As part of the project to roll up all the various benefits and tax credits people receive into one “Universal Credit”, DWP is creating a new system that would allow people to log in online, fill in some basic details and quickly calculate how much they can claim. The money will then be paid automatically into their bank account.
The system relies on two separate but linked IT programmes. One is creating the website where people log in and deal with their claim. The other is creating the information system that links back to your employer so that those who claim while in work (an important element of the UC) can just fill in their payroll number and all their details are automatically uploaded.
If it works, it promises to be a fantastic scheme: allowing easier and quicker claims and saving a lot of administrative costs for the department (they estimate that the amount saved from both admin and eliminating fraud will be £2bn every year).
But the combination of a large-scale government IT project and something as vital as people’s incomes has worried Numbers 10 and 11. So much so that the Major Projects Authority has reportedly put the scheme at the top of its “most watched” list.
Officials are making contigency plans: if the “real-time information system” fails, people will be asked to fill in all their details manually instead. This of course, will take much longer, but DWP claims these claims won’t clog the system because they are still being computed electronically.
If this happens, however, it will have an impact on the amount that DWP can squeeze from its benefits budget: if people are self-certifying, the fraud level is unlikely to fall from its current level.
In the meantime, officials are dreaming up evenmore accessible ways to claim: the latest being a smartphone app. Another option is to log in through your bank account. It all sounds very interesting. The question now is whether they can make it work.