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Universal Credit dole 'liable to be paralysed by IT cockups'

UK.gov track record on monster ICT is rather poor

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Benefit claimants could end up with nothing if the IT system for the new Universal Credit falls over or if they're just not that web-savvy, a report claims.

The Universal Credit (UC) system is due to start replacing a whole bunch of government benefits for Brits from this time next year, but there's concerns that the superfast timetable for the IT implementation is asking for trouble.

The new digitally handled benefit could also exclude folks who don't have access to the internet or the skills to use it, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation-commissioned report (PDF) by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) said.

The UC is a massive reform of the existing welfare system, taking the place of working age benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance, Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit.

The government reckons that the new system will give people more incentive to go back to work and reduce poverty for low-income workers by making sure they get to keep more of their wages and taking prior benefits from them more slowly.

But the plan has come in for a lot of criticism, with folks sceptical that they really will be better off and plenty of concern about the prospect of fraud, identity theft and downtime for the system.

The IT for the system has to take in data from HMRC so that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) can calculate UC payments for claimants without needing everyone enter those details themselves.

To get tech like that, the DWP is planning to spend £250m on IT development in 2012, £401m on IT, development and implementation in 2013 and £317m in 2014.

The tech is being built on top of legacy systems using "agile methods" that grow the system piece by piece. The DWP argues that this approach is how it can develop the IT so quickly, reusing existing platforms.

But industry experts have said the timetable is "unrealistic". Taking the data from HMRC requires a real time information (RTI) system on PAYE payments - constantly updated with wages, tax and national insurance paid by all Brits. Previously, HMRC got all that data in a lump at the end of the year, but to make UC work it has to get that information as the payments are made.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has pointed out that the time given for implementation of RTI is based on the UC timetable, making it "challenging". Other experts have worried about how HMRC is going to handle the significant increase in data processing and about the accompanying increase of administrative burden on employers.

The report also mentioned that successive governments haven't had the greatest reputation when it comes to IT implementations, pointing to high-profile, expensive IT disasters at the NHS and Child Support Agency.

The DWP is testing the IT along the way, but the CESI said that there wasn't enough public data on what back-ups were in place in case the system fell over and left vulnerable people without access to the money they need. ®

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