Rumours are flying thick and fast of a rift between Iain Duncan Smith and Francis Maude, after a team of IT experts working for the Cabinet Office were withdrawn from working on the Universal Credit Scheme.
The Scheme has already been in the news over IT-related problems, with £40 million pounds in new systems already written off and the plans to bring together six categories of benefits under one umbrella heavily criticized by oversight committees. The hope for this project, frequently described as a flagship scheme, is that it will save £38 billion pounds over time. The project has so far cost in excess of £2 billion.
Just before Christmas, the Work and Pensions secretary agreed that the project was a “major and challenging” reform, but that it’s successful delivery was a priority for the government.
The roll out of the scheme has already been put back, with an announcement that even a small-scale delivery of the system to cover 700,000 people has now been delayed until after 2017.
Leaked documents, reported by the Guardian, claim that Iain Duncan Smith and Francis Maude fell out over plans by the DWP to develop the new system on a twin-track basis while still making improvements and enhancements to the existing systems in place in job centres. The hope was to show that Universal Credit would be ready to be rolled out to all 6.5 million people who would be covered by the scheme before the general election in 2015.
The Cabinet Office had seconded a group of workers from the Government Digital Service to assist the DWP on an interim basis for three months to create a working prototype of the new system and demonstrate what success should look like. According to the leaked documents, the team’s withdrawal has now left the DWP without enough people working in-house with enough skills and experience to deliver the final product and allow the completion of the project to take place.
Francis Maude has today been denying any suggestion of a row, saying that the team’s time on the project had been agreed in advance, and their withdrawal was entirely on schedule and in agreement with the DWP’s project management team. The Digital Service team would continue to offer support and to help the DWP recruit appropriate replacement team members.
The Labour Party has claimed that this further twist in the scheme’s development would push up the project costs due to the need to hire new IT staff and that there was a real risk that there would be further delays. There are fears that a further £90 million pounds worth of development work may be written off by 2018.