By Tony Collins
If the National Audit Office cannot obtain reliable and comprehensive information from the DWP, who can?
The NAO is the department’s auditor. Its head Amyas Morse signs off (or rather qualifies) the DWP’s accounts. His staff also produce regular “value for money” reports on the DWP’s projects and performance.
But an NAO report published today on welfare reform gives more than a hint of the problems its auditors face when trying to verify the information the DWP gives them.
The report “Welfare reform – lessons learned“ says the DWP failed twice to answer the NAO’s questions. Then, when the NAO gave the department its draft report, the DWP provided some information – which the NAO describes as “selective”. It is worth quoting the NAO’s comment in full:
“We have relied largely on our past audit reports to understand the implementation of welfare reform. Past work provides a sufficiently strong and comparable evidence base to identify different approaches and what works well and less well.
“We requested audit evidence from the Department for Work & Pensions (the Department) in August and November 2014.
“This would have allowed us to validate or comment on the Department’s performance more broadly and how they have subsequently addressed issues identified in previous reports. However, the Department failed to send the evidence despite requests.
“Following receipt of a draft report in April 2015, the Department provided some evidence on how it has tried to address issues identified in previous reports and how other welfare reforms have considered these themes.
“In the Department’s view it has made progress across programmes since the time of our initial reports. This includes addressing concerns about programme management on Universal Credit and reducing the time taken to process Personal Independence Payment claims.
“Given the selective nature of the evidence provided and the limited time to review a wide range of programmes, we were unable to audit the evidence or consider the additional information in detail…”
Separately, the DWP is in a protracted legal case to prevent the publication under FOI of four old – 2012 – reports on the Universal Credit programme. A one-day hearing will be held in London on 15 July 2015.
The DWP is astonishingly thin-skinned. Its officials are probably not hiding anything – they just don’t want anybody knowing how well, or how badly, they are managing projects and programmes such as Universal Credit.
Since Universal Credit went live press officers have been allowed to give out only selective information on Universal Credit. It has been difficult to establish from them that the programme has had 6 programme directors and 6 senior responsible owners since 2010.
The NAO’s latest report says the DWP needs to “recognise openly” when it has not met expectations. It needs greater internal challenge, says the NAO.
But the DWP seems unable to change its culture of defensiveness and the selective release of information to Parliament, the public and even its own auditors.
Why is it spending so much public money on trying to stop the release of the four UC reports?
Better than anyone else the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham has summed up the need for openness:
“… Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.
“The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions.
“It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated.
“Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice.
“Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public. Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant.
“Where abuses are exposed, they can be remedied. Even where abuses have already been remedied, the public may be entitled to know that they occurred.” R v Shayler(2002) UKHL 11, (2003)1 AC 247.
Thank you to John Slater for providing Lord Bingham’s quote.