The executive director of Universal Credit, Howard Shiplee, has been on sick leave since Christmas recovering from bronchitis.
Shiplee was brought in to lead the troubled welfare reform project in April last year, after it was revealed that Hilary Reynolds would be stepping down from the post after just four months in the job.
Universal Credit has had a number of executive directors since its inception, including Malcolm Whitehouse who stepped down at the end of 2012 and Philip Langsdale, who died at the beginning of 2013.
Shiplee was previously the director of construction for the London 2012 Olympics and has headed up a number of major business transformation projects at companies that include Network Rail, GCHQ and Ascot Racecourse.
According to the Financial Times, Shiplee has been working part-time since he became ill over Christmas and has stayed in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) using conference calls.
"Howard Shiplee has been unwell, but is recovering and will be back to work as soon as he is better," the DWP said. "He continues to be closely involved with the ongoing work on Universal Credit."
Computerworld UK recently revealed that DWP's enhanced digital system for Universal Credit, which will be used for the national rollout in 2017, is currently being supported by just three DWP IT employees.
According to the department's latest annual report it plans to spend up to £32 million to November this year developing the digital system. The total spend on the Universal Credit IT programme will reach £2.4 billion up to April 2023, but the government has yet to reveal figure for how much the new digital system will make up of this final cost.
The Cabinet Office's Government Digital Service (GDS) was called in to put the troubled welfare reform project on track after it was found that the existing system being developed by system integrators including IBM, HP and Accenture was not scalable, not flexible and had security problems.
GDS worked with DWP on developing a new 'digital spine' for Universal Credit, which will now be developed by DWP alongside the existing system. The digital spine' will ultimately replace the current Universal Credit system when the unified benefit payment moves from trials and is rolled out to claimants across the country.
It has since been revealed that GDS is pulling out of the project, amidst rumours that Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith ere disagreed over the future direction of the project.
The final system aims to merge benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit and working credit. The IT system supporting it will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
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