Work and Pensions Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith admitted for the first time today that the government's Universal Credit system is unlikely to hit its original 2017 deadline, following costly technology implementation blunders.
The one-dole-to-rule-them-all project has been hamstrung by poor management, bad decision-making and cash wasted on IT assets that have now been written off to the tune of £140m in taxpayer money to date.
Cabinet Minister Iain Duncan Smith's Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for steering Universal Credit - a huge IT project to cut and shut six benefits schemes into one payment system - said ahead of the government's Autumn Statement this morning that it believes "most of the existing benefit claimants will be moved over to UC during 2016 and 2017."
Decisions on the later stages of Universal Credit roll out will also be informed by the completion of the enhanced IT and these decisions will determine the final details for how people transition to the new benefit.
Before now, IDS has repeatedly insisted that Universal Credit would "roll out very well and it will be on time and within budget".
But the evidence to date has pulled the minister up short on his promise.
The crisis-hit Universal Credit system is expected to cost the public purse £2.4bn up to April 2023 - with spending capped at £2bn until the end of the current Parliament.
The DWP continued to claim today that its project remained within budget, despite the recent, embarrassing multi-million pound IT write-off. It said:
Pressing ahead with the existing system while the enhanced IT is being developed will allow for greater understanding of how individuals in different circumstances interact with Universal Credit. It also allows higher volumes of people to benefit from the better work incentives that come with the new benefit. Importantly, this approach will still allow the Universal Credit programme to roll out within the original budget.
In September, Duncan Smith's department said it wasn't completely scrapping the £500m Universal Credit IT system, even though its implementation had been disastrous, but instead confirmed it was taking "the best of the existing system" and adding improvements with support from the Government Digital Service team - the people behind the re-branding of Directgov.
"Our approach will ensure that while we continue to enhance the IT for Universal Credit, we will learn from and expand the existing service, so that we fully understand how people interact with it, and how we can best support them," Duncan Smith said in a mealy-mouthed statement.
At present, Universal Credit is being tested in seven areas in the UK. It's understood that around 2,000 claimants are currently drawing their benefits from the online system.
It has been reported that as many as 700,000 people seeking Employment Support Allowance will still be waiting to be shifted to the Universal Credit system in 2017.
To underline Duncan Smith's humiliating admission that Universal Credit will not be delivered on time, the DWP added:
The overriding priority throughout will be continued safe and smooth delivery and, as recommended by the Public Accounts Committee in their recent report on Universal Credit, this will take precedence over meeting specific timings.