The government's £500m plan to overhaul the benefits system is being hampered by IT problems that could yet lead to another spectacular public sector disaster at the expense of taxpayer money, Labour MPs have claimed.
The Department for Work and Pensions denied that anything had gone wrong after allegations emerged suggesting that some workers had downed tools on implementing the Universal Credit system. A spokeswoman told The Register this morning:
It's categorically not true to say that work has stopped on Universal Credit. All of our suppliers are working with us to deliver Universal Credit from April. Our plans have not changed.
However, questions being raised in Parliament on Wednesday hinted strongly that the DWP's Universal Credit system was facing a major crisis.
The Guardian reported earlier this week that five companies working on the IT contract - Accenture, Atos Origin, Oracle, Red Hat and IBM - had claimed that work on the UC system had been halted.
Shadow DWP secretary Liam Byrne asked work and pensions minister Mark Hoban to explain if it was the case that work had been suspended. He also expressed "grave and growing concerns about implementation" of the system.
Hoban retorted to the House:
I want to make it clear that nobody has walked off the project; all the contractors are in place and the project is on schedule to be delivered at the end of April. Now, if he thinks the idea is good in theory, it is about time he supported it. It is working and the contractors are in place, doing the job and ensuring that the pilots will be up and running at the end of April.
Hoban later declared that it was a "complete red herring" to claim that the UC project had been delayed by IT problems. The minister denied that the deployment of the entire system had been hit by major delays:
We have always made clear our plan for a progressive roll-out of universal credit, for exactly the reason that hon. Members have mentioned, which is that previous governments have launched unsuccessful big-bang IT projects. We have been clear, therefore, that we need a progressive roll-out—pilots, lessons learned, consolidation and then next-stage roll-out.
That is the best way to ensure that universal credit is rolled out correctly and it is a significant change from how previous governments have handled IT projects, including the disastrous tax credits system...
We have made clear our plan for a gradual roll-out for new claimants from October 2013. We have always said that the progressive roll-out of new claims across the country would begin in October 2013. That is a simple restatement of what we have always intended to do.
Byrne had claimed that hundreds of contractors had been booted off the project.
Who's steering the project?
Over the past few months, the DWP suffered something of a brain drain from its UC project. In November last year, director Malcolm Whitehouse - a British Computer Society fellow - was replaced by Hilary Reynolds.
Steve Dover, who headed up the DWP's big IT projects, moved on from his axed role as "corporate director responsible for the detailed design and delivery of all business & IT products for the Universal Credit Programme". He had been involved in the development of the government scheme for six years.
The DWP confessed to El Reg at the time that no key IT individual was solely steering the implementation of the Universal Credit system. Its CIO Philip Langsdale had been tasked with taking an "overarching look" at the project. Tragically, Langsdale died over the Christmas period.
Since then, David Pitchford has been brought in as temporary boss of Universal Credit.
MPs also argued in the debate about Universal Credit on Wednesday that Brits who do not use internet - some 7 million people at the last count - could be left behind by the government's desire to shift everything online.
Hoban said that telephone and face-to-face support would be offered only as a "fall-back mechanism" for those individuals who are unable to claim benefits online.
The minister attacked Labour MPs for their lack of progress on the supposed shift to the online world.
I think we must be careful and not underestimate where people are at the moment. The vast majority of claims for jobseeker’s allowance are made over the telephone and an increasing proportion are made online.
We are not entering uncharted territory and I am surprised that Opposition Members seem keen to keep us in a luddite past. We need to tackle the digital divide, and this is a very good way of doing it.