This is a major and challenging reform which will transform the welfare state in Britain for the better, ultimately accounting for some £70 billion of benefit spending each year, with 3 million people better off.
Rightly for a programme of this scale, the Government’s priority has been, and continues to be, its safe and secure delivery. This has been demonstrated throughout our approach to date, which started with the successful launch of the pathfinder in April 2013 and has continued with the controlled expansion of universal credit, starting as planned in October 2013 and running through to spring 2014. What is more, we are already pushing ahead with the cultural and business change required as part of universal credit. We are retraining 25,000 Jobcentre Plus advisers while implementing digital jobcentres and rolling out the new claimant commitment, which is now on track to be in place in half of all jobcentres by the end of the year, and across the country by the spring.
Yesterday I announced and discussed at length with the Work and Pensions Committee our plans for the next stage of implementing universal credit, following my Department’s work over recent months with the Government Digital Service to assess delivery options. That work has explored the use of the latest digital technologies and assessed the utility of the work we have done to date—[Interruption.]
Order. The Secretary of State is well able to make himself heard, and he is doing so, but it is frankly discourteous, when he is giving a statement to the House, for it to be peppered with constant heckling. Members will have the chance to question the right hon. Gentleman, but please do him the courtesy of hearing what he has to say.
The conclusions of this work were set out yesterday. First, as part of the wider transformation in developing digital services, the Department will further develop the work started by the GDS to test and implement an enhanced digital service. This will be capable of delivering the full scope of universal credit and make provision for all claimant types.
Meanwhile, we will expand our current service and develop functionality so that from next summer we progressively start to take claims for universal credit from couples and, in the autumn, from families. Once safely tested in the 10 live universal credit areas, we will expand the roll-out to cover the north-west of England. This will enable us to learn from the live running of universal credit at scale and for more claimant types, including the more vulnerable and the more complex, while extending to more people the positive benefits of universal credit.
It is important to note that the information that we are getting back from the pathfinder tells that 90%—I stress, 90%—of people are claiming universal credit online and that 78% are confident about their ability to budget with monthly payments. It also tells us— [Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not want to hear about this, because they have been wrong on welfare reform from day one. The majority of people who are on the programme tell us that it pays to work, with 65% to 70% reporting that universal credit offers better work incentives than jobseeker’s allowance and is less complex—upheld by the 65% who agreed that it was easier to understand their obligations as a result.
As we progress with the future delivery of this flagship programme, we will continue the same careful approach—test, learn, implement—as it is rolled out through the regions. On this basis—[Interruption.] Actually, I am going to pick this point up. The shadow Chancellor is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. I will tell you, Mr Speaker, what we will not do: we will not take any lessons from the party that rolled out tax credits early. It rushed the delivery of tax credits, which cost £5 billion immediately and 400,000 people suffered directly as a result.
Once we have closed down the new claims, we will test, learn and implement—unlike Labour when it rolled out its information technology programmes. The new claims to the legacy benefits that universal credit replaced have been closed down, with the vast majority of the remaining legacy case load moving to universal credit during 2016 and into 2017. Final decisions on these elements of the programme will be informed by the development of the enhanced digital solution.
On 5 September, the Secretary of State told the House:
“We will deliver this in time and in budget”.—[Official Report, 5 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 472.]
On 14 October, he said:
“Universal credit will roll out very well and it will be on time and within budget.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 429.]
And just last month, on 18 November, he said that
“universal credit will roll out and deliver exactly as we said it would.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 947.]
The Secretary of State must answer these questions. How on earth can this be on time when in November 2011 he said that
“all new applications for existing benefits and credits will be entirely phased out by April 2014”,
but we now learn that this milestone will be reached only in 2016? Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is a delay of two years? Will he also confirm that, even by 2017, 700,000 people will not be on universal credit?
How can the Secretary of State say that universal credit will be on budget when, even by his own admission, £40.1 million is being written off on IT costs? What budget heading was that under? The Secretary of State also revealed yesterday that another £90 million will be written off by 2018. Does this mean an additional IT system is having to be built?
The reset exercise began in February. On 18 November, the Secretary of State still claimed that there would be no delay to universal credit. At what point did he learn that there would be a delay of two years?
The underlying problem is surely that the Secretary of State has not resolved key policy decisions before spending hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on an IT system.
One of the issues that has a fundamental impact on whether people are better off in work is free school meals; so which recipients of universal credit will get free school meals—some, none or all?
