The UK government's controversial plans to cut and shut benefit payments into one system was defended today by Work and Pensions Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith.
Just as Duncan Smith took his seat for a relatively easy grilling from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, his department put out a statement about the progress of Whitehall's Universal Credit project. The statement confirmed the system would be deployed to just six dole offices come October.
A national rollout of Universal Credit was due to go fully live by the autumn after rounds of testing that should have kicked off in April. The department hopes to overhaul Britain's benefits system with the new project by merging six government handouts into one regular payment that can be claimed and managed online.
However, the pilot scheme, dubbed Pathfinder, has been hamstrung by delays, which meant that only one job centre - a Jobcentre Plus in Ashton-under-Lyne - was up and running on 29 April as planned.
A pilot project in Wigan began at the start of this month, while dole offices in Oldham and Warrington won't begin testing Universal Credit until the end of August.
But the scheme came under fire today from MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee who questioned the "simplistic" nature of the testing that is currently taking place for Universal Credit.
At present, newly unemployed workers who are single are the only claimants being spotlighted under the scheme.
Labour MP Anne Begg, who is the committee's chair, asked Duncan Smith if the government's Universal Credit system was on track and to explain why "more complicated claims" were not being processed at the Pathfinder stage.
"We will start off with our national footprint using the same criteria," IDS insisted.
Begg shot back: "Won't that be terribly slow?"
Duncan Smith said he was simply responding to demands from the panel of MPs, who had called on the DWP "not to go too fast" and get things wrong.
"There's rushing it and there's a snail pace," Begg observed.
Some members of the committee tried to get Duncan Smith, Welfare Reform Under Secretary of State Lord Freud and Universal Credit boss Howard Shiplee to confess that deadlines on delivery of the system had slipped.
But Lord Freud refused to be pinned down, preferring instead to tell the panel: "I don't want to be a hostage to fortune," before adding that he wanted to see Universal Credit have a "safe and secure landing by 2017".
The peer told the MPs that it was important to "test these systems so that they work" for claimants. To which Labour MP Glenda Jackson responded:
"But you're not, are you?"
The people you are actually testing are a small number, the simplest of cases. How an earth are you going to achieve the evidence that you keep telling us you are going to learn from when the cohort is so narrow and so simple?
You entered into this and you say you've learned from what you didn't know. You're now attempting to tell us that it's all going to be easy-peasy because you are going to learn in this way, so when are you going to introduce the testing of the most complex cases? How many people will be in that when apparently according to this new ministerial statement there are going to be six national centres apparently dealing with everybody who will be a claimant and will eventually come on to Universal Credit?
Lord Freud's response was weak. He said simply that vulnerable groups would be tested under Universal Credit "pretty soon", at which point IDS interjected: "It's part of the October rollout ... to do those kind of cases."
Jackson chided: "That's when you start learning?"
Duncan Smith told the MP: "Post October we'll be selecting some more difficult groups to run through the process to ensure that we understand how that works - against our expectations, because we've done a lot of profiling and testing in this process."
Jackson pushed the minister again to provide firm details about when the process would begin.
Shiplee, who was brought into UC in May as a replacement for Philip Langsdale who died suddenly late last year, then revealed that the project had in fact been parked for 100 days to allow him to "reflect on where we've got to and start to look at the entire and total plan going forward".
To which Jackson retorted: "You have absolutely no evidence at all to make that retrospective assessment."
But IDS thundered: "That is simply not true." The minister, whose Cabinet position - sources have claimed - could be under threat, then defended the DWP's position by saying it was an old hand at dealing with extremely complicated cases.
Later in the hearing, Begg wondered if the government's 2017 deadline for deploying Universal Credit across the country was looking increasingly fanciful.
"We are bound to the timetable set," Duncan Smith insisted.
The minister also downplayed the significance of the technology-driven project, which has been heavily criticised for many months on end. Earlier today, The Register uncovered that skilled IT staff working on the UC trial are having to enter data by hand.
It has not helped that the project has been dogged with problems relating to a number of significant management rejigs as well as claims that contractors were walking off the job after the programme was halted.
"We get fixated on things like IT; the reality is it’s about a cultural shift," IDS told the MPs.
The dole offices earmarked by the DWP for Universal Credit from October are: Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton. Duncan Smith's department added that another 6,000 "internet access devices" would be installed in job centres in the autumn.
But the Public and Commercial Services Union attacked the DWP's supposed progress on Universal Credit.
"This is an admission of the abject failure of ministers," said PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka. ®