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Iain Duncan Smith: Sir Bob Kerslake was right about universal credit business case

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Iain Duncan Smith: Sir Bob Kerslake was right about universal credit business case

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Central Government and also in Housing, Universal Credit

Iain Duncan Smith: Sir Bob Kerslake was right about universal credit business case Iain Duncan Smith: Sir Bob Kerslake was right about universal credit business case

Iain Duncan Smith has been forced to admit that the lifetime business case for the implementation of universal credit has not yet been signed off by the Treasury.

In a heated exchange in the House of Commons, the Work and Pensions Secretary confirmed that funding for the flagship reform of the benefits system was being signed off on a piecemeal basis by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

He explained that although the Treasury had agreed universal credit business case plans "for the lifetime of this parliament" the full business case for the lifetime of the programme was still under discussion.

Duncan Smith also admitted, in a roundabout way, that the comments made about universal credit by Sir Bob Kerslake earlier this week were correct. He told the Commons: "My point is that the answer that Mr Kerslake, the head of the civil service, gave was correct in the sense, as I have said today, that the overall strategic business case for the full lifetime of the programme is in discussion right now for that completion."

Here are the highlights from Hansard of yesterday's universal credit debate:

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): To ask the Employment Minister if she will make a statement on whether the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for the implementation of universal credit has been approved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): In answering, let me lay out a couple of quick facts about where we are and then deal with the hon. Gentleman’s direct question.

Universal credit is a major reform that will transform the welfare state in Britain for the better, making 3 million people better off and bringing £35 billion of economic benefits to society. Rightly for a programme of this scale, the Government’s priority has been, and continues to be, its safe and secure delivery. This is demonstrated through our approach to date, which started with the successful launch of the pathfinder in April 2013 and has continued with the controlled expansion of universal credit.

On 5 December last year, I announced that universal credit would be rolled out to the north-west and expanded to couples from the summer of 2014, and would then expand to families later that year. That is exactly what is happening. A fortnight ago, we began our north-west expansion. Universal credit is now in 24 jobcentres and will reach 90 across the country by the end of the year. A week ago, we started taking claims from couples. This careful roll-out is allowing us, as we said we would, to learn as we go along, continuously improving the process—unlike so many of the programmes the previous Government instigated which crashed and burned.

In answer to the question, my Department has always worked, and will continue to work, closely with the Treasury on these roll-out plans. As we have made clear in a number of recent debates and answers to parliamentary questions, the Treasury has approved funding for the universal credit programme in 2013-14 and 2014-15, in line with the plan that I announced in December last year. These approvals are given by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—such matters are delegated to him by the Chancellor—and are subject to rigorous controls, in line with the recommendations made last year by the National Audit Office.

It has always been the plan, as I set out last year, to secure agreement for universal credit in carefully controlled stages: first for singles, where we have agreed funding with the Treasury and are already rolling out in line with that agreement; then for couples, where we have agreed funding with the Treasury and are already rolling out in line with that agreement; and then for families, where we have recently secured agreement from the Treasury and will begin roll-out later this year. All this was confirmed by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in an answer to a parliamentary question yesterday. That set of agreements confirms the approval of the strategic outline business case plans for this Parliament.

The final stage in this process, for which the logical point is now, has always been to approve and sign off the full business case covering the full, long lifetime of this programme, beyond this Parliament. We are in discussions over that, and it will eventually bring £35 billion of economic benefits to society. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and I will, I am certain, approve that very soon.

Chris Bryant: That was a spectacular instance, as Sir Bob Kerslake might put it, of “beating about the bush”. It is a very simple question, to which the answer can only be yes or no: has the Department for Work and Pensions business case for the implementation of universal credit been approved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It is depressing that this Tory Minister and the Tory Prime Minister cannot tell the difference between an annual budget and a business case. It is pretty straightforward.

On 30 June, the employment Minister—who is disgracefully not answering for herself today—answered that question by saying:

“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."

She was referring to the ministerial statement of 5 December, which explicitly runs up to 2017. On Monday, however, she had the carpet pulled from under her feet, as Sir Bob Kerslake answered exactly the same question with gratifying honesty, saying that “it has not been signed off.”

It got worse yesterday when the Financial Secretary, answering the same question, said that all the Treasury has done is approve funding for the programme for another eight months, while a DWP spokesperson said that the Treasury has “approved all funding to date”, as if that was some grand vindication.

The same simple question has now been answered in eight contradictory ways. Not everybody can be telling the truth. There has been so much beating about the bush that it feels as if this House has been misled by a Government engaged in a deliberate act of deception. [Interruption.] The truth is that the Department is relying month by month on handouts from the national food bank. How ironic!

