As the October 2013 start date for Universal Credit (UC) in the United Kingdom approaches, the U.K. government agency in charge of implementing the program is being criticized for program mismanagement and for setting an overly ambitious timeline for the rollout of the controversial program.
UC is designed to consolidate into single monthly payments the various forms of government assistance provided to recipients. The program is also designed to shift money management responsibilities for those payments from the government to recipients. But the U.K.'s National Audit Office believes that the Department for Work and Pensions, the agency in charge of the United Kingdom's welfare and pension system, has botched implementation of UC to date.
In a Sept. 5, 2013, report, the NAO criticized the DWP for "weak management, weak control and poor governance" of the rollout. Additionally, the NAO said the DWP has spent over 300 million pounds on information technology (IT) to support UC, but cannot demonstrate that the systems put in place will be effective. The NAO was also critical of the DWP for delaying the rollout because it was overly ambitious in its timetable and in the scope of the program it envisioned.
Also of concern to the independent auditing arm of the U.K. Parliament is that the DWP does not have clarity about how UC will function, which has undermined confidence in the program. Apparently, the DWP has experienced frequent changes to upper management and has lacked IT expertise to implement UC effectively.
U.K.-based Contis Group Ltd., which is working with credit unions to offer UC recipients its credEcardplus prepaid card program for money management and spending, said the apparent waste in IT spending for UC is the least of the DWP's problems. "If the top civil servants in charge of the initiative don't understand how [UC] works, how are benefit recipients supposed to?" Contis Group said in a statement.
The prepaid card provider cited research conducted by the U.K. charity and financial planner, Citizens Advice Bureau, that nine out of 10 U.K. benefit recipients – many of them considered unbanked – will be unable to cope with UC because they don't have the skills to handle their own finances. It is estimated that 20.3 million families in the region receive some form of government assistance, with a sizable portion of that population receiving more than half of their income from welfare payments.
Contis Group expects that U.K. credit unions will thus experience a deluge of potential new unbanked customers seeking assistance with managing their UC payments.
"The e-money industry, which is supporting benefit claimants with basic banking services, is sprinting to arm credit unions and their members with the e-accounts and online budgeting tools that benefit recipients desperately need in order to survive the switchover," Contis Group said. "The DWP needs to take its head out of the technology, reflect on the wider impact of the rollout and endorse the initiatives of private companies striving to provide workable solutions for claimants."
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