The Secretary of State is in denial. Doubtless, he will deny that he is in denial in a moment’s time. But we all know that until he fesses up, no one will have any confidence in his management of this programme. It is no surprise that a source close to the Chancellor says:
“There are some ministers who improve in office and others, like IDS, who show that they are just not up to it”.
Let me deal with a couple of the points raised by the hon. Lady. I said all along, and I repeat, that this programme essentially is going to be on time. By 2017, some 6.5 million people will be on the programme, receiving the benefits.
Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s comments about what is written down and what is written off. For somebody who was supposed to have been working for the Bank at one point, she does not seem to know the difference between equipment of no use that is being written off and equipment—this is the case in any company over a period of time—that is written down each year. That is exactly right. If she drives a motor car, I wonder whether she has noticed that, over a period of years, its value actually depreciates. Perhaps she has not; perhaps she is still trying to sell the car for the same value she bought it for.
The reality is very simple. Let us take the legacy systems right now. The legacy computer systems that are working were written down years ago, but they are still delivering value to the Government by delivering benefits. Maybe the hon. Lady needs a teach-in about the difference between written-off equipment and written-down equipment.
I want to deal with one other point that is quite clear and is the reality. We have been clear—[Interruption.]
We do not take any lessons from the Opposition about computer failure: the tax credit system crashed, the health system crashed and they lost billions and billions of pounds while the shadow Chancellor was at the right hand of the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown).
I might also say that although the Opposition have asked an urgent question on universal credit today, the truth is that they are themselves in denial about the legacy of welfare failure they left us. Welfare spending increased by 60% in real terms under the previous Government—£3,000 a year for every household in Britain. More than £170 billion was spent on tax credits alone. There were 5 million on out-of-work benefits, and nearly a quarter of working-age people were economically inactive.
This Government have already saved £11 billion on the welfare bill, £48 billion over this Parliament. The Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that welfare bills will fall in real terms to below the level at which we received them. Employment is up by more than 1 million. More households are now in work than ever before, with the lowest proportion of children living in workless households since records began. Child poverty is at its lowest level since the 1990s, and pensioner poverty is at its lowest for almost 30 years.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Opposition want to talk about universal credit, but the reality is that, unlike tax credits, it will roll out without damaging a single person, and it will also deliver massive benefits, under control by our test, learn and implement approach. The waste that we inherited was the waste of people who did not listen, rushed programmes and implemented them badly.
The Secretary of State promised that universal credit would be digital by default—it isn’t; he promised that all new claims would be on universal credit by May 2014—they won’t; and he then promised that 10 areas would be assessing the simplest claims by the end of October—they aren’t; so why should anyone believe him when he says that the delivery of universal credit is now on track?
The proof of this will be as we roll out the programme. I say to the Chair of the Select Committee that we intervened early when there were problems. We did not let this programme roll out so that anybody was damaged, unlike the Government whom she served, who rushed IT programmes into service, damaged vast numbers of people and wasted a huge amount of money. I wonder whether the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee ever asked the shadow Chancellor or the previous Prime Minister why they did that.
I can tell my hon. Friend that all the recommendations have already been implemented. They were drawn from our own reports internally—both the red team report that I instigated and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report—and all these changes have been made. This roll-out programme bears complete authority on the basis of that.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State claimed that 700,000 people would now not be expected to join universal credit by 2017 because he was having a rethink and wanted to introduce things more slowly for vulnerable claimants. However, on 18 November—three weeks ago—he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg):
“As I said to the hon. Lady when I appeared in front of her Committee in July, we have been very clear that we would roll out universal credit on the plan and programme already set out.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 946.]
Which is it?
Do the Opposition want us to rush out universal credit, as they did with tax credits, or do they want us to take our time to implement it correctly? The reason we are not moving the support group and the work-related activity group on from employment and support allowance is that they are very vulnerable. We want to take our time so that those who are on those benefits are brought on to universal credit carefully. It seems that the hon. Lady’s party wants to rush those people on as fast as possible, rather like what it did with tax credits.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a question. Mr Leslie, you are chuntering extremely noisily from a sedentary position. You might be purporting to help the Secretary of State, but I do not think that he feels any need of your help and, at this stage, neither do I.
Is it not the case that under the last Government, 1.4 million people spent a decade out of work on benefits and 2.6 million people spent five years out of work on benefits? Is it not also the case that universal credit will get people out of dependency and back into work, that it will eliminate the poverty trap, and that 90% of people on benefits will be on universal credit by the end of 2016?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Universal credit is worth doing properly because of the benefits it brings to so many people. Just in case he does not remember, although the Opposition say that they support it, they voted against it. We will take no lessons from them because of the chaos, mess and cost that they left for us in the welfare system. We are having to pick up the details of that and put them right. We are doing that every day.
