The Committee says it remains "disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays".
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said today:
"The lack of transparency surrounding a programme with such wide-reaching implications for so many people is completely unacceptable."
The estimated completion date for the roll-out of the Universal Credit digital service is six months later compared to when the PAC examined the programme last year.
Fully operational in March 2021
The Department for Work & Pensions now expects Universal Credit to be fully operational in March 2021. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a further six-month delay beyond this latest planned end-date.
The Committee is concerned such delays will postpone the programme’s expected benefits and that delays relating to the digital service in particular may increase costs.
It points to weaknesses in milestones for the programme’s implementation, which it finds create "uncertainty for claimants, advisers, and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the Department to account".
Clarify the business case
The Report urges the Department to "set out and report publicly against a wider set of clearly stated milestones", and outlines areas it expects these to cover in an appendix to the attached Report.
It also calls for clarity on the business case for Universal Credit, which has not been updated to take account of recent changes to tax credits, and recommends changes to the way the Department evaluates the programme as the roll-out proceeds.
Meg Hillier MP said:
"The Department for Work & Pensions appears either unable or unwilling to level with Parliament and the public about Universal Credit.
This lack of clarity creates needless uncertainty for claimants and those tasked with running the programme. It’s also an unnecessary obstacle to Parliament and taxpayers holding the government to account.
Since our previous Report it has emerged there will be further delays before Universal Credit becomes fully operational, the full implications of which are unclear. It’s also worrying that the approved business case for the programme has not been updated to take account of the Spending Review and Autumn Statement.
If taxpayers are to have any faith in what is already a complex and controversial project then the Department must provide clear information about the impact of these factors and the roll-out of the programme as a whole."
In February 2015 the previous PAC published Universal Credit: progress update. The Department accepted the Report’s recommendations, but the Committee questioned its commitment to ensuring "real clarity on this important programme’s progress".
This latest Report follows a new inquiry that recalled both the Department and HM Treasury to discuss ongoing issues of concern around the business case, the continuing risks of delay, and the lack of transparency and clear milestones.
We acknowledge that Universal Credit has stabilised and made progress since the previous Committee of Public Accounts first reported on the programme in 2013. However, there remains a long way to go.
Implementation of Universal Credit so far has focussed mainly on the simplest cases, and the Department for Work & Pensions has again delayed the programme.
The completion date for the roll-out of its new digital service is six months later compared to when we looked at the programme only a year ago, and the Department now expects that Universal Credit will be fully operational in March 2021.
OBR forecasts further delays
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that there will be a further six-month delay beyond the Department’s latest planned end-date.
We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays.
The Department’s response to the previous Committee’s recommendations in the February 2015 report Universal Credit: progress update do not convince us that it is committed to improving transparency about the programme’s progress.