Universal credit, the proposed one online benefits system to rule them all, has always been Iain Duncan Smith's brainchild – but with his shock departure from the Department for Work and Pensions, will the government finally put a bullet in the troubled project?
Announced with great fanfare in 2011, the programme intended to incentivise people into work by rolling six benefits or tax credits into a single monthly payment. More than one million people were supposed to be claiming Universal Credit by April 2014, with 12 million moving onto the new benefit by 2017. According to the latest stats, just 200,000 have claimed the benefit.
One source who said they had identified the failings of Universal Credit from an early stage, places the blame squarely on IDS.
"I blame him for being pig-headed and grandiose. The idea that you could consolidate all those benefits, move some from the centre to local authorities and vice versa and change payment, eg away from landlords to tenants, and hope that it all works, was just a dream."
A huge question-mark remains as to what the newly anointed Work and Pensions Secretary, Stephen Crabb, will do next. On the one hand, there may be a temptation to place a cordon sanitaire around the entire project and pin its failing on Duncan Smith. But cancelling the project would result in a huge write-off, something that the department will be particularly reluctant to do given the negative press around its welfare cuts.
John Slater has been campaigning for the release of internal documents on the project since 2012, which a judge last week ordered to be disclosed. He believes the project has been going on too long to be cancelled.
"If Stephen Crabb has any sense he should come clean about the historical mess that has been the UC programme and admit why it is going as slowly as it is. The 'careful and slow' mantra isn't fooling anyone who has followed the programme."
While tensions play out as to what happens next, read our timeline of the disastrous project to date:
Work on Universal Credit begins
Supposedly using the government's new agile approach to IT projects, the project got off the ground in 2011, promising to meet the hugely ambitious original completion date of 2017. In November 2011, Duncan Smith said: "Universal Credit is the most radical redesign of the benefits system this country has ever seen."
The department's press release added that: “Many of the technology building blocks needed to deliver Universal Credit already exist with the programme reusing existing, proven IT, which represents about sixty per cent of what is needed.
"Although there will be elements that need to be updated and parts which need to be built from scratch – Ministers are clear that Universal Credit does not require a major new IT system," it said.
Rumblings of disaster loom
By the following year it was becoming increasingly clear that the timescales were wildly unrealistic. The Local Government Association said in September 2012 that the there was a real risk the IT system would not be ready in time. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee also issued a report expressing concern about the adequacy of the central government IT systems and those of local authorities to accurately exchange information.
Responding to growing criticism, including from Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Liam Byrne, a DWP spokesman told the BBC: “[It] is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is incorrect.”
DWP tries to wallpaper cracks
By late 2012 the DWP was forced to admit cracks were starting to show and decided to restructure the programme. A night of the long knives ensued, with the removal of the programme director and the director of IT and the discontinuance of development of systems for national roll-out in favour of short-term solutions in support of pilot schemes - so-called "pathfinders".
However, the Major Projects Authority found in February 2013 that the department had “failed to fully implement two-thirds of the recommendations made by internal audit and the Major Projects Authority in 2012.”
Let's start again
Between February and May 2013 a team from the MPA conducted a 13-week reset of the programme after identifying “serious concerns about the department having no detailed ‘blueprint’ and transition plan for Universal Credit.”
At this point £34m of its new IT assets were written off. The reset resulted in a "twin track" approach to the programme, taking IT systems developed prior to the 2013 reset while simultaneously developing a "Digital Service".
Costs continue to escalate
The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts assessment in November 2013 found that “timescales have slipped and that value has not been secured from the £425 million invested so far. There has been a shocking absence of financial and other internal controls and we are not yet convinced that the Department has robust plans to overcome the problems that have impeded progress,” it said.
MPs found that just £34m of IT investment will be re-usable from more than £600m spent on the programme once it moves over to the digital version, according to a hearing in December 2014. The committee also heard the project has again been flagged as "high risk" by the Major Projects Authority - just six months after the MPA revealed the entire project has been reset.
The latest MPA report as of June 2015 once again flagged Universal Credit as being at high risk of failure, with total lifetime costs of the project having increased by £3bn over the last two years to bring them to a whopping £15.85bn. ®