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Universal Credit project reviews reveal biggest challenges still to come

8 February 2018

The Work and Pensions Committee publishes its assessment of reviews of Universal Credit, carried out by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). 

Lack of evidence to back up biggest welfare reform in 50 years

Chair of the Committee Rt Hon Frank Field 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 programme managers appear to expect us, the public, and the Minister responsible to take it on faith that UC will deliver the much improved employment outcomes they claim for the vast range of people – disabled, single parents, carers, the self-employed - who will claim UC. 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 Reviews, 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. 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."

Brink of failure

The Committee describes a "chaotic start" to the UC programme, which took the UC programme to "the brink of complete failure" in 2013.  It is to the Department's credit that it has brought it back from that brink, but the programme still faces major challenges.

The Committee's report states that while the IPA's call for the "industrialisation" of UC for complex cases and vulnerable customers is an unfortunate choice of phrase, UC can only deliver its promised efficiency gains if it becomes cheaper and less labour-intensive.

In January of this year the Office for Budget Responsibility warned of the "significant risk" the UC programme poses to control of public finances. The Department has consistently struggled to convince the IPA that UC can be scaled up as planned. The Department must balance the considerable costs of further delays against the costs of pressing ahead.

Chronic delays and revisions

Chronic delays and revisions to the rollout are a recurrent theme through the reports, persisting up to the present day: following the November 2017 Budget, the digital service will be rolled out to ten Jobcentres per month between February and April 2018, compared to over 60 per month on the previous plan, that plan itself one of serial significant revisions to earlier projections.

The Committee also sets out concerns about the review process. The Project Assessment Reviews are consistently critical of the Department's failure to set clear criteria for proceeding to the next stage of the UC rollout. 

Set clear performance standards to ensure objective decisions

The Committee argues that setting clear performance standards in advance is the best way of ensuring decisions are made objectively. The scope of the reviews, agreed with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)programme team, changed between assessments, meaning that important findings were not followed up in detail.

The latest review, which assessed the readiness of UC for an accelerated rollout from October 2017, was explicitly excluded from considering whether previous IPA recommendations had been acted on, whether UC would achieve its business case, and whether it was delivering its policy intent. The Committee found it "very surprising" that UC had not been subject to a full PAR since October 2015.

Rt Hon Frank Field MP will present the report in the House of Commons later today.

Further information

Image: Department for Work and Pensions