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Universal Credit 'plagued by problems', says director

Sep 3, 2013
Universal Credit 'plagued by problems', says director

The remarks are the most outspoken yet from within government, admitting that the introduction of Universal Credit — the flagship project of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary — has been undermined by technical and bureaucratic problems and is behind schedule.

Howard Shiplee, a former Olympics executive who was drafted in to direct the scheme, says he is focusing on ensuring that the “cultural elements” of the welfare reform programme are introduced while an “enhanced” IT system is being developed.

The remarks are the most outspoken yet from within government, admitting that the introduction of Universal Credit — the flagship project of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary — has been undermined by technical and bureaucratic problems and is behind schedule. The Daily Telegraph understands that the National Audit Office will this week publish a report into Universal Credit which will highlight widespread problems.

It is thought Mr Duncan Smith believes he has been let down by officials and has had to employ experts from the private sector to get Universal Credit back on track.

Under his plans, six key benefits are to be combined into a single payment which will ensure that claimants are always better off in work.

It requires the merging of complex IT systems in benefits offices, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and local councils — which the Government insists is possible.

In the summer, Mr Duncan Smith hired Mr Shiplee, the former director of construction for the London Games, as director-general for Universal Credit. In an article for the Telegraph website, Mr Shiplee details the problems he has encountered. “It’s clear to me there were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn’t and with suppliers not managed as they should have been,” he writes.

“There is no doubt there have been missteps along the way. But we’ve put that right. Equally, there has undoubtedly been bad luck. The former head of Universal Credit, Philip Langsdale, an acknowledged project management expert, died only three months into the job after making early progress.

“I’m not in the business of making excuses, and I think it’s always important to acknowledge in any project where things may have gone wrong in order to ensure we learn as we go forward.”

Universal Credit was planned to be rolled out for new claimants from next month but the plan has already been scaled back to just six job centres. Ministers insist it will still be introduced for all claimants by the final deadline of 2017.

However, well-placed sources said that Mr Duncan Smith was prepared to publicly admit that mistakes have been made so that they can be addressed.

A source close to the Work and Pensions Secretary said: “It is better to stop, admit mistakes and sort them out rather than rush headlong into something and waste huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. This isn’t about chasing cheap headlines, Iain wants to get this right — this is what his job is all about. ”

In his article on Tuesday, Mr Shiplee says that a new IT system is now being developed for Universal Credit, more than three years after the project began.

“Too many people think Universal Credit is just about IT,” Mr Shiplee writes. “That’s a big mistake. This is about changing the way we do business – and changing people’s behaviour by ensuring there is always an incentive to be in work. So while the enhanced IT option – which will help us deliver this change — is being finalised, we will press ahead with rolling out the cultural elements of Universal Credit to support this transformation.”

He added: “We can’t underestimate the scale of the challenge.

“This is a fundamental transformation of the welfare system. It involves rebuilding and merging programmes currently run out of the Department for Work and Pensions, HMRC and local authorities across the country.

“It means changing the working practices of these organisations and the thousands of staff working at Jobcentre Plus. It means a complete reordering of how benefit claimants experience the welfare state.”

Labour has already described Universal Credit as a “white elephant” and is expected to seize on the National Audit Office report to attack Mr Duncan Smith.

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