The Secretary of State says that he has read and implemented the report of the Public Accounts Committee, which confirmed that the Department
“only reported good news and denied the problems”.
Unfortunately, we have seen no change today. A specific recommendation of the report was that the Government should urgently carry out an impairment review into the value of the IT assets that had been written down as a result of ineffectualness. As he has confirmed today that the recommendations have all been implemented, will he tell us what that value was according to his own impairment review?
The Department has carried out probably the most exhaustive impairment review. It is now being signed off by the National Audit Office. I gave the figures to the Work and Pensions Committee yesterday. The total write-off figure was £40.1 million. We should bear it in mind that Opposition Front Benchers have been running around saying that hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds will be written off. They will not be. That will be in the published accounts today.
May I remind the Secretary of State that when he came to office, it was possible for claimants, on returning to work, to lose 96p of every £1 that they earned? The prize for his universal credit system is to make work pay. It is not only Government Members who will support him for sticking with it, but those who are seeking to return to work, because it will help to make work pay.
In more than 10 years in government, the last lot never did a thing to improve the quality of life for those who were seeking work. So far, we have more people in work and we have systems of change that will improve the quality of life of those who are disabled and those who are on sickness benefit. Universal credit will complete that process. It is no surprise to me that the Opposition have nothing to say on welfare reform, but want to nit-pick away about this programme.
The implementation of universal credit has been a complete fiasco right from the start. Given the delays that there have already been and the clear indication from the Scottish Government that they would halt the roll-out in Scotland in the event of a yes vote in next year’s referendum, will the Secretary of State suspend the roll-out of universal credit to allow the people of Scotland to deliver their verdict?
I have heard what the Scottish National party has said. All I would say is that it is in complete denial about the cost of welfare and pensions. The reality is that it will not be able to afford the pensions bill with Scotland’s demographic make-up, and welfare alone will cost it a large amount of money. I do not know where it thinks it will get the money from if Scotland breaks free from the United Kingdom.
The people of Somerset think that it is the mark of a statesman to take a deliberative and intelligent approach to these problems, and not to rush the process in a typical socialist fashion. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend agrees with me that his critics have forgotten to read their Bible and do not remember the line on motes and beams. Although there may be the tiniest specks in his proposals, there was a veritable forest in their IT suggestions.
The system will roll out for all the complicated groups right the way through until we have 6.5 million on it. There were some reports in today’s papers that were wrong. The pathfinder rolled out to singles to begin with. Next it goes on to couples, then to couples with children, then we bring in the more complicated groups and then we bring in the tax credit group. I simply say to the hon. Lady that she needs to understand the difference between an approach that rolls something out at every stage and learns from it, and the approach that Labour took on tax credits, which was to rush them in and see them fail.
The Work and Pensions Committee, right from the beginning of the introduction of universal credit, has warned the Secretary of State that this is one of the most complex systems to be introduced. Consistently, the Secretary of State has reassured the Select Committee and this House that everything is fine. We now know that he has failed to meet every single one of the targets that he assured us he would meet. The issue is not the people on these Benches or on the Benches opposite; the issue is our constituents who will be dependent on universal credit. The Secretary of State should stand at the Dispatch Box, apologise for the anxiety in which he has placed our constituents and try to give a straight answer to a very simple question, but that answer must be verifiable. When will universal credit be introduced for all relevant claimants?
To deal with the first part of what the hon. Lady said, the reason we are proceeding like this—testing, learning and then implementing—is to ensure that nobody so far has been damaged at all by the changes brought in under universal credit. I repeat again that I learned my lesson from the last Government, who rolled out tax credits in a rush, all at once. The system crashed, £5 billion was lost and 400,000 people were damaged. The then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, had to go out and apologise publicly for the mess they had got in. I am saying today that we will roll this out and 6.5 million people will be on the system by 2017.
The Secretary of State has the wholehearted support of those on the Government Benches because his reforms are the most beneficial reforms to the welfare system since its inception. The Labour party in government, across the whole of their Departments in 13 years, blew £25 billion on failed IT systems. Does not history therefore suggest that the best way to proceed with IT projects of the important kind that my right hon. Friend is engaged with is to do it patiently and gradually, and not to rush our fences?
