Universal Credit implementation: monitoring DWP's performance in 2012-13 - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

5  DWP's cooperation with the scrutiny process

Timing of DWP announcements on UC

61. As we have noted, we had arranged for the Secretary of State to provide oral evidence to us on Universal Credit on 10 July 2013, to follow up the findings in our 2012 report. At the start of the oral evidence session the Secretary of State announced significant changes to the UC timetable. We were not provided with any indication in advance of the session of the scope of this announcement.[65]

62. A similar issue arose in December 2013. The Secretary of State had a very long-standing invitation to give oral evidence to us on 9 December 2013 on the delayed Departmental Annual Report and Accounts (ARA). As we have noted, we had made it clear from the outset that this session would focus mainly on Universal Credit implementation but it was not until 5 December, two working days before the date of the evidence session, that DWP made public its plans for further changes to UC implementation.[66] On both occasions, DWP's decision to make these major announcements at or just before our evidence sessions gave us insufficient time to take account of their implications before questioning Ministers.

63. The Secretary of State had also given an undertaking that the ARA would be published in advance of the oral evidence session on 9 December. In the event, it was not published until the day after the session. This meant that we did not have access to the Report on the Accounts from the C&AG, which commented on DWP's treatment of the UC IT expenditure and the future development of the programme.The Secretary of State provided the basic facts about the level of the write-off of IT expenditure in a letter to the Chair received on the day of the session, but it would have been far more helpful for us to have had access to the C&AG's Report before we questioned DWP witnesses.[67]

Timeliness of provision of information to the Committee

64. Further and more detailed information about the scale of the problems experienced with UC during 2012-13 emerged during the evidence session in December 2013. DWP witnesses referred many times to DWP's "red team" reviews of the UC programme in mid-2012, and the plans for "resetting" UC implementation which had been made by May 2013.[68]

65. However, neither the reviews nor thereset plans had been mentioned, when DWP witnesses gave oral evidence in July 2013, as the reasons for the slowing down of implementation. Nor had any indication been given then of the scale of the problems with UC nor the serious concerns which had existed from 2012 within DWP, the Cabinet Office and the Major Projects Authority about UC IT. Indeed, Howard Shiplee told us in July 2013 that "the pathfinder [...] has demonstrated that the IT systems work". He denied that there were problems with the IT and that a new system would be needed, although he did also make clear that DWP was reviewing all the existing IT.[69]

66. The Secretary of State acknowledged in December that he had had concerns as far back as "2011/12" about the UC IT and the digital by default approach. He said that this was why he had commissioned the DWP internal reviews in the summer of 2012 and that the introduction of the Pathfinder came about "on the back of my decision to reset" and as a result of the realisation that the IT systems needed more testing.[70]

67. However, there was no mention of these concerns or the remedial action taken when the Secretary of State gave oral evidence to our original inquiry into Universal Credit implementation in September 2012. Universal Credit was also extensively discussed with the Permanent Secretary at the end of October 2012, when he gave evidence on the DWP Annual Report 2011-12. Again, there was no mention of concerns about progress with implementation or changes to the plans.[71]However, when the Permanent Secretary gave oral evidence to the PAC on UC in September 2013, he said that he knew in July 2012 that he had "an unresolvable problem on which management action had to be taken" in relation to UC.[72]

68. The Department missed a further opportunity to bring these matters to our attention when it published its response to our Universal Credit report in February 2013. Our report had specifically noted that the implementation timetable for UC might need to be slowed but the Government chose not to comment on this in its response.[73] However, in the oral evidence sessions in July and December 2013, the Secretary of State referred back to the comments in that report. He said that the changes to the implementation timetable were "hugely centred" on our advice about the need to avoid "artificial timetables" and to ensure that the DWP did not"just steamroll ahead".[74]

69. During the February 2014 evidence session, we challenged the Secretary of State about this apparent lack of disclosure of key information about the problems DWP was encountering. His view was that:

    I do not have to tell the Committee everything that is happening in the Department until we have reached a conclusion about what is actually happening. I will take those decisions myself and account for the decisions that were taken, and I have done that.

