The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has gone live with the first pilot for its high profile welfare reform project, Universal Credit, but will be limited to one small region and only cover approximately 300 people a month.
Ashton-under-Lyne is the first Jobcentre in the country to use a scaled back version of the system, which will only be available to new claimants that are single and applying for jobseekers allowance. It was originally intended that three other areas would also be going live with the system today, but these have now been pushed by until July.
It is hoped that a full rollout will be complete by 2017, which will replace Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Housing Benefit.
DWP told Computerworld UK that once the system is being used by all four pathfinder areas, it will include between 7,000 and 10,000 people. The spokesman also said that although the national rollout will begin in October, it is going to 'very broadly mirror what's happening in Ashton', suggesting again that any new areas added to the system will only be for new jobseekers that are single, rather than all claimants for all benefits.
The department insists that the slow and gradual approach to the rollout is to ensure that any IT problems are resolved before bringing everyone on board and to avoid another public sector IT disaster, such as the NHS' National Programme for IT.
However, rumours and speculation have been mounting in recent weeks that the project is plagued with problems due to a number of changes in senior management at DWP and leaked information about the pilots needing to revert to manual processes to carry out calculations.
Computerworld UK has also been informed today that the new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system that is being developed with HM Revenues & Customs, which underpins Universal Credit and will provide real-time information (RTI) on the earnings of every adult, is likely to be the main reason for the pilots only testing a scaled back version of the final system.
A source close to the situation has said that the Universal Credit system will exclude benefits for people in work until April 2014, which suggests some sort of delay in the development of RTI.
Charles Law, an industrial officer at PCS Union, who has responsibility for DWP, said that the department is being very vague about how the rollout will develop.
"We don't know when the rollout will be extended beyond new jobseekers claimants that are single. There is an enormous amount of uncertainty about the future rolling out of Universal Credit beyond this very limited pathfinder, which is limited both in the number of claims its taking and in the type of claims that its taking," said Law.
"There is a lot of speculation but there is no hard information coming out of DWP about when they will be ramping it up. It's always been expected that by October they will start some sort of roll-out nationwide, but exactly what that would look like and what types of cases is not clear at the moment."
"But obviously this is a pilot, and part of the role of the pilot will be to test the IT and iron out the glitches. However, it is certainly far from the fully finished IT because it is only able to support the straightforward types of cases."
It was revealed earlier this month that DWP has hired Howard Shiplee, executive director at construction company Laing O'Rourke, to lead delivery on Universal Credit. Shiplee is the fourth person to be appointed to the head of the programme in just six months - one of the main indicators that the project is in trouble, as those involved continue to distance themselves from the rollout.
It was also recently leaked that although DWP had originally planned to roll out all of the technology to the pilot areas to calculate claimants' benefit, sources close to the project have said that Job Centres will actually be manually carrying out the final calculations.