My hon. Friend is right. The way we have chosen to do this is to ensure that we test, learn and implement as we go along. This is exactly how we are rolling out the other programmes of change on disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, on the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, and on the cap, all of which are now bringing benefits to many people throughout the country. The previous Government wasted £13 billion on the NHS computer system and £500 million on the Child Support Agency mess, including £120 million on the rescue scheme which was later scrapped. The benefits processing replacement programme, which some of those on the Opposition Benches were responsible for, was axed after £140 million of waste.
Does the Secretary of State think he has the confidence of Treasury Ministers, given that as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the shadow Secretary of State, told him, a Minister close to the Chancellor told The Times this morning:
“There are some ministers who improve in office”,
and there are those, like the Secretary of State,
“who show they are just not up to it”?
[Interruption.] No answer was given. How can a project of this scale be taken forward without the Secretary of State having the confidence of the Treasury?
Such programmes are highly complex, involving many hundreds, if not thousands, of man-years of work—probably more complex than delivering the Olympics. Given that the Opposition apparently support the programme’s objectives, does the Secretary of State understand why they have spent the past three quarters of an hour undermining the project team?
My hon. Friend again raises the point that the Opposition talk a lot about supporting universal credit but they voted against it. They have nothing to say about welfare reform. That is the problem. Up till now, they have failed on welfare reform. They are known as the welfare party because they have opposed everything that we have brought in. We will save more than £40 billion over this Parliament. They have opposed everything, which would cost them an extra £40 billion if they were to get into power.
Given the shambles that exists here in Britain in relation to the implementation of universal credit, why are the Government so intent on imposing this unfair welfare system in Northern Ireland, where levels of disadvantage are higher, the cost of living is higher, and jobs, including new jobs, are particularly scarce?
My hon. Friend will see from the published accounts that the National Audit Office agrees that the proposed roll-out, which will go ahead, will in every single year save money, ultimately to the Exchequer. The point that is being made is that the net value of the asset of £152 million that we have will deliver huge benefits to the public and huge savings to the Government.
Fraud, error and overpayment led to £2.8 billion being wasted during the introduction of tax credits by the previous Government. Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of how much has been lost during the phased introduction of universal credit to fraud, error and overpayment?
There is no money lost to fraud, error and overpayment under the universal credit system. As we roll it out, the system itself will save a huge amount in fraud and error on the current system, which is a mess. The level of overpayments and clawbacks of tax credits every single year is a scandal; the scandal is that the policy and the programme left to us by the Opposition, which has been failing every year, is costing huge sums of money.
The Secretary of State has been very keen to talk about what the previous Government did, but he is in charge now and he was in charge of one of the worst possible procurement processes in government. He has not yet told the House what will happen to the employment support group. It is batted off into the long grass. They are a very vulnerable group of people. Will they have to live through a similar shambles when he comes up with a solution for them?
Quite the contrary; I have made it very clear that by 2016 universal credit will be the benefit that people go on when they apply for employment and support allowance. The people who were on it—we know them as the stock—are the most vulnerable. [Interruption.] Well, that is the term used—those are people who are on the benefit at present. [Interruption.] How pathetic is that? The Opposition used the term themselves when they were in government, and now they try to pretend that they have discovered a new way of referring to such people. Those who are on employment and support allowance will be migrated to universal credit over a period so that we can bring them in safely, securely and to their benefit. Would the hon. Lady want us to rush them in, or does she think we ought to take care over how we do it?
The mission of universal credit has always been to make work pay. I have never entirely understood what it is about that principle that the Opposition find so distasteful. Many of my constituents constantly remind me of the problem that they have under the current system. Surely all Members should be backing the roll-out of universal credit. Today we have heard that there are some problems, that they are being tackled and that the size of the gain is enormous. Will my right hon. Friend confirm for everyone, but particularly for Opposition Members, who seem so opposed to universal credit, what the total economic gain to the people of this country will be over the next 10 years?
The gains will be enormous. The roll-out has already begun. The question is not whether it will begin; it has already begun. We have already rolled out universal credit to pilot centres in the north-west. We are rolling out to a further six centres. That will be complete early in the new year, then we will bring in couples, couples with children, and eventually the tax credits. We will roll out completely in the north-west, then every region after that. It will be complete by 2016. This will bring huge benefits to all those who struggle under the existing system to make work pay. If they lose 6p in every pound, it is hardly worth while. That is the system that the Opposition left.
