By Tony Collins
As the Department for Work and Pensions continues its long and costly legal battle to stop four Universal Credit reports being published, the all-party Public Accounts Committee says a lack of openness “remains within the Department”.
The PAC says in a report published today “Universal Credit: progress update”
“… a lack of openness remains within the Department, as does an unwillingness to face up to past failings.
“The Department refused to accept the extent of previous failings, despite the overwhelming evidence we heard last year that the programme’s management had been extraordinarily poor prior to the reset, and the small numbers claiming Universal Credit.
“Furthermore, since early 2012, the Department has been fighting a protracted legal case to prevent the publication of documents relating to the management of Universal Credit…”
The DWP is refusing to release four Universal Credit reports requested under FOI.
Three of the reports from 2012 – the risks register, issues register and milestone schedule – were requested by programme and project management professional John Slater. I requested a project assessment review of the Universal Credit programme, as carried out by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.
When questioned by Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, Robert Devereux, the DWP’s Permanent Secretary, suggested that his officials did not publish the reports because similar reports in other departments were also unpublished.
Meanwhile the DWP is pouring public money into various legal appeals related to its refusal to publish the reports. The DWP’s lawyers argue that publishing the four reports would have a “chilling effect”. They say officials need continued confidentiality to be candid about risks and problems.
A counter argument – though not yet one made in any of the legal hearings so far – is that civil servants and consultants writing the reports are writing them for other civil servants and consultants and are more deferential in their findings than they would be if the reports were open to public and Parliamentary scrutiny.
The PAC’s latest report on Universal Credit highlights the many uncertainties that surround the programme’s delivery.
After a total spend of about £700m on the Universal Credit programme so far the Committee questions what has really been gained. It says:
“The Department must set out clearly what it has really gained from its spending so far, including from the piloting of the programme, and from the investment in live service IT systems.”
Fewer than one per cent of the potential claimants are currently claiming Universal Credit although the programme has been in live operation since April 2013.
The DWP says it is going slowly and cautiously but the PAC’s report raises questions about whether the programme, as it is being delivered by the DWP’s major suppliers, will ever be affordable or technically feasible given the amount of manual intervention required.
A separate, far cheaper “digital” solution, which is being built on agile principles, is being trialled in Sutton, South London. It may offer more hope of successful, affordable delivery than the existing “live service” currently being rolled out. The live service from the DWP’s major suppliers mixes new coding, legacy systems and manual calculations. It has cost £344m so far. The digital solution has cost less than £5m so far.
Who has the final say on whether the four Universal Credit reports are published – the Department for Work and Pensions or the all-party Public Accounts Committee? Clearly it’s the DWP’s civil servants.
MPs are powerless to force publication of the reports.
What does this say about the ability of MPs to make the most senior civil servants more open than they want to be?