By Tony Collins
Iain Duncan Smith told the House of Commons in January 2013:
“Universal Credit is on track and on budget. The systems are not new or complex. After all, more than 60% of the total developed system is based on reusing existing IT. New developments will use tried and tested technology.
“The key difference between how this Government are doing things and how they were done before is that we have adopted commercial “agile” design principles to build the IT service for universal credit in four stages, each four months long.”
No longer does IDS say the Universal Credit programme is on time or on budget. Indeed in the House of Commons yesterday he was asked by Labour if the Treasury has approved the full business case for Universal Credit. His replies to MPs were not quite as bullish as they sometimes have been.
He spoke about the programme almost entirely in the future tense, and when he mentioned the present state of the programme he quoted someone else – John Manzoni, the chief executive of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.
Labour’s Nicholas Brown asked IDS when he expects the business case for Universal Credit to be fully signed off.
IDS: “I announced in December that Her Majesty’s Treasury has approved funding for the universal credit programme in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The final stage in Treasury approvals is sign-off of the full business case, which covers the full lifetime of the programme. We expect to agree that very shortly.”
Brown: The answer to a similar question two months ago was “very shortly”, but it is taking rather longer than the Secretary of State intended. What are the major outstanding issues between his Department and the Treasury, and where does universal credit now stand in the Cabinet Office’s traffic light system?
IDS: “… the reality is that we have agreed all the spending that is relevant to the plan that we set out at the end of last year. The final point relates to the full lifetime of that programme, which will take it all the way through, probably beyond all the years that anybody present will be in government. [MPs: 'Certainly you!'] … That is now being agreed and the reality is that it has to be done very carefully. I genuinely believe, from my discussions, that it will be signed off very shortly. The result will be that the programme will be seen for what it is: a programme that will deliver hugely to those who have the toughest lives and need the most support and help.”
Labour’s Andrew Gwynne asked when the government is going to get a grip on a “chaotic shambles”.
IDS: “It is always nice to live in the past, but the reality is that if the hon. Gentleman waits he will see that this programme is running well and will be delivering, that this programme of universal credit will benefit everybody who needs the support they most need, and all the nonsense he is talking about will all go away.
Chris Bryant, Labour, said that IDS keeps telling MPs that the UC business case will be approved very shortly. “What has gone wrong?” he asked IDS.
IDS: “There are no sticking points, but these matters need to be agreed carefully. This test-first-and-then-implement process is the way all future programmes will be implemented.
“I just want to quote Mr Manzoni, the new chief executive of the Major Projects Authority, who made it clear to the Public Accounts Committee in June that universal credit is stable and on track with the reset plan.”
The National Audit Office is re-investigating the UC programme and is expected to publish its second “progress” report on the state of the programme by December.
If IDS says anything unjustifiably positive about the programme now, MPs and the media will compare his comments today with what the NAO says in its new report. Is that why he refers to the programme only in the future tense? And who can say with certainty what will or will not happen in the future?
It may be worth mentioning that ministers and officials, some years into the NPfIT, referred to the state of the programme almost entirely in the future tense.