Benefit cheat boon? UK universal benefit trial dogged by IT problems

Critical IT issues relating to the UK's universal credit system could leave benefit fraudsters better off. All part of the "digital by default" strategy, of course.

MPs have warned that flaws in the U.K.'s IT infrastructure could lead to more benefit fraud rather than controlling it.

The U.K. government's new Universal Credit system, which is designed to turn benefits into a single payment and replace six existing other schemes, has been an area of criticism since it was introduced. The government says that it will make the transition from and to work easier to handle, and by setting up the system to manage payments online, fraud and error will be reduced.

However, a community and local government committee report published yesterday tells a different story.

job centre plus it problems uk government
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Due to be launched in October 2013, government officials have yet again cast their doubt that the system is ready to take on such a massive overhaul of a service which thousands are currently reliant upon. Trial periods in four job centers were due to begin this month, but now have been pushed back.

Previously, the U.K. Department of Work and Pensions has said it needs at least six months to test out the scheme within the four centers, and now with further delay, a frantic effort to force through the Universal Credit system could prove to be a recipe for disaster — and far more costly in the long run if, or rather when, additional loopholes are discovered.

Clive Betts, the committee's chair, said that the "ICT systems for fraud detection within Universal Credit were still at an early stage in their development. This is extremely concerning given the advanced state of implementation."

Warning bells begin to sound. Fraud and cheating is rampant enough within the benefit system, and adding another way to funnel additional funds could be possible because the system may not be able to identify fraudulent claims in comparison to genuine ones. One problem, for example, would stem from the fact that local authorities will not have claimant data stored in local systems, so it is possible that benefits could be replicated for singular properties by separate claimants, as reported by The Register.

The report states:

Moving claims and services online has the potential to result in reduced costs for both central government and local authorities in the longer term. However, savings from the move to digital claims should not be achieved at the expense of failing to provide transitional funding for local and central government to provide support to vulnerable claimants.

Whether local authorities or advice charities should take the lead in offering such services needs to be determined and the Government should set out what specific funding will be available within the next five months.

It may be able to reduce costs, sure — the U.K.'s benefit system remains a bone of contention which is frequently addressed, especially considering the budget cuts being made across public services, education and healthcare. However, as one MP once told me, in order to change a single piece of text on a government website, the contractor was given £15,000, something that as a former website designer I know takes a matter of seconds.

Perhaps saving money on IT spending isn't that much of a sexy topic in public speeches, but in cases like this, common sense really should take precedent if you want to "reduce costs in the long run."

The U.K.'s dedication to a "digital by default" strategy is all well and good, but without the right core systems in place, there's little hope to make the system fairer and easier to manage. Not only that, but trying to revamp the benefit system when it's simply not ready is nothing more than a recipe for further chaos and fraud.

(via The Register)