Three questions for the work and pensions select committee

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Today (3 February, 2014) Department of Work and Pensions Secretary of State Iain Duncan-Smith and Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux will be appearing before the Work and Pensions Select Committee, along with the Director General for Finance, Mike Driver.

This will be the first time the permanent secretary and secretary of state have appeared together since the publication of critical reports by the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office about the implementation of Universal Credit.

Issues to be discussed are likely to include Universal Credit implementation and related IT expenditure.

The Institute for Government has said Universal Credit is a classic example of the ‘accountability muddle’ in Whitehall.  Today there are still important unanswered questions that prevent lessons being learned for this and future major projects in government. 

There are three questions we hope members will ask:

1. Why have there been no ministerial directions about this project?

The IfG has argued that the system allowing permanent secretaries to formally state their objection about a project to a minister is not working. Not a single direction has been sought under the current government, compared to more than a dozen sought by this stage of the government post-1997. In the case of Universal Credit, no direction was sought and we do not know why.

2. Where is the “clarity of consequences” for the damning PAC report?

November’s PAC report tells a sorry story about unclear management structures and responsibility. As the Institute said when it was published, clearly the immediate responsibility for the oversight and management of Universal Credit lies squarely with the permanent secretary. We still do not know who in government was responsible for considering the PAC report, and what consequences, if any, they deemed necessary as a result of its damning content.

3. What has changed to ensure that past mistakes on accountability are not repeated? 

Prior to the NAO report, the department consistently provided reassuring assessments of the progress of Universal Credit. Since the NAO report, the public has again heard assurances that issues have been resolved and the project is on track with a revised timetable. How can both the parliament and public and have the confidence that they are being correctly informed, including that the writing down of IT assets is being done in a way that ensures value for money? Without accurate information, it is impossible for parliament to hold both ministers and civil servants to account in a timely manner, and a danger that problems are hidden rather than faced up to.

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