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Department of Work and Pensions internal docs reveal troubled history of Universal Credit gives in, publishes after 2-year legal spat

After a two-year legal battle, the UK government's Department for Work and Pensions has capitulated – and released a series of embarrassing assessments of its disastrous Universal Credit programme.

The internal project assessment reviews (PARs) of the troubled programme from 2012-2015 were released after campaigner John Slater took the department to court over its refusal to release the documents.

The hearing had been due in April, but Esther McVey, secretary of state for Work and Pensions, decided to release the documents.

She claimed the programme is in a "very different place" compared to where it was four years ago.

"The Universal Credit Programme does not lack scrutiny as the ongoing Work and Pension's Select Committee inquiries demonstrate," she said, before adding the decision to publish the reports are "exceptional."

"I remain of the view that it is critical to the effectiveness of the Infrastructure & Projects Authority assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential."

The reports cover much of the ground touched upon by the Public Accounts Committee Office's recent summary of the last 10 PARs on universal credit.

That revealed many are still unable to access the "digital-only" version; and fewer than 50 per cent of people could identify themselves online using Verify and an in-house version built by the departments.

However, the previously unpublished reports also offer an illuminating glimpse of the failures surrounding the project.

For example, the 2015 review found "significant issues already exist requiring management attention".

It said confidence in using Verify was "very low".

"If Verify is not suitable and further [face-to-face] verification is required for UC, this will have a material effect on the business plan." Therefore, it said it was making a "cautious assumption" of 40 per cent online verifications.

Another observation suggested the depth of frustration with the agile techniques previously applied. "This no longer feels like a programme dominated by a fixation on the agile methodology, or being dominated by technologists," it said, adding that "red lines for digital service products have been agreed."

Slater noted that many of the assertions are repeated in the reports. "How many times have you got to build a strong leadership team?" he said.

"This confirms to me the DWP been dishonest, no way do the reports reflect what the DWP had been putting out in its press releases at the time.

"It has got into this clever narrative that it is a slow and steady roll-out." ®

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