I last wrote about Universal Credit (UC) more than two years ago, just as it was running into heavy criticism from Commons’ Committees and within government. I had intended to write one or two further articles about that criticism within a month or two.
There is little point in going into that in any detail two years later. Those wanting to pursue the matter could start with the National Audit Office report in Sep 2013 ( pdf ).
But it is worth reproducing one Figure from that report:
The main purpose of UC is to remove the disincentives to work by simplifying the system and removing the high marginal tax rates faced by current claimants on additional earned income. But an important secondary purpose was to reduce the costs of administering welfare benefits. The Figure shows that it is hoped this reduction will be £2.7 billion/year once the system is fully operational. The £4.4 billion figure is some kind of quantification of the hoped-for benefits of removing the disincentives to work.
Unsurprisingly, the key to this reduction was changing the process from personal visits to Job Centres where a claimant can have all the paperwork completed by an expert employed by the government to a process where the claimant applies online.
The snag of course, is that benefit claimants are probably the least plausible group for a massive switch to online.
There were additional problems arising from a long history of government incompetence both at delivering large IT projects in-house and at procuring them from commercial providers.
The upshot was that the government decided to hold back introduction of digital UC, so that it would not be fully implemented until near the end of the current parliament (May 2020). It decided to use rapid-prototyping techniques to develop the necessary software in-house. Meanwhile there would be a roll-out of UC for simple cases where there were no children involved using the traditional approach of claimants applying in person at Job Centres. For some reason, the jargon for this roll-out is “live service”.
A Nov 2014 NAO update report summarised the situation as follows:
The government also has a website with regular monthly reports (Oct report pdf ) on the roll-out:
One can get more elaborate detail by going straight to more detailed databases which are available online:
although for some odd reason searching on Universal Credit gives nothing (and you have to search on something in order to populate the left-hand Databases column) – you have to try rather broader terms. Clearly there has been substantial progress since the NAO update, although things seem to have flattened out recently:
In the summer the government released details of how the roll-out of simple cases would continue. A lengthy “district list” shows when each postcode will be reached.
My own SE11 is one of the laggards:
Of course, Iain Duncan Smith is far from out of the wood yet. The precise detail of “simple cases” qualifying for the “live service” roll-out is fairly complicated and set out in Schedule 5 of SI 2013/983 (“The Gateway Conditions” p53ff of the pdf). But they evidently amount to only 0.5M in total out of the 7M projected claimants. Even getting from the present 141k simple cases, to the projected 500k by next April could be challenging. To enlist another 360k in the 26 weeks before the end of April (4 already past) will require an average of 14k/week compared with the current 6k/week. If the ramp-up was constant throughout the period, that would mean ramping up to 22k/week by next April. Not impossible, but certainly challenging.
How the full-blown digital service is getting on is completely unclear. But clearly the Major Projects Authority (on which I hope to write soon) is applying a good deal of pressure. Its last published traffic-light rating of UC seems to be amber/red in Sep 2014.