MPs accuse MPA of disguising Universal Credit in a “veil of secrecy”

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has accused the Major Projects Authority (MPA) of disguising the troubled Universal Credit programme in a “veil of secrecy” by not providing a rating on its current status

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has accused the Major Projects Authority (MPA) of disguising the troubled Universal Credit programme in a “veil of secrecy” by not providing a rating on its current status.

Two weeks ago the MPA released its annual report of 199 transformative major projects and gave them a traffic light colour to reflect their status.

More than 20 IT-based projects were labelled red or amber/red to indicate urgent action or reassessment.

But the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) Universal Credit was assigned neither a red, amber nor green rating, and was instead classed as "reset".

Chair of the PAC, MP Margaret Hodge, said the “reset” status has been used to “put a veil of secrecy” on Universal Credit.

John Manzoni, chief executive of Major Projects Authority, argued the reset rating was an accurate description of the project when the MPA collected its data in September 2013.

At the time, the department wrote off £34m of IT work from the troubled Universal Credit programme. It also reviewed more than £140m of money it had already spent on the project to determine if the IT developed had any lasting value. Despite the write-off, the projected IT budget for the programme increased by 60% from £396m to £637m.

Manzoni said the MPA’s decision to create this “reset” category had significant ministerial and government involvement.

“We don’t invent new categories lightly or willy-nilly,” he said.

But when asked by Hodge what the status of the programme would be today, Manzoni said he was not at liberty to say and could only disclose the status of programmes once a year in the May report.

While Manzoni told the PAC he was not allowed to provide a rating of Universal Credit as it stands today, he said that since the reset, he believes the project today is “relatively stable.”

“If you want my honest view, it probably was a good thing for the project to be reset and more particularly to give it time to get it back onto something of a front foot,” he said. 

“In order to create space for individuals team to get a bit of breathing space to get back … reset hasn’t done a bad job.”

But he said the MPA will continue to keep an eye on spend and pace of delivery. He also said the MPA would continue to probe, challenge and help the Universal Credit programme going forward.

“From this point the MPA is assuring this project in the way as everything else, giving it reviews, ratings and it won’t be reset again,” he said.

Last month, MPs called for the DWP to consider scrapping its existing IT systems for Universal Credit and focus solely on the new digital solution that will support the welfare programme.

The report criticised DWP officials for wasting £40m by scrapping IT work already completed, and for a further £90m that will be written off before the system goes live in 2017.

UPDATE: June 5th 2014 at 12.33pm

DWP responded to this article by saying: “Universal Credit is on track.”

“The reset is not new but refers to the shift in the delivery plan and change in management back in early 2013,” said the DWP spokesperson. “The reality is that Universal Credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way. It's already operating in 10 areas and will start expanding to the rest of the North West in June. Jobseekers in other areas are already benefiting from some of its positive impacts through help from a work coach, more digital facilities in jobcentres, and a written agreement setting out what they will do to find work."

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