Did my right hon. Friend listen to the “Today” programme yesterday, when the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) repeatedly made it clear that the Opposition support the introduction of universal credit? Does he not consider it strange that not once did she make that clear in the House today? Does he not think it strange to support universal credit on the airwaves but seek to rubbish it here? If the Opposition really do support the introduction of universal credit, surely they want to see it introduced properly.
My hon. Friend is right. The problem is that the hon. Lady went touring around all the studios, also saying that we would be writing off hundreds of millions of pounds. She is wrong on that. I see she has dropped that today, but the point is that the Opposition have nothing to say about this, so they want to pick away at a plan which, apparently, they support. [Interruption.] When you support something, you support it. They actually oppose it. [Interruption.]
On 11 September 2012, the Secretary of State said:
“For what it is worth, I take absolute, direct and close interest in every single part of the IT development.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 154.]
He said he held meetings and briefings, and worked on it at weekends from his box. He also said,
“we are testing stuff”—
I think that is a technical term—
“pretty much the whole time.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 157.]
Given that 15 months ago he was taking such a personal interest in that, why is he still in his job and facing this shambles today?
Because back in 2011-12, as a result of that work, I decided there were problems in the way the system was being developed, so I intervened and brought in a group of people from outside to look at it. They agreed with me and we have since reset the programme. The truth is that Labour never did any of that when in government, and the right hon. Lady needs to ask herself, why not?
I urge my right hon. Friend to reject the representations of Labour Members, who the whole House can see do not really believe in making work pay, and who long for universal credit to fail. Has he noticed that the write-offs are about one tenth of a per cent. of the £26 billion of taxpayers’ money wasted by the Opposition?
My hon. Friend is right. Again and again what is going on is a kind of hypocrisy, with Labour Members somehow claiming that they did things properly. They never did; they lost billions and billions on programmes, whether in the Ministry of Defence or in my Department. We have been picking up the pieces and putting it right.
I have more credibility than the Labour party, which wasted money galore. My answer is that I will deliver this and we are already delivering welfare reforms—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) needs to remember that he was in a Government who watched welfare spending rise by 60% under their watch.
In the private sector, programmes allow up to 30% or 40% for write-downs and reworks, which is well within the amount we have written down. I believe that this programme will roll out more efficiently than almost any other programme in the private sector.
In yesterday’s Work and Pensions Committee, the DWP finance director general stated that £303 million has so far been spent on developing IT. We have heard that £40 million has been written off as it could not be capitalised because it had no use, and that £97 million was capitalised and written down. That leaves a further £107 million of IT expenditure that was not capitalised as it has no useful software. Will the Secretary of State confirm that of the £303 million spent, only £97 million has resulted in useable software?
The hon. Lady, of course, misrepresents the position. [Interruption.] The money that we were talking about yesterday, the write-offs, is for technology that will not be used, and the write-down is equipment we will be using over the next 12 months. The other value she mentioned is for equipment that will be written down over a period of years, once we start to use it. We cannot write it down until it is actually in use.
The situation is that welfare required reform and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made clear, work was not paying. I welcome the phased roll-out of universal credit, but I am still at a loss as to the Labour position. Can the Secretary of State advise my constituents in Northumberland why he chose to test, learn and then roll out a project of such a large scale that it will be truly transformative?
That is exactly right. The point is that we intervened early when we thought there was a problem, and we did not deliberately drive it through to roll-out. Quite frankly, we will have got this right because, unlike Labour, we are testing the system and learning first, and then finally implementing it. My hon. Friend is right: we have no idea what Labour Members really want. They just want to criticise but they have no other proposals.
Everybody now in receipt of free school meals will be eligible for them as we roll out universal credit, and the changes that are necessary in universal credit will be made apparent as we come to do that. I guarantee that nobody will lose out with free school meals.
In response to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), the Secretary of State referred to Northern Ireland, which is very much a part of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently discussing welfare reform legislation, and the Executive have been told there will be financial implications on the block grant for every month that changes are delayed, starting from January 2014. IT affects all of the United Kingdom. What implications does the delay in putting IT in place have for welfare reform in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman refers to the fact that we need to get welfare reform rolled out in Northern Ireland, which I fundamentally believe is the right thing to do. His point, I think, concerns what the Chief Secretary has said, because if we do not roll out welfare reform in Northern Ireland, it has a net cost to the Exchequer. That is why a balance must be found—we need to roll out welfare reform to save money, otherwise that will affect spending in Northern Ireland.