Brit MPs have expressed serious concerns about the Department for Work and Pensions' ability to transfer 4 million people on legacy benefits to its embattled Universal Credit programme.
In its latest report (PDF), the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned that the latest delay – and the secretary of state's promises of a "slow and measured" rollout – is "no guarantee that the problems facing claimants will be resolved".
The DWP is expecting a total of 8.5 million people to be on Universal Credit by 2023. About half of these will move onto the new system naturally, through changes in their circumstances or new claims, as the system is rolled out in their area.
The rest – on legacy welfare benefits – will move over during a "managed migration" period. This will involve a claimant making a Universal Credit claim before their old benefit is stopped, but if they aren't moved over in time, claimants could be left without financial cover.
The difficulties inherent in moving four million people over from one system to another will be compounded by the fact that, according to the PAC report, "Universal Credit IT systems are not as automated as the department had expected at this stage, meaning many processes must still be carried out manually."
The committee noted that the DWP has accepted that this will be the most challenging part of the programme – but, despite the official start date being less than a year away, it "has not formalised detailed plans for the process and still needs to engage with stakeholder groups".
Moreover, the DWP anticipates up to 100,000 claimants needing to move to the new programme each month – but has said it "would struggle to deal with a number higher than this".
"As the number of new claims coming onto Universal Credit each month increases, the pressure on the department's staff, systems and organisations supporting claimants will increase," the report warned.
[DWP] has persistently dismissed evidence that Universal Credit is causing hardship for claimants and additional burdens for local organisations, and refuses to measure what it does not want to see...
"As a result there is a real risk that we will see claimants facing hardship on a much larger scale."
The committee is also highly critical of what it described as DWP's "dismissive attitude" to claimants' problems, saying that the department has a "fortress mentality" and won't heed criticisms from outsiders.
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the PAC, said the group had uncovered "further damning evidence of a culture of indifference" at the department, and that it was "disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support".
The department is responsive to feedback on its digital systems from staff, the committee said, but "it has persistently dismissed evidence that Universal Credit is causing hardship for claimants and additional burdens for local organisations, and refuses to measure what it does not want to see".
The committee also slammed a lack of suitable tracking of claimants, especially vulnerable people, such as those with mental health conditions, as it doesn't collect data on these groups within its systems.
DWP is said to be "working on developing" a text-mining approach – the first run of which is due to be completed in summer next year – to sift through the information. However, even before it has been completed, this solution seems to have a number of holes, as the report set out:
"The Department explained it had decided not to build the ability to flag vulnerabilities more quantitatively in its systems, as 'markers' in the legacy systems are often not updated, or are not removed when they should be.
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"It noted that, using the text-mining approach, it has found it easier to get information on some vulnerabilities (such as domestic violence victims) than others because of the wording used to record different needs."
The department's solution also won't provide clear data that allow it to measure what challenges the groups face or how well solutions are working, PAC said.
Moreover, the department was criticised for failing to explain how it measures hardship – the committee said that it "only cited the 'text-mining' technique" but this measures vulnerability, not hardship.
"It [the DWP] told us [MPs on the PAC] 'what matters is not whether [it has] got data on hardship, but whether [it is] providing the right service to clients who come through the door'," the report said.
The committee repeatedly emphasised the need for DWP to establish better ways of measuring hardship, what metrics will be used to confirm that migration of claimants is working, and the need for empirical evidence on the programme's outcomes.
It also said: "As a matter of urgency, the department needs to identify specific measures that demonstrate a step change in its attitude to listening and responding to feedback and evidence from its partners."
The government has to respond formally to all Parliamentary reports, and Hillier emphasised that her committee expects the government "to take meaningful actions" on its recommendations. ®