Treasury has not signed off on Duncan Smith’s universal credit MPs told
Head of civil service admits Treasury is only releasing money for troubled Tory policy after ‘conditional reassurances’ on progress.
The Treasury has still not signed off on the government’s troubled universal credit benefits reform, Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, has revealed.
He made the admission that the project was being drip-fed money by the Treasury after Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, repeatedly pressed senior civil servants about its financial status.
It the latest sign that the Treasury is keeping a very close eye on universal credit, the responsibility of work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, after it was criticised by the National Audit Office for its “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”.
After write-downs and IT problems, the plan to merge six benefit payments into one had to be completely “reset” and will be introduced much more slowly than originally planned.
Esther McVey, an employment minister, has previously claimed the “strategic outline business case” for universal credit has been approved until the end of this parliament.
However, in a parliamentary hearing, Kerslake acknowledged: “We shouldn’t beat about the bush: it hasn’t been signed off. What we’ve had is a set of conditional reassurances about progress and the Treasury have released money accordingly. That is one of the key controls.”
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, said the Treasury and the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority “played a very, very clear role in bringing it to the attention” of Duncan Smith that the project was “way off track” at the start of last year. However, he said it was a good example where the most senior people in Whitehall had “intervened very strongly” to help sort it out.
Heywood also admitted that Duncan Smith’s department had mishandled Atos contracts, which has been responsible for delays in the implementation of a new personal independence payment to the disabled. He said there was an issue about whether the department responsible was “sufficiently alive to the emerging picture”.
“That comes down, in my view, to: first of all, was there, before the thing became a project to start with, before it became announced as a priority of the government, was there a sufficiently hard-headed assessment done at the gateway stage? Secondly, there is the perennial problem of whether we had adequate timely real-time information as to what was going on,” he added.
Universal credit has the support of all the major parties but Labour has pledged to “pause” and conduct a three-month review if it wins the general election.
Chris Bryant, shadow minister for welfare reform, said it was “more evidence of the chaos surrounding universal credit”.
“It raises worrying questions about George Osborne‘s refusal to endorse his government’s flagship welfare reform scheme,” he said. ‘It’s time forDavid Cameron to call in the National Audit Office as a matter of urgency to get to the bottom of the true extent of the chaos surrounding universal credit.”