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Universal Credit

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 20 October 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the proposed universal credit is included in the Treasury’s risk register of projects that are at risk of overspending, delay or failure.

My Lords, there is no specific Treasury risk register, although I know that the phrase has been used in a number of newspaper articles. The Treasury works closely with colleagues in the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority to monitor the progress of major projects. The universal credit programme is on the Government’s major projects portfolio, which is a compilation of the Government’s high-risk and high-value projects. It covers approximately 200 major projects with a total value in excess of £300 billion. The Major Projects Authority has been engaged with the universal credit programme since 2010. As well as providing challenge through regular assurance reviews, it is involved at various levels of monitoring progress. The Major Projects Review Group, a body established by the previous Government in 2007, recently also considered progress with the universal credit programme.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer but I am a little surprised by it. To make universal credit work, the Government say that 80 per cent of all claims will need to be made online. At the moment, 31 per cent of the poorest families in this country have never used a computer and only 17 per cent of benefit claims are made online. On top of that, to make the IT system for the new universal credit work it will require every single employer in the United Kingdom to tell the Inland Revenue every single month how much every single employee earns in salary and pays in tax. As most government IT projects in recent times have failed, why does the Minister think that this one will succeed?

There were several questions underneath what the noble Lord has just said. Twenty per cent of those who will come under the universal credit system are currently estimated to have access to computers. It is planned that 50 per cent should have access by 2013 and 80 per cent by 2017. I myself queried those figures when I was being briefed but I am told that of those currently claiming unemployment benefit, some 80 per cent have access to online facilities and of those claiming jobseeker’s allowance, some 60 per cent have access. I did not ask what the gender breakdown was; I suspect the answer is that more men than women have it but I remind everyone that the Government’s current digital champion, Martha Lane Fox, is working on this.

How will people who are not computer literate and do not have computer access be able to get this information?

My Lords, the Government are also developing telephonic and face-to-face access. It is recognised that, even under the estimate that 80 per cent will have online access by 2017, there will remain 20 per cent who will require such telephone or face-to-face help—quite possibly, some of the older generation.

My Lords, it is important that the universal credit is a success. It is an important reform but there is a very high risk attached to it in delivering the IT infrastructure, because not only do you have to deliver three separate IT projects—one within DWP and two within HMRC—but they then have to integrate. It is a very high-risk timeline. Will the Minister reassure us that the high value that the Treasury places on this does not mean that it is blind to the risk in the timescale and that, if it needs to slow it down in order to make it a success, it will do so?

My Lords, the careful mechanisms currently being put in place and operating recognise precisely that this is an extremely important programme, which is to be rolled out starting two years from now and running until 2017. I should add, as I was also asked about the novelty of some of these IT programmes, that the DWP is working to integrate roughly 60 per cent of existing IT infrastructure, which will be transferred to this programme. It is not an entirely novel programme: only 40 per cent of its IT will be novel.

My Lords, following on from that answer, will my noble friend reassure the House that the DWP’s programme is being introduced in a gradualist way over a number of years? That will give some comfort, but what matters is getting the data into the DWP—the tube of data which comes from every company and through the HMRC. Will my noble friend also reassure the House that that tube will be open, finished and working on time, and that he will tell the House in advance if there was any danger regarding that?

My Lords, I am not entirely sure what an open tube looks like but the DWP is of course working closely with HMRC. As noble Lords are well aware, the integration of HMRC systems with those of the DWP is an important part of this programme. We are all conscious that previous programmes, particularly on tax credits, have run into a very considerable number of problems about both underpayment and overpayment, and about underclaiming. It is intended that one of the great benefits of the universal credit system will be that a much higher percentage of claimants will claim and receive their entitlements.

Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have published the consultants’ report on the feasibility of the IT project in the DWP and, if not, will they do so while the Committee is sitting in this House on the Bill?

My Lords, many noble Lords will be aware that the MPA starting gate report was passed to the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons and placed in the House of Commons Library. It was not specifically intended to be open for full publication, but one of the Members of the PAC passed it on to the Telegraph, which, I suspect, is part of the origin of this Question.

My Lords, will my noble friend remind our noble friend the Minister in charge of the Bill, who is sitting next to him, that at Second Reading he promised four of us, two of whom have already asked questions, that he would give a presentation on the computer arrangements at some time in the reasonably near future?

My noble friend tells me that this will take place in early November and that he will give a date very shortly.

My Lords, the Minister did not really answer the question from my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top. My noble friend asked whether the Committee would have access to the very important report from KPMG but the noble Lord did not answer that point.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness may not have been able to see, I can tell her that this is under active consideration among Ministers at this very moment.