"On track" Universal Credit digital service set for summer expansion
Croydon to become second area in UK to undertake controlled testing of enhanced digital service targeted to deliver the flagship welfare reform
Trials of the enhanced digital service designed to underpin the government's Universal Credit welfare reform are expected to be expanded to a second area of London this summer as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) remains committed to its current rollout plan.
With the return of Iain Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions secretary following the General Election, the DWP said that a trial currently being undertaken in Sutton in South London was expected to be adopted in the nearby borough of Croydon in the coming months as part of a "test and learn approach".
Universal Credit has been devised as a means to merge employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit, and housing benefit into a single payment.
However, its implementation has continued to prove controversial with the former Coalition government's handling of the project coming under heavy political and media scrutiny over its proposed budget and timeline.
On the basis of these concerns, the Labour Party had pledged to introduce a three month pause on the project's implementation to review Universal Credit had it came to power following polling.
With the Conservatives having been returned to government with a majority, the DWP said its plan to roll out the new digital service to claimants nationwide was on schedule, with Universal Credit expected to be fully functional and serving 93% of claimants by the end of 2019.
"Our plan is on track and we are making good progress, with Universal Credit already available in over 260 jobcentres," said a spokesperson for the department.
"Universal Credit will be available in every Jobcentre by spring next year."
The gradual rollout of the enhanced digital service forms part of a 'twin-track' strategy that has led to the DWP developing the new digital Universal Credit service alongside a national rollout of existing technologies designed for the programme at a growing number of select sites in the UK.
The DWP implemented this approach in 2013 after deciding to "reset" its original plan for introducing Universal Credit and extending its delivery timetable to the end of the current decade.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report released last November said the reset decision was seen as putting the project on a sounder basis - albeit at significant cost.
However, the auditor warned at the time that any additional delays to the planned switch from the current Universal Credit system to the new digital iteration of the benefit reform by May of next year could cost billions of pounds without investment in an alternative solution.
Iain Duncan Smith claimed at the time that Universal Credit was expected to be implemented by December 2019 at a predicted cost of £1.8bn - down from initial estimates of £2.4bn.