By Tony Collins
DWP minister Esther McVey is facing criticism that she misled Parliament by saying that the Universal Credit business case had been approved when it hadn’t.
A close look at the facts shows that the minister spoke the truth, and the DWP officials who wrote her Parliamentary answer also told the truth. But MPs were still misled, perhaps deliberately so.
The officials who wrote the minister’s reply knew that there is an early and very basic business case for Universal Credit, the strategic outline business case, which had been approved.
All big projects in central government have strategic outline business case approval before they get underway. Universal Credit was the same as any other big programme in this respect.
What hadn’t been approved was the full business case which requires much more detail than the strategic outline case – and it requires plans and costs to be finalised among other things.
When, on 30 June 2014, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s spokeswoman on work and pensions, asked the government whether the business case for Universal Credit had been approved officials wrote a cleverly deceptive answer.
They wrote that the strategic outline business case had been approved. They did not mention that the full business case had not been approved. It’s certain that the minister did not realise that this answer was deceitful.
That said, the answer was in line with the DWP’s culture which is to project good news and conceal bad news (NAO report Universal Credit: early progress, September 2013).
This was the original Parliamentary question and answer on 30 June 2014.
Rachel Reeves (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Leeds West, Labour)
“To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions … whether he has approved the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for the implementation of universal credit.”
Esther McVey (The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)
“The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement.”
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the DWP, in drafting the minister’s reply to Reeves, intended to mislead.
That’s politics. On the other hand it is an extraordinary misuse of power by senior civil servants.
A strategic outline business case is very different to a full business case.
The strategic outline case merely sets out the strategic context and the case for change, together with the supporting investment objectives for the scheme. It sets out likely funding needs and speculates that the scheme is achievable and meets best practice principles.
The full business case has finalised arrangements including key contractual arrangements , costs, agreed implementation timescales, main risks, constraints, dependencies, benefits and “dis-benefits”. It sets out an argument on the affordability of the scheme.
The controversy over whether Parliament was misled – which it was – shows the ease with which the senior civil service can protect the government of the day from embarrassment. Except that this time the truth came out; and it came out unexpectedly because a tenacious Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, kept asking civil servants whether the business case for UC had been approved. Eventually, though with some reluctance, they told her the truth.
If a little truth comes out in such an unplanned way, one can only guess at how much other information on the Universal Credit programme is being hidden. Perhaps deliberately so.
These minutes from a Social Security Advisory Committee meeting in May are fascinating —
Click to access ssac-minutes-070514.pdf
It’s hard to see how the business case for UC can be signed off if such basic questions as this can’t yet be answered by DWP –
“Q: On the issue of housing costs, DWP would be taking on the work of
the local authorities. How were you preparing for that?
A: The key thing was that housing costs would be paid through Universal
Credit not local authorities which, although it sounded simple, did bring
some complexity. The challenge would be to replicate years of experience
that the local authorities had built up and to understand local housing issues.”