On 5 December 2013, the Secretary of State told the House that universal credit would bring “a £38 billion economic benefit to society”.

I notice that he has just amended that figure to £35 billion. That figure is part of the business case. Has it been signed off by the Treasury, or is he just making things up?

The Secretary of State has told this House on 28 occasions that universal credit has always been on time and on budget; yet Sir Jeremy Heywood said on Monday that the Treasury and the Major Projects Authority had to tell the Secretary of State that his own project was “way off track”. When was he told that? Why did the Secretary of State not tell this House?

I will be honest: we would love to help the Secretary of State implement universal credit, but confession comes before redemption, and as long as he remains in denial he remains beyond help. I ask him once again to be straight with the House: has the business case—the business case, not the budget—for universal credit, which he says will come to fruition in 2017, been signed off—yes or no?

Speaker: Order. Just before the Secretary of State replies, I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. He made no personal attack on any one individual. [Interruption.] Order. I will deal with this—the hon. Gentleman will have to accept my ruling, whether he likes it or not. The hon. Gentleman made no personal attack on any individual Minister, but my judgment, having heard him out, was that he went beyond the line in making an accusation of deliberate deception against a group of Ministers. [Interruption.] Order. I know what I am doing and I certainly do not require any help from the Education Secretary—that would be completely unimaginable. I ask Members to have regard to the way in which they express themselves. The point has been made, the situation is clear and the Secretary of State can now reply.

Duncan Smith: The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made the most pompous, ludicrous statement I have ever heard. I know what he did: he wrote it down before he heard the answer. I have made it quite clear and I stand by what I said: the strategic outline business case plans for this Parliament have been approved. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) made that clear the other day, and that is the statement that we stand by.

The next phase, as I said in my statement—the hon. Gentleman might like to listen to them in future—is approved. On the strategic outline business case for the overall lifetime of the programme, that is being discussed right now and we expect approval of that plan shortly. I have said categorically that all the expenditures and the work in this Parliament are approved. The reality is that it is approved. The point he needs to get round his head is that, on the figures he gave earlier—the billions—the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee agree that we need careful controls in place. It is therefore natural that we have sought that approval at each stage. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has approved all of those elements.

I know what this is all about. The truth is that this is about Labour’s failure to come to terms with welfare reform. We had a debate a week ago in which Labour crashed and burned, and we have an urgent question today. Labour Members want to avoid the reality that the Government’s welfare reforms are working and getting more people back to work. We have capped benefits so that no household can receive more than people who are in work. There are more people in work than ever before. Under Labour, youth unemployment increased by nearly a half; under this Government, the youth claimant count has fallen for the past 30 months. The rate of workless households is at its lowest since records began.

I say to the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party that this is the best instance of a man in an ill-fitting anorak dancing on the head of a pin. It is quite pathetic. He needs to think again about welfare reform.

Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab): As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I support the intent of the policy, but I have repeatedly sought assurances on the status of universal credit. On Monday, I asked Sir Jeremy Heywood, Sir Nick Macpherson and Sir Bob Kerslake four times whether the business case had been signed off by the Treasury. There were a number of unscripted pauses, but Sir Jeremy told us: “I cannot speak for the Treasury.”

Sir Nick Macpherson told us: “It is signed up, up to a point”, before Bob Kerslake finally admitted: “I think we should not beat about the bush. It has not been signed off.”

I plead with the Secretary of State that he should be open and honest with hon. Members rather than hide behind smoke and mirrors to create a false impression that universal credit is on time, in budget and delivering in full its intended objectives.

Duncan Smith: I respect the right hon. Lady enormously for the job she does, but I say to her clearly that it was on the recommendations of her Committee and the NAO that we instigated—by the way, I think this is the way ahead for all future programmes—a programme in which, at every stage and in every separate part of development, we would have approvals from the Treasury and with the Cabinet Office, which is what is going on at the moment. My point is that the answer that Mr Kerslake, the head of the civil service, gave was correct in the sense, as I have said today, that the overall strategic business case for the full lifetime of the programme is in discussion right now for that completion. However, all the elements that are relevant—the strategic business plan for this Parliament, which includes all the roll-out, all the investments, of which the right hon. Lady will be aware, and the roll-out through to the north-west—have been approved. There will be no further need for approvals this Parliament, so the reality is quite clear: universal credit is on track and is rolling against the plan we set out last year. All those approvals are agreed, and we hope that the final element, which would logically come at the end of the process, will be agreed shortly with the Chief Secretary.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): The Secretary of State has me convinced about the benefits of universal credit, but will he consider publishing the business case so that the House and the public outside can see the full benefits?

Duncan Smith: I am quite happy to deal with that. I have also said to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee that we are happy to talk through that. We have an invitation from the Committee to come in and discuss it.

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