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Universal Credit (IT System)

Volume 563: debated on Monday 20 May 2013

The IT system to support the pathfinder roll-out from April 2013 is up and running. As Members would expect, we continue to monitor, test and learn. That system is a crucial aspect of our pathfinder approach—although not all of it, by any means—which will guarantee the careful and deliberate wider roll-out of universal credit.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he confirm that three of the pathfinders are not going ahead precisely because the computer system is not ready? Will he also confirm that in the one pathfinder that is going ahead, the staff have one computer screen on which to record information, and the rest of the claimant information has be written down by pen on a notepad? That is the situation, is it not? How can the Secretary of State possibly come to this House and justify that as being satisfactory, after years of preparation?

The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong. All the pathfinders are going ahead. The IT system is but a part of that, and goes ahead in one of the pathfinders. The other three are already testing all the other aspects of universal credit and in July will, essentially, themselves roll out the remainder of the pathfinder, and more than 7,000 people will be engaged in it. All that nonsense the hon. Gentleman has just said is completely untrue.

22. The pilot commenced on time and substantially on budget at one of the pathfinder locations, implying that much of the application must be working. Does that not contrast well with the failed big-bang approach taken by the last Government in similar implementations? (155880)

I repeat to my hon. Friend what I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts): the reality is that it is far better for us to do this carefully, and to check each time that the systems work and that those who are meant to be using them know what they are doing, so we learn the lessons from the whole system. The last Government went for a big-bang approach in one project after another, and most of them literally did just that: they blew up.

The Secretary of State will recall that I wrote to him in November 2010 to warn that the IT system could not possibly be delivered in the time scale he was claiming—unfortunately, that has proved to be the case. In November 2011, he announced that 1 million people would be receiving universal credit by April 2014. What is his latest estimate of the number of people who will be receiving universal credit by April 2014?

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of a quote from the Institute for Fiscal Studies about the way we are rolling the system out. It said:

“The level of problems caused to tax credit claimants and employers as the new tax credit systems went live in April 2003 demonstrated that there were undetected gaps in the design of the testing regime for the systems.”

This system is a success. We have four years to roll it out, we are rolling it out now, we will continue the roll-out nationwide and we will have a system that works—and one that works because we have tested it properly.

In November 2011, 1 million people were going to be claiming by next April: now, the Secretary of State has not the faintest idea how many there will be—so much for this project being on schedule. There were supposed to be four pathfinders, but now there is only one, under which the only people who can get universal credit are those in the most straightforward circumstances. How long will it now realistically be before he has an IT system that can cope with, for example, applicants with children?

Interestingly enough, I had the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) in to see me last year and I told them exactly how we were rolling the system out—[Interruption.] No, no. I told them that the pathfinder would continue first of all with single claimants. As for the idea that somehow things have changed—he knew about that then and the situation is exactly the same now.