Universal Credit Project Assessment Reviews Contents


Our receipt of the reviews

1.On 5 December 2017, the House of Commons decided, without the need for a vote, that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP, the Department) should provide us with the Project Assessment Reviews (PARs, the reviews) carried out into Universal Credit (UC) by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA, previously known as the Major Projects Authority, MPA) since 2012.1 This followed a similar Opposition motion to that which instructed the Government to provide sectoral impact assessments to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.2 Traditionally, such motions have been considered binding or effective.3

2.We were not involved in the Opposition motion and had not previously sought the documents. We had a responsibility, however, to ensure that the House’s unambiguous instruction was carried out. Following an exchange of correspondence between our Chair and the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions,4 the reviews were provided to us on 19 December 2017. They were complete and the only redactions were of the names and job titles of junior civil servants. This was consistent with the approach taken for a November 2011 UC PAR, which was published following a protracted freedom of information dispute.5 The Department in fact exceeded the requirements of the House’s resolution by giving us five other related MPA/IPA reports. This gave us a fuller picture of the progress of UC, including the broadly positive conclusions reached in more recent reviews. The Government has complied with the instruction from the House of Commons.

Table 1: Reports provided to the Committee

Report title

Review dates

Project Assessment Review

26–30 March 2012

Project Assessment Review

28 January - 5 February 2013

Project Assessment Review

3–7 June 2013

Project Assessment Review

10–14, 17, 21 and 24–25 February and 3 March 2014

Assurance of Action Plan

5 September 2014

Health Check

13–17 April 2015

Project Assessment Review

12–16 October 2015

Health Check

12–15 September 2016

Assurance of Action Plan

2–3 March 2017

Health Check

4–11 September 2017

Our approach

3.Before providing the reports, the Department sought our assurance that they would remain confidential. The House’s resolution set no such terms and we insisted that receipt should not be subject to any conditions.6 We were, however, mindful of the potential consequences of full or partial publication. The Department argued that the effectiveness of IPA reviews was dependent on them receiving candid assessments of projects from civil servants. Though the IPA does not attribute views to individuals, interviewees may be less frank if there was an expectation of the report being published.7

4.The Department further cited a “long-held principle”, agreed with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), that the Government does not release PARs.8 The Chair of the PAC told us that she was not aware of any such agreement and that the Committee had “consistently argued for greater transparency in the IPA”. The PAC considers publication of such information on a case-by-case basis.9 Similarly, the Comptroller and Auditor General confirmed that the National Audit Office (NAO) receives IPA reports and quotes from them.10 For example, the NAO set out the conclusions of the September 2014 Assurance of Action Plan in its November 2014 report on UC.11 Other PARs have been published following freedom of information proceedings.12

5.The Information Commissioner considered the publication of the UC PARs in August 2017. This followed a complaint from someone whose freedom of information request for the documents had been refused.13 In her report, the Commissioner noted that UC will affect many millions of people and the PARs would give “valuable insight” into the management of both UC and major projects more generally.14 As the recommendations in PARs should be acted on within six months, reports older than that could be considered “historic” and any potential harm to the Department from publication was diminished.15 The Commissioner decided that the reports should be published in the public interest.16 The Department has, however, appealed that decision. The case will be heard by an information rights Tribunal in April 2018.17

6.We acknowledge the argument that setting a precedent of publication in full could change the nature of future IPA reports. More generally, we are mindful that it is important to the proper functioning of government that ministers can be given private advice by officials. There is a statutory procedure for determining whether the PARs should be published. We consider it proper that the Tribunal makes that decision.

7.The PARs contain important information about a major reform. In this report, we have quoted selectively from the IPA reports, to provide insights into the history of UC, recurring concerns about its progress, and the oversight of this and other major government programmes.

1 HC Deb, 5 December 2017, col 1002. The full text of the resolution was “That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the five project assessment reviews, carried out into universal credit between 2012 and 2015 by the Government’s Major Projects Authority now known as the IPA, and any subsequent project assessment reviews carried out into universal credit by the IPA between 1 January 2016 and 30 November 2017 that have been provided to Her Majesty’s Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions, be provided by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to the Work and Pensions Committee.”

2 HC Deb, 1 November 2017, cols 878–935. See also Exiting the European Union Committee inquiry webpage.

5 The November 2011 PAR is available online.

6 See exchange of correspondence between Frank Field and David Gauke, 6–13 December 2017. See also comment by the Prime Minister on use of Brexit sectoral impact assessments, HC Deb, 18 December 2017, col 772.

7 See, for example, letter from David Gauke to Frank Field, 7 December 2017. The IPA also expressed this opinion in a letter to the Treasury Committee on 19 April 2017.

11 NAO, Universal Credit: progress update, HC (2014–15) 786, November 2014, para 1.11

13 Information Commissioner, Decision notice FS50640285, 30 August 2017

14 Information Commissioner, Decision notice FS50640285, 30 August 2017, para 31

15 Information Commissioner, Decision notice FS50640285, 30 August 2017, para 29

16 Information Commissioner, Decision notice FS50640285, 30 August 2017, para 2

17 HM Courts and Tribunal Service, appeal EA/2017/0216

29 January 2018