By Tony Collins
Two leaders of the Universal Credit rollout, David Gauke and Neil Couling, faced MPs’ questioning this morning on problems with the rollout of Universal Credit.
They were asked, among other things, about excessive delays in payments and payments made on the basis of incorrect data.
Gauke and Couling appeared before the work and pensions committee. There is also a Commons debate today on the Universal Credit rollout.
Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, and civil servant Neil Couling, Director General of Universal Credit, are known to resent criticism of the Universal Credit programme or its rollout.
Couling tweeted last week, in response to academic Jonathan Portas:
But MPs on the work and pensions committee, particularly its chairman Frank Field, are sensitive to the DWP’s “good news” culture.
Field is reported to have said he suspected that ministers had only pressed ahead with the accelerated rollout of universal credit this month because civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions had withheld the true scale of the problems.
“Given everything we have heard, I was surprised that David Gauke opted to proceed with the accelerated rollout.
“I strongly suspect his decision, together with the failure to tell us anything, reflects a culture at the DWP of those most invested in universal credit not telling anyone, including their ministers, bad news.”
In its 2013 report “Universal Credit Early Progress“, the National Audit Office said,
“Both the Major Projects Authority [now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority] and a supplier-led review in mid-2012 identified problems with staff culture; including a ‘fortress mentality’ within the programme.
“The latter also reported there was a culture of ‘good news’ reporting that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge.”
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme heard this morning (18 October 2017) that a Universal Credit claimant who’d been the victim of “mistake after mistake” on his claim had threatened to take his own life and police had been called.
Gauke and Couling told the work and pensions committee this morning that the rollout may be paused in January 2018 as part of the department’s test and learn philosophy. They called it a “fire-break. Couling said the rollout was paused in February 2016 for two months and “nobody noticed”.
He added that he was prepared to advise his minister, the Treasury and the prime minister to pause the rollout whenever the “evidence merits”..
Gauke said the advantages of the Universal Credit system were of such a “prize” that there was cost of slowing down the rollout. “It can transform lives and it’s my determination is to deliver this successfully,” said Gauke.
Gauke and Couling told MPs that the rollout was working successfully. Neither expressed any criticisms of the programme or the rollout; and neither accepted the many criticisms of the committee’s MPs of the programme. At one point, Couling helpfully suggested to the committee some of the questions they “should” have been asking.
Where there were problems it was outside the DWP’s control – because of information supplied, or not supplied, by claimants or employers. The real-time information supplied to DWP by HM Revenue and Customs was only as good as the information provided to HMRC by employers.
There’s universal support for the idea of Universal Credit. But there is almost universal criticism of the way it is being rolled out. Critics of the rollout also find it difficult to understand the DWP’s continuing refusal to accept that there are any serious problems.
For decades the DWP and its predecessor the Department of Social Security have been culturally unable to accept criticism of any of their big IT-based projects and programmes, even after a project was aborted.
One DWP director last year used the word “paranoid” when referring to her colleagues and their concerns about leaks of any bad news on the Universal Credit programme.
The DWP routinely declines FOI requests to publish its performance reviews on the Universal Credit programme. This lack of official information on the DWP’s performance leaves officials and ministers free to say that criticism of the programme is subjective or anecdotal.
Stephen Crabb was one of the few politicians who have ever made a difference to the DWP’s closed culture of secrecy and defensiveness. He ordered that internal reports on the risks and progress of the Universal Credit programme be released, against the advice of his civil servants. But Crabb didn’t stay long.
And the “good news” culture has returned, as unremitting as ever. Will any minister or civil servant be able to change the DWP’s “good news” culture?
The DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux is retiring in January 2018, which will open the door to a successor who could try and change the department’s defensive culture.
It’s more likely, however, that Devereux’s replacement will be chosen on the basis that he or she will be a “safe pair of hands” which, in civil service terms, means a staunch defender of the department, its performance, all it is doing and the civil service in general.
However many independent voices call for a brake on the Universal Credit rollout, it seems inevitable that the DWP’s mandarins (and their pliant ministers) will carry on doing whatever they can justify to themselves.
The DWP hasn’t let humility or democratic openness get in the way before. Why would it give in to them now?