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Ministers Must Carry the Can

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The failures around the Universal Credit project, exposed by the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday, are the responsibility of David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, not civil servants.

The PAC report highlights "the failure to understand properly the nature and enormity of the task" as the central problem. This failure was Iain Duncan Smith's. It goes right back to the start of the project.

The idea for Universal Credit was developed in the Centre for Social Justice which Iain Duncan Smith set up. It is a good idea. It has the potential to simplify the system, and make it clearer to people how their circumstances will change if they get a job. But ministers have never got to grips with what was going to be involved.

Two months after the election, in July 2010, Mr Duncan Smith published his green paper on "21st Century Welfare". It argued for the introduction of Universal Credit, "a system that brings together existing ... benefits and Tax Credits into a simpler, integrated system." The problem highlighted by the PAC was already apparent. In the Chapter on "Delivery of a Reformed System", it said: "The IT changes that would be necessary to deliver a more integrated system would not constitute a major IT project". This assertion was absurd. Even then, the key failure identified by the PAC - to grasp the scale of the task - was clear.

There has since been an attempt to shift the blame for failure on to the Permanent Secretary at the DWP. However, in July 2010, the current Permanent Secretary was not even working in the department.

I became shadow minister in September 2010. In November 2010, I wrote to Iain Duncan Smith that it was wrong to claim that Universal Credit would not be a major IT project, and that his timescale was unrealistic. He replied: "I am confident that I can offer reassurance".

I wrote again on 18 April 2011, pointing out how difficult it would be to implement by October 2013 both Universal Credit and the PAYE Real Time Information system it depended on. I wrote that "the timescale will slip".

He replied on 11 May 2011 emphasising that he was personally overseeing the project. He said: "The work is planned and closely managed with clear escalation routes. At the highest level we have the Senior Sponsorship Group that I chair which maintains an oversight... Membership includes Ministers and senior officials from HMT, DWP and HMRC among others. We are managing these two initiatives as closely and jointly as we can."

I specifically expressed concern about the potential for fraud. Mr Duncan Smith's reply said: "We are very alive to this as a key risk... We will be introducing an engineering approach to security across all layers... The solution will be scanned at every stage of design and development to identify potential weaknesses."

And yet the Public Accounts Committee has found that: "development of an effective security system has been hindered by security not being integral to the design of IT components from the outset".

Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron must now come clean, accept that this project is in serious trouble, and take their fair share of responsibility for what has happened. They must explain why they allowed these problems to be obscured by what the PAC describes as the "good news culture" in the department, and their refusal to take on board uncomfortable messages.

But instead the official response to the PAC report has been to perpetuate that good news culture, with an assertion that the expenditure written off will be much less than the £140 million estimated by the PAC. In reality it is bound to be higher.

This is the latest episode in the unravelling of Universal Credit, the deepening delivery problems afflicting the Department for Work and Pensions, and the complacency and incompetence that has characterised this out of touch Tory-led government. They can't continue the blame game with civil servants. Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron have been well aware of these problems for many months. It's time they acted to sort them out.

Around the Web

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