He also said that "I do not think this Committee can run the Department".[75]

70. When we questioned him in February 2014 specifically on the reasons for not telling us about the DWP's red team review of the UC programme at the July 2013 evidence session, the Secretary of State said that this was because "it was an internal review and we were looking at the results of that and trying to make whatever decisions were necessary to reshape and to get this focused."[76] We asked the Secretary of State why he had not been more frank with us about the scale of the problems in July 2013, when he must have known that they would be revealed in the NAO report to be published shortly afterwards.He said: "I am not in a position to talk to the Committee about stuff that the NAO are looking into and doing at the time. It is for them to make that public themselves."[77] Lord Freud argued that "We gave a very clear picture of what was happening to this Committee in July".[78]

71. Effective scrutiny by select committees relies on government departments providing them with accurate, timely and detailed information. This has not always happened to date in relation to our scrutiny of the problems with Universal Credit implementation. It is not acceptable for Ministers to provide information about changes to major policy implementation to this Committee, and indeed to Parliament and the public more broadly, only when forced to do so by the imminent prospect of being held to account in a public oral evidence session. We recommend that, in response to this Report, DWP sets out how it will improve the frankness, accuracy and timeliness of the information it provides to us, to ensure that it meets the required levels of transparency between the Government and select committees, and that we are not hampered in trying to carry out our formal scrutiny role effectively.

Provision of information to the public

72. Ensuring the provision of accurate and detailed information about progress with UC implementation to the general public is also very important. In March 2014, the Information Rights First-tier Tribunal ruled on a Freedom of Information case brought to the Information Commissioner, requesting the public release by DWP of technical documents relating to the UC programme, including the Gateway Reviews, the Risk Register, the Issues Register and the High Level Milestone Schedule.

73. This was a complex case, but in deciding in favour of the documents being released, the Tribunal stated that "the shaping and implementation of this reform [Universal Credit] are matters of the very highest importance and public interest". The Tribunal decision referred to "the very great costs involved" in the programme and went on to say: "there is a particularly strong public interest in up to date information as to the details of what is happening within the programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well-founded."[79]

65   Oral evidence taken on 10 July 2013; see also HC Deb, 10 July 2013, cols 21-22 WS; and DWP press release, 10 July 2013, "Universal Credit: Roll out from October 2013".  Back

66   HC Deb, 5 December 2013, cols 65-66WS; see also DWP written evidence, 5 December 2013 and oral evidence taken on 9 December 2013, HC 867 Back

67   Letter to the Chair from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 9 December 2013 Back

68   Oral evidence taken on 3 February 2014. See Qq33-34; 62; 77-80; 82-83; 85-86; and 89-90. The "red team reviews" were DWP internal reviews of the UC programme undertaken at the request of the Secretary of State in 2012; the "reset" was the major adjustment to the programme which took place in February to May 2013, in response to the red team reviews and concerns raised by the MPA. See NAO report, Figures 7,17 and 23 for further details Back

69   Oral evidence takenon 10 July 2013, Qq16 and 70 Back

70   Oral evidence taken on 9 December 2013, Qq33 and 56 Back

71   Oral evidence taken on 29 October 2012, HC (2010-12) 703 Back

72   Oral evidence taken by the Public Accounts Committee on 11 September 2014. See Thirtieth Report of Session 2013-14, Universal Credit: early progress, HC 619, November 2013, Q89 Back

73   DWP, Government Response to the Committee's Third Report of session 2012-13, on Universal Credit implementation: meeting the needs of vulnerable claimants, Cm 8537 Back

74   Oral evidence taken on 9 December 2013, Q53 and Oral evidence takenon 10 July 2013, Q98 Back

75   Oral evidence taken on 3 February 2014, Qq141 and 145 Back

76   Oral evidence taken on 3 February 2014, Q140 Back

77   Oral evidence taken on 3 February 2014, Q150 Back

78   Oral evidence taken on 9 December 2013, Q85 Back

79   Information Rights First-tier Tribunal ruling, March 2014, Appeal Nos: EA/2013/0145, 148 & 149, paras 14, 56-57 Back

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Prepared 9 April 2014