The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): The Department for Work and Pensions has obtained approval for an advance, prior to Royal Assent, from the Contingency Fund of £1,000,000. The funding will allow for the development of the IT changes required to introduce new benefit fraud and claimant error sanctions.
A tougher fraud and error regime was set out in the “Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credit systems” strategy published in October 2010 and changes to sanctions and penalties are included in the Welfare Reform Bill. They provide for the introduction of a Civil Penalty for claimant error and strengthen sanctions for benefit fraudsters. To enable their introduction changes to the Departments’ IT systems will be required. The contingency advance will enable the IT provider to begin work in January 2012 giving them sufficient lead in time to commence changes in 2012.
Did you see what I saw? The DWP are getting their IT provider to start re-writing their computer systems so that they can fine people who make mistakes on their benefit claim forms. In order to do that, Chris Grayling has asked for and received one million pounds to pay for it.
Apart from my immediate revulsion at them penalising people for making mistakes on a very complex form at a time when they are vulnerable, and actually spending that quantity of money to enable them to do so, what makes me the most outraged is that they are spending this money when this bill hasn't even become law! The welfare reform bill is controversial enough that it has every chance of being sent back to be re-written from scratch and it certainly hasn't received royal assent. This is actually a trivial example of this behaviour compared to what else they have done though. The DWP has already spent eighteen million pounds out of two billion pounds on starting work on the computer system to run Universal Credit.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): The Department for Work and Pensions has obtained approval for an advance from the Contingencies Fund of £18 million to allow for the development of IT for universal credit before Royal Assent. This amount is part of the proposed investment in universal credit of £2 billion agreed at the time of the spending review.
Apparently the DWP has already awarded contracts to Accenture and IBM worth £500m and £525m respectively.
Spending such massive sums of money before the welfare reform bill has even become law is a huge assumption by the department of work and pensions that the bill will pass into law. Perhaps it is common practice for them to start implementing other legislation before the end of the process, and I am unsure what I think of that, but I am sure that this case is too much too soon.
There is something that the DWP has started implementing around the DWP that has me more furious than even the money. The DWP recently sent a letter to every person who claims Contribution-based ESA and is in the Work Related Activity Group. In that letter they warned that the government wants to place a time limit on their benefit and that this could happen in the spring of 2012.
This letter no doubt cause a huge amount of fear and worry for nearly fifty thousand people, warning them of something that might not happen. In this case it might be unfair to blame the DWP for sending warning letters, since we would complain if they did not give any warning. The real fault lies with the government ministers who wrote the legislation in such a way that this benefit would be removed from some people as soon as the bill became law instead of after an appropriate period. I do not think that a bill with such an impact as this should start to be implemented before it has passed the vote. As it is, the house of Lords has amended the bill so that the time limit will be no less than two years and so thousands of people have been put under huge stress about losing their income without reason.
This all comes on top of the finding that the welfare reform bill was written and presented to parliament before the consultation on DLA reform had even finished. Government has got the whole process wrong. The correct order is consult, write legislation, debate, vote, implement law. Not the way that our backwards government does it.