The Treasury has agreed to allow the government’s troubled digital identity system, Gov.uk Verify, to continue receiving funding for a further 18 months due to the coronavirus crisis.
In a statement to Parliament, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that “unprecedented demand” brought about by the government’s response to the pandemic has meant a change of plan. In October 2018, Gove’s predecessor Oliver Dowden had told Parliament that funding for Verify would cease by April 2020. About £175m has been spent on Verify to date.
After the UK went into lockdown at the end of March, over 1.4 million people applied for Universal Credit. Claimants have to apply online, and must prove their identity using Verify. As a result, more than 400,000 people set up a Verify account for the first time. However, delays caused by Verify brought online queues in the tens of thousands, and even then, only 35% of people were able to set up a Verify account. Anyone without sufficient digital footprint – meaning details such as passport, driving licence and credit history – had to subsequently contact a call centre to establish their identity.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has since tried to alleviate the bottleneck by allowing existing users of Government Gateway – the identity system that supports tax self-assessment – to bypass Verify when applying for Universal Credit (UC). The DWP was warned as long ago as 2015 that the performance of Verify would be problem for UC applications even at normal claimant levels, but the unplanned surge as a result of coronavirus has pushed the system well beyond its regular usage.
“The coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented demand for key online services using digital identity such as Universal Credit,” said Gove.
“In this light, the chief secretary to the Treasury has given approval to the Cabinet Office to continue Gov.uk Verify operations for up to a further 18 months.The government has also taken steps to bolster the resilience of the service which is facing an unprecedented level of usage.”
Gove also added that “the government will continue to update the House on our broader work as it progresses”, a statement that alludes to further Verify initiatives that have been delayed in recent months, These include publishing responses to a consultation on the future of Verify, which was due at the end of 2019, but was put back until “spring 2020”, and a trial of using passport data to create private sector digital identities, which was due to start last month.
The Verify project started in 2013 with the objective of replacing the Government Gateway, which had been used across government since 2000. However, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) decided to develop an updated version of Gateway for its tax users instead. More than 11 million taxpayers used HMRC’s systems to submit their tax details in the last financial year. Verify currently has 6.6 million registered accounts.