.
The committee published a critical report yesterday, after DWP handed it project assessment reviews that have been conducted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) over the lifetime of the Universal Credit programme.
As well as prompting alarm as to the state of the programme, the IPA's reviews themselves were criticised by MPs as being “shot through with management gobbledegook” and much of it “totally incomprehensible”.
Committee chair Frank Field, a Labour MP, said: "Perhaps the most damning point that emerges from any assessment of the government's progress on Universal Credit is that in the eighth year of the programme, the department itself has yet to produce the full business case for its own mega reform.”
The process by which major government projects secure Treasury funding involves two “outline” business cases, and the Universal Credit programme secured approval for its first in September 2014, following delays, and its second in July 2015.
A third, “full business case” was due by September 2017, but it is now not expected to reach the Treasury until March 2018.
“Since December 2017, the programme has been funded by the Treasury on an ad hoc basis, with the latest extension being until April 2018,” said the report.
"They have produced no evidence to back up the key, central economic assumption of the biggest reform to our welfare system in 50 years. William Beveridge will be rolling in his grave" – Frank Field
The committee credited the department with bringing Universal Credit “back from the brink” of complete failure in 2013, and said the programme is “now run more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose”.
But it said the programme still faces “major challenges”, chiefly around automation. To make promised efficiency gains, it said, DWP must create a far more automated system, but many processes such as identity verification are still largely manual.
“The department has consistently struggled to convince the IPA that UC can scale as planned,” said the report.
The committee has complained that DWP has not provided it with statistics concerning the functioning of Universal Credit, and Field said its programme managers appeared to expect the public to “take it on faith” that claimants will see employment benefits from the programme.
He said: “At the moment they are relying on the simplest cases – single, unemployed claimants with no children. They have produced no evidence to back up the key, central economic assumption of the biggest reform to our welfare system in 50 years. William Beveridge will be rolling in his grave.”
The government’s oversight of major projects also came under fire, and Field said the reviews themselves, “which barely mention claimants, are also shot through with management gobbledegook”.
“Were I the minister in charge, I would have either rejected or ignored much of it entirely as totally incomprehensible,” he added. “They were of course not designed for public consumption, but this major reform would surely have been served better by a much more transparent approach."
"Universal Credit is the biggest modernisation of the welfare system in a generation and continues to be delivered in a safe and secure way" – DWP spokesperson
The committee also called on DWP to step up its engagement with local authorities, housing associations and other landlords, and said that Universal Credit was a “valuable case study of the challenges in achieving transformational change in government which should be examined by ministers and civil servants planning major projects”.
It said the break in the rollout of Universal Credit that started in January was an important point of reflection, calling on DWP to agree “clear performance criteria” before making any further major steps in the programme. Universal Credit has been widely criticised for the impact it has on claimants, some of whom have had to wait six weeks for a payment.
A DWP spokesperson pointed out that the committee had commended the department for its professional and efficient running of the Universal Credit programme.
“The committee acknowledges that the historic issues raised in this report have now been addressed and ‘substantial achievements’ have been delivered since 2013,” they added.
“Universal Credit is the biggest modernisation of the welfare system in a generation and continues to be delivered in a safe and secure way. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority has independently supported our test and learn approach, the improvements we continue to make and the recent expansion of the programme.
“People on Universal Credit are moving into work faster than those on the old system, staying in work longer and keeping more of their money. And in the Budget we announced a £1.5bn package of additional support for people as they move to the new system.”
After requesting to see the IPA’s Universal Credit assessments, Field said last month that civil servants could expect more demands from MPs for government to release official documents in key policy areas, because the UK is in a “different constitutional ballgame”.