An influential MP has questioned whether ministers are telling the truth about the Government’s troubled flagship benefit reforms after the head of the civil service poured doubt over the Employment Minister’s claims they were on track.
Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge described the “smoke and mirrors” over Universal Credit (UC) after hearing evidence from civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake, who revealed the Treasury had not fully signed off the reforms.
She suggested his account appeared to differ from that of Employment Minister Esther McVey, who has said in written parliamentary answers that the business case for UC had been approved by the Treasury, according to Labour.
Ms McVey said in a debate on Universal Credit last night that the Treasury had signed off funding for UC until the end of the current Parliament, which appeared to chime with what Sir Bob told the committee and what Treasury Minister Nicky Morgan said in a written parliamentary answer yesterday.
But Ms Hodge said backbenchers need a mechanism to determine “who is telling the truth” as two other senior civil servants gave her committee vague accounts of UC’s progress.
Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson repeatedly dodged questions about whether it had been signed off but said there were Treasury decisions to be made “at each key milestone”. Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood also told the committee that “in its current form” UC is on track.
Raising a point of order in the Commons, Labour MP Ms Hodge said: “The importance here for backbench members is we need to know who is telling the truth – the head of the civil service or the minister?
“We need to have a mechanism which enables us to assess that.
“Smoke and mirrors have been used, hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake, millions of benefit claimants will have their future at risk, and we as backbenchers need to know in this House.”
UC – a project that will unify six different welfare payments – has been beset by problems since its launch.
More than £40 million spent on IT was written off in 2012/13, with a further £91 million of software code expected to be written down in value to nil over the next five years.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves asked whether Ms McVey needed to correct the record in line with the ministerial code.
Speaker John Bercow said the procedure of coming to the Commons to set the record straight is “available to ministers”.
Also raising a point of order, Ms Reeves said : “The ministerial code of conduct that ministers must give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.
“On June 11 I asked whether the Department for Work and Pensions business case for the implementation of Universal Credit had been approved by the Treasury.
“The Employment Minister replied saying the Chief Secretary has approved the Universal Credit strategic outline business case plans for the remainder of this Parliament, as per the ministerial announcement on December 5 2013.
“When asked yesterday whether the Treasury had signed off the business case for Universal Credit, Sir Bob Kerslake told the Public Accounts committee ‘I think we should not beat about the bush, it has not been signed off’.
“And this morning the Financial Secretary responded to a parliamentary question asking whether the Treasury had signed off the business case by saying all her department had done is approve funding for the programme in 2013/14 and 2014/15.
“In other words, the straightforward answer to the question ‘has the Treasury approved the DWP’s business case for the implementation of Universal Credit?’ is no – the reverse of what the Employment Minister said.
“Can you explain to the House the process whereby a minister can correct the record?”
Mr Bercow replied: “Every member of the House is responsible for the veracity of what he or she says in it.
“As you will be aware, and other members will know, there is a procedure available to ministers if they need to correct the record, it’s open to them to do so by coming to the House and setting the record straight if they judge that appropriate.
“In so far as issues appertaining to the ministerial code are concerned, the House will be aware that I’m not responsible for compliance with the code, that responsibility rests elsewhere.”
A DWP spokesman said: “Universal Credit is a vital reform that will ensure we have a welfare system that means people are better off in work than on benefits.
“The facts remain that Universal Credit is on track to roll out safely and securely against the plan set out last year. It is already transforming people’s lives and is available in a growing number of areas, including 24 Jobcentres, and last week expanded to claims from couples.
“The Treasury has been fully engaged – they have approved the rollout plan and have approved all funding to date.”