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IDS Dismisses Scrutiny as MPs Give Him a Mauling on Universal Credit

04/02/2014 15:00 GMT | Updated 06/04/2014 10:59 BST

Iain Duncan Smith appeared in front of the work and pensions committee of MPs yesterday, but decided against illuminating them - and us - about his work.

His Universal Credit scheme, widely recognised to be failing due in great part to his poor management and lack of financial acumen, was the main item on the agenda.

In a blizzard of management speak, Smith hid behind the language of "resets", "forensic reviews", "internal reviews", "meshing", "pathfinders", "reshaping" and "refocusing" the programme, trying to bring darkness where the MPs sought light.

Invited to justify why he had not provided vital information on his failures to the last committee meeting, he said he did not want to tell it everything about his department, preferring to decide and then account for his decisions later.

Dame Anne Begg pulled Smith up, pointing out that he should have paid the committee the "courtesy" of keeping it informed, to which Smith denied "hiding stuff" from them.

"With respect Mrs Chairman, I don't think this committee can run the department", he said, batting away the legitimate role it has in scrutinising his work.

Begg clearly felt that she had been misled, particularly as a critical report by the National Audit Office that was in the Department for Work and Pensions' hands was not provided to her, and in fact Smith had been "bullish" about the failing scheme's prospects at their last meeting.

He also clashed with Begg over the accounting system he was using, trying to differentiate between "writing down" and "writing off" in an apparent attempt to disguise some of the losses incurred by Universal Credit.

This was despite an admission that more than £40 million has been lost to date due to his mismanagement.

The National Audit Office had released a statement claiming that the write-offs would amount to £140 million, but Smith's aide denied this, providing a hostage to fortune when the final bill is totted up.

"With respect Mrs Chairman, you really have to understand what accounts tell you" said Smith, calculating that patronising the intelligence of his interrogator would get him an easier ride.

He was, of course, wrong about this, as he has been wrong about so much within the Universal Credit debacle.

The close personal identification he has with the scheme - it is no exaggeration to call it his 'baby' - means he will not abandon it even as regular news of its many failures is revealed.

It is perhaps why he finds himself prey to anger when challenged on it. When MP Glenda Jackson put questions to him that he didn't like, he told her: "You need a language course, it sounds like a foreign language to me".

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams accused him of "obfuscation, smoke and mirrors" in keeping information from the committee, denied by Smith, who signalled his desire to move on from this by telling the MPs they were going "round and round in circles" on the issue.

When asked if he was happy that the latest plan for putting the scheme in place was on track, he gave himself some wriggle room:

"It's moving exactly in accordance with the plan, but as I say, with all plans, you have to constantly make adjustments."

It sounds a lot like more trouble is ahead, with those receiving Universal Credit to suffer as a poor-quality system leads to both payment delays and wrongful payments.