By Tony Collins
As the DWP manoeuvres again to stop reports on the Universal Credit programme being published it’s worth asking: has the DWP got its 2-year legal battle to keep the reports secret out of perspective?
Work and Pensions minister Lord Freud personally signed off his department’s request to keep the UC reports secret; and his secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith seems untroubled by MPs’ criticisms that Parliament is not kept properly informed about the UC programme’s problems.
The lack of openness and transparency over problems with the UC programme is “not acceptable,” said the all-party Work and Pensions Committee in April.
The four reports would, if published, inform Parliament about how much senior civil servants knew about the problems with UC while ministers and the department were assuring MPs the scheme was on time and to budget.
This isn’t the reason the DWP does not want the reports published: it has an unofficial rule not to publish any reports on the progress or otherwise of its big IT-based projects and programmes.
Not even Parliament is allowed sight of minutes of UC meetings, the updated UC business case, UC risk registers, issues registers, project assessment reviews or high-level milestone schedules.
In its arguments to the Upper Tribunal this week lawyers for the DWP argue in paragraph after paragraph that publication of the UC reports would have a “chilling effect” on senior civil servants.
But the DWP may not appreciate the extent to which its attempts to keep Parliament, the press and public in the dark trivialise the vigorous and noble attempts by some prime ministers in the last century to keep Parliament well informed on what was going well or not with major government plans.
Churchill stands out as a PM who was remarkably open, even during one of the darkest times in the history of Britain, in 1940, when the government had every reason to marginalise Parliament. It’s easy to believe Churchill was too busy to attend Parliament and that he had the best possible excuse for not keeping MPs informed: he didn’t want to forewarn Britain’s enemies.
In fact Parliamentary archives show that Churchill in 1940 was meticulous about keeping Parliament informed – about his concerns as well as as his reasons for optimism.
With London being bombed and a fleet of 1900 fully-armed ships and barges gathered at German-occupied ports ready to invade Britain, Churchill came to the House of Commons to account for government actions. He even answered a Parliamentary question in September 1940 on pensions.
On 30 July 1940 Churchill opened a public debate in the House of Commons on whether Parliament should go into secret session. France had just fallen and the government was preparing for what Churchill called the Battle of Britain. He had every reason to go into secret session. He allowed a free vote.
Churchill also rejected calls for automatic secret sessions of Parliament. There had to be a debate and free vote each time.
Compare Churchill’s determination to keep Parliament properly informed at a time when the freedom of every British citizen was in peril and the DWP’s repeated attempts to stop information reaching Parliament, the press and the public on what departmental reports were saying about the Universal Credit programme in 2012.
Churchill and other MPs, including Labour’s Josiah Wedgwood, argued that openness was needed because criticism of the government by an informed press and Parliament was an essential part of the democratic process. Criticism could be a stimulus to act.
But what we now have at the DWP are departmental civil servants and ministers who want information on the Universal Credit programme to be state-controlled, apart from the one-off reports of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee which the DWP cannot control.
Only the Work and Pensions Committee provides regular scrutiny of the UC programme – but its MPs complain of being kept in the dark.
Churchill in Parliament’s secret sessions had good reason for secrecy. His notes published after the war show that he spoke in a secret session of Parliament in 1940 on the need for British forces to “get through the next 3 months” then they will “get through the next 3 years”. He discussed the Allies’ military errors and German strengths and weaknesses.
Now we have the DWP marginalising Parliament – not publishing the contents of departmental reports on UC – because of the chilling effect on senior civil servants.
There can be little dispute that Churchill was more open in Britain’s darkest hour than the DWP is today on Universal Credit programme. For even when Parliament went into secret session in 1940, all MPs, including the government’s opponents, were included in the discussions. Only “strangers” – non-MPs – were excluded.
That’s a million miles from what’s happening at the DWP. All ordinary MPs are excluded from the DWP’s detailed discussions on the UC programme. The DWP is shielding Parliament from knowing what is in the UC programme reports.
As I asked earlier: is the DWP’s fear of openness over UC reports out of perspective?