The government’s flagship welfare reform has been badly managed, is “overambitious” and poor value for money, the spending watchdog has said. The National Audit Office said risks were taken with the universal credit to hit targets, IT systems had “limited functionality” and an unfamiliar project management approach was used.
A national rollout of the new benefit has been delayed following IT glitches. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said these had now been fixed. Mr Duncan Smith told the BBC: “This will be delivered within budget and within the timescale.” He said the pilot scheme, which has begun with 1,000 people in the Manchester area, “is demonstrating that the IT we put forward for this actually works”.
But his Labour shadow Liam Byrne accused Mr Duncan Smith of misleading MPs and the public about the state of the new system. “It is now quite clear that Iain Duncan Smith has lost all control of his department and, frankly, he has now lost control of the truth,” he told BBC News. “This is a damning report. It shows they started work without knowing what they were doing, millions in IT spend has been written off and there are no counter-fraud measures worth their name. We want to know how he has left Parliament with the impression that everything is on track when the NAO says actually there are major problems. Mr Duncan Smith is saying one thing to Parliament and his officials are confirming something entirely different with the nation’s auditors.”
Mr Byrne clashed with his Conservative opposite number in the Commons, telling him: “You must apologise to the House and you must now convene cross-party talks to get this project back on track. The quiet man must not become the cover-up man.”
Mr Duncan Smith said he had identified the same problems with universal credit as the NAO after launching an independent review of the project last summer and they had now been fixed by bringing in new management from outside the civil service. He repeatedly told MPs the NAO report was “historic” and universal credit would be delivered “on time and in budget”. He blamed the problems on a lack of “professionalism” and a “culture of secrecy” among the team of civil servants originally in charge of the programme.
Under the government’s plans, six key means-tested benefits – jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, working tax credit, income support and child tax credit – are to be combined into a single payment which ministers say will ensure that claimants are always better off in work and also reduce fraud.
The transformation, championed by Mr Duncan Smith, requires the merging of complex computer systems in benefits offices, HM Revenue and Customs and local councils – which the government insists can be done. All new claimants were supposed to receive the universal credit from next month as part of a phased implementation plan but this has been delayed following a number of pilots earlier this year.
Source: BBC NEWS
5th September 2013