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Universal Credit white elephant needs 'urgent breakthrough' says MP

£16bn moneypit project shambles on, ignoring deadlines as it goes

Iain Duncan Smith. Pic: Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Acting shadow work and pensions secretary Stephen Timms MP (Labour) has warned that a "significant breakthrough" is now urgently required for the severely delayed and over-budget Universal Credit system, otherwise it may be time to scrap the project.

To many the programme is increasingly resembling a white elephant, with the Major Projects Authority revealing last week that lifetime costs have escalated by £3bn to £15.8bn. Last year the Department for Work and Pensions threw yet more good money after bad, spending a further £323.8m on the project.

The National Audit Office has said just £34m of the project's IT investment could potentially be reusable. The DWP has attributed the overall lifetime increase to a change in accounting practices.

Originally the project – started in 2011 – was supposed to be complete by 2015/16, but the date has since been shifted to 2020.

Last month, the number of people on universal credit rose by 20,000 to 65,000 – the highest monthly increase yet.

But at the current rate of uptake, the DWP is on track to fall dramatically short of its new target to get nine million people on the system by 2019.

"Four years later and we are no nearer the end date of the project," Timms said.

He added: "It is still too early to declare it a failed IT project, but some breakthrough will be needed in the next 18 months. We can't just keep adding 10,000 people a month on to the system."

Timms claimed if change is needed, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, would need to step down. "There is no chance of a rethink while he is secretary of state."

The DWP reset the project in 2013 and now has two separate systems running, with a digital interface operating which has yet to be integrated with the live service.

However, just six months after the department was handed a clean sheet of paper by the Major Projects Authority, it slipped back into a high-risk "amber/red" status again.

"The policy as it stands is unimplementable and needs to be reworked at a political level," said independent consultant and analyst Brian Wernham. "The civil service has tried three times now to implement the policy and have failed. When you keep banging your head against a brick wall and its hurting, the logical thing to do is stop." ®

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