By Tony Collins
IDS was polite and calm, almost deferential, when he went before MPs of the Work and Pensions Committee in September 2012. “Can I say it is always a privilege to be here?” he said.
At at Monday’s hearing of the same committee, though, he was at times tetchy, patronising and mildly bullying. “I don’t think this committee can run the department,” he replied when asked why he hadn’t told the committee in 2012 of problems with the Universal Credit IT project.
Several times he talked over the MP who was asking him questions, with the result neither could be clearly heard.
[If he’s like that at meetings with DWP officials would anyone want to tell him something he doesn’t want to hear? Perhaps his loss of cool on Monday reflected the baffling complexity, and rising costs, of the waterfall part of Universal Credit’s IT programme.]
IDS might also have been shaken by the absence of his most authoritative ally, Howard Shiplee, who has been off sick since shortly before Christmas.
Over a period of more than a year, the DWP and IDS fed the work and pensions committee good news about progress on the Universal Credit IT project. The truth didn’t surface until the National Audit Office published its report on UC in September 2013.
Unknown to the committee in 2012, the DWP was struggling at that time to set out how the detailed design of systems and processes would fit together and relate to the objectives of Universal Credit. This was raised repeatedly in 2012 by internal audit, the Major Projects Authority and a supplier-led review. The committee wasn’t told.
Hence Dame Anne Begg, the softly-spoken chairman, came to Monday’s meeting with a direct question. Why, when IDS came before the Work and Pensions committee in September 2012, did he make no mention of having commissioned a red team review into the Universal Credit project several months earlier.
“Because it was an internal review,” replied IDS. “We were looking the results of that and trying to take whatever decisions were necessary. It was about some of the issues that were going on in the UC team…”
Begg: “But why didn’t you tell us a review was going on?”
IDS: “I don’t tell the committee everything that is happening within the Department until we have reached a conclusion about what is actually happening.”
Begg: “It was an ideal opportunity when you appeared before us in September  that you could have said there were concerns about what was happening with Universal Credit but at that session you were very bullish about how successful everything was.”
IDS: “I still remain very confident about how successful it will be. [Note a difference in tenses between the question and answer]. At the time we were working out how we would make the reset.”
At IDS’s sided was Robert Devereux, Permanent Secretary at the DWP, who seemed at times a parody of Sir Humphrey. [Animated in the delivery of some of his answers Devereux looked as if he was saying something interesting until you listened to the words.]
One MP asked Devereux why the DWP had given written evidence to the committee in 2012 that Universal Credit was on track when it wasn’t. Devereux said that UC was a large and complex programme. “You are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your forward plans … as you go along things change.” MPs were none the wiser.
Begg [to IDS]: Did you not think it appropriate that this scrutiny committee of the House of Commons, which oversees the work the department does, [should have been kept] informed about changes?
IDS: “With respect we did keep the Committee informed as and when we had clarified what we were actually doing and what we thought the problem was and where it existed and how you isolate it and what changes you made. I don’t for one moment agree in any way at all that we hid stuff. We knew we would be accountable to the committee and all would become public… I don’t think this committee can run the department.”
Begg pointed out that IDS had failed to mention a report of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority in February 2013. That report had notified the DWP of flaws in UC governance, management and programme design – despite the same matters having been raised in previous MPA reports.
Begg: “You gave oral evidence to us on 10 July  … but you did not refer at that session to the critical Major Projects Authority report or the reset which had already taken place earlier that year.”
IDS: “I cannot remember what I said to the committee. I have no desire to look back.”
Begg said the DWP told the committee that the pathfinder projects demonstrated that the IT systems worked. “You cannot get any more definitive than that,” said Begg. IDS gave no clear answer.
Mid-way through the hearing, the mood of some of the exchanges was summed up by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams who told IDS:
“I cannot say with the strongest feeling my concern about the hubris that you have demonstrated in the tone to this committee. You haven’t explained, certainly to my own satisfaction – anybody who is watching will draw their own conclusions – you have not given any satisfactory explanation about how you have informed, or kept this committee informed, about the difficulties the department was experiencing.
“There have been obfuscation and smoke and mirrors even up to a few weeks before the report from the National Audit Office [in September 2013]. The memorandum that was released in August – this was clearly saying everything was fine and dandy. It is clearly not. I give you one more opportunity to answer, so you can explain to this committee, why such poor information is provided by your department.”
IDS replied: “I just don’t agree with you, and I don’t agree that we have done anything else but be open and honest about what the issues are, as and when they have been identified and what we would do about them as and when we have made our decisions about them…
“When we found something wrong we went and sorted it out. As we sorted it out we made clear direction about that, and eventually through the NAO, the PAC [Public Accounts Committee and the [Work and Pensions] committee.
“I think we have been pretty open about it. I don’t think there’s anything more. In fact in a sense we are going round and round in circles here at this committee hearing at the moment.”
Begg: “We are not convinced you have got it sorted out.”
Monday’s hearing shows how ministers and officials justify the hiding of reports on costly IT-enabled projects that are going wrong. IDS didn’t even tell MPs in July 2013 that the Major Projects Authority had four months earlier recommended an immediate pause in the programme.
Most worrying of all, officials and IDS seem content that the DWP gave the work and pensions committee – in September 2012 and July 2013 – a good news story on the state of the Universal Credit IT project while truth about the project’s problems stayed hidden.
IDS suggested it was not necessary to tell MPs about reports until ministers have “reached a conclusion about what is actually happening” That may be never.
It’s time for public accounts and work and pensions MPs to insist on seeing Major Projects Authority reviews, and other reports, on the progress or otherwise of big government IT-enabled programme such as UC. MPs should not have to wait for an NAO report to get the truth.
Governments, whatever their hue, will always refuse to publish these reports contemporaneously, such is the will of departmental heads. They have been refusing to publish the reports for more than 20 years.
But if MPs keep insisting with an unbreakable tenacity on their publication – and for publication before they are out of date – it may eventually happen, and gone will be the power of ministers and officials to mislead MPs on the state of big IT-enabled programmes.
Until publication happens, is there much point in MPs questioning IDS or his officials on the UC IT programme? They will get only the public relations version of the truth.