MPs: Was universal credit 'reset' attempt to hide problems?
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Universal Credit and also in Central Government, Finance
MPs: Was 'reset' attempt to hide universal credit problems?
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said it is concerned that the Major Projects Authority's (MPA) decision to 'reset' the government's troubled universal credit (UC) programme may have been an attempt to "keep information secret and prevent scrutiny".
Back in May, the MPA - which was established in 2011 to improve the delivery of large government projects - decided that UC had become so drastically reconfigured that it classified it as a totally new project.
Questioning the decision and the MPA's general function, the PAC has said that the government’s "transparency policy is too restrictive as it prevents useful data sets, such as the amount spent so far, from being published and stipulates that major project data can only be published once a year. This is too infrequent and means that the data available on high-profile, high-cost projects can be significantly out-of-date."
UC, the Tory-led coalition's flagship reform of the welfare system, which sees six working-age benefits rolled into one monthly payment, has been besieged by costly IT errors and slow take up since it started.
At the time of 'reset', the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said that the MPA's decision was "out of date" as it had made its assessment the previous September.
Summarising the PAC's report on the operations of the MPA, chair Margaret Hodge MP said that though the committee supports the authority's work, without stronger powers "it is unlikely to achieve its aim of a systemic improvement in project delivery across government".
Hodge said: "The projects in the MPA’s portfolio represent a huge and rising cost to the taxpayer. In May 2014 the total cost over the lifetime of these projects was estimated at £488 billion, an increase of some £134bn on the previous year. The portfolio includes high-profile and extremely challenging projects such as UC and the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier programme."
The MP noted, however, that the MPA only has "informal influence" over government departments, and the Treasury has no obligation to follow its recommendations.
Hodge said: "We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the UC project may have been an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny."
The MPA is as a partnership between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury with a prime ministerial mandate to improve project delivery across government through robust assurance measures.
In the wake of UC's reset, Lord Freud, one of the programme's chief architects, claimed in the House of Lords that pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had personally taken the decision to 'reset' UC, preferring to take a step back rather than "blundering on regardless".
Speaking to peers, Freud said: "What does reset mean? What happened, as noble Lords will remember, is that Ministers, the Secretary of State in particular, took a decision that the programme was not going properly and took a view to stop it and reorganise it — reset it."