The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has said that only one of the four planned pilot areas for its high profile welfare reform project, Universal Credit, will go live in April as planned, once again raising questions about the success of the implementation so far.
Ashton-under-Lyne will be the only Jobcentre in the country to trial the new system from 29th April, with Wigan, Warrington and Oldham only going live in the beginning of July. A progressive national rollout is planned from October, with the project due to complete by 2017.
Universal Credit will merge benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working credit. The IT system supporting the project will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed with HM Revenue & Customs.
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.
DWP insists that the project is not delayed and a spokesperson told Computerworld UK that the new information simply provides greater detail on how the pilots will work - despite previous DWP documents and notices suggesting that the pilots would go live in all four areas in April and be trialled for six months.
"There is no delay. Our plan has always been to test Universal Credit in a safe and controlled way during Pathfinder to ensure we get it right for the start of the national rollout in October," said a DWP spokesperson.
"We plan for Ashton-under-Lyne to be the first Jobcentre to accept claims for Universal Credit from 29 April with Wigan, Warrington and Oldham Jobcentres trialling the new Universal Credit claimant commitment on the same date and taking claims for Universal Credit from July."
However, this latest information will no doubt raise questions about the likelihood of the national beginning in October and completing in 2017.
Last month it was revealed that the Universal Credit's programme director, Hilary Reynolds, had stepped down from her responsibilities and 'moved on to other work' within DWP just four months after being appointed.
This followed Malcolm Whitehouse stepping down in November last year. David Pitchford, who had been working as the Major Projects Authority's executive director, was taken on as the temporary lead on the development of Universal Credit in February and will now take on all responsibilities.
Computerworld UK also revealed last month that although DWP had originally planned to roll out all of the technology to these pilot areas to calculate claimants' Universal Credit benefit, sources close to the project have said that Job Centres will actually be manually carrying out the final calculations.
A claimant will only be able to book an appointment at a job centre in the selected areas using the new system, but when they come to claim Universal Credit in person, the calculations of the benefit will be carried out on spreadsheets.
Director at analyst firm TechMarketView, Georgina O'Toole, has said that even if a few claimants are unable to get hold of their benefits on time, will likely put further pressure on the large SIs working for government, which are already being squeezed by a number of public sector initiatives to break away from cumbersome contracts and work with more SMEs.
The main companies involved with Universal Credit rollout are Accenture, IBM, HP and BT.
"Even if technical difficulties are overcome, the impact of bad press related to even just a handful of claimants experiencing delays to their benefits will be huge," said O'Toole.
"Once again it will be the large SIs in the spotlight (even if the fault lies elsewhere). And that could be very damaging at a time when they are already facing an uphill struggle in terms of their reputation in central government."