On 8 February 2018, the Work and Pensions Select Committee, published a report into the universal credit project assessment reviews. From this publication, the House will be aware that my Department has been involved in a request under the Freedom of Information Act, for the release of the project assessment reviews conducted between March 2012 and October 2015 on the universal credit programme.
Project assessment reviews are an assurance tool used to assess major projects and programmes. The reviews are conducted by project professionals and subject matter experts drawn from across the public and private sector. The effectiveness of the reviews relies on confidentiality: information within the reports is non-attributable to encourage candour and a frank exchange of views. The reports act as advice to the senior responsible owner on the delivery aspects of their programme—they are not advice to Ministers. They are intended to give the senior responsible owner a project delivery perspective on their programme, independent of the programme management function. They represent perspectives for the senior responsible owner to consider and not absolute truths. The senior responsible owner, not the review team, is accountable to Parliament.
It should be noted that the reviews I will place in the Library are historical, conducted between March 2012 and October 2015. Come 2018, the universal credit programme is in a very different place since those reports were written. Universal credit is in every jobcentre and we are rolling it out safely and securely to all categories of claimant. We are focusing on the continued safe delivery of universal credit, so people continue to be helped to improve their lives.
In recognition of the confidential nature of these reports, the Work and Pensions Select Committee viewed the full set of project assessment reviews up to 2017 and published a report on 8 February 2018. The Work and Pensions Select Committee agrees that the historical issues have now been addressed and “substantial achievements” have been delivered since 2013. In the Committee’s report, they commended the Department for running the universal credit programme
“more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose”.
The universal credit programme does not lack scrutiny as the ongoing Work and Pension’s Select Committee inquiries demonstrate. Given the Select Committee has seen the reports subject to the freedom of information challenge, and commented upon them publically I can see no point in continuing to argue that case. Accordingly my officials will be writing to the Information Commissioner and to the first-tier tribunal to advise them of my decision to release copies of the requested project assessment review reports to the requestor.
With regard to future reports, I emphasise that the steps I have decided to take today, to disclose the material subject to proceedings, are exceptional. I remain of the view that it is critical to the effectiveness of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential.
I accept that this House and the wider public have significant interest in major Government projects. I support the principle of transparency, and the universal credit programme regularly publishes independent research and analysis into the effectiveness of universal credit. I believe that there are better ways of addressing this concern, rather than undermining the mechanism that provides senior responsible owners with an independent external perspective on the programmes they are responsible to Parliament for.
Universal credit is a flexible benefit, which has simplified the welfare system and ensures that people are always better off in work. We know that the legacy system trapped people in benefit dependency. We needed a new approach to reflect the 21st-century work environment. The evidence shows universal credit is working, with people getting into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
I am sure this House joins me in recognising the great progress we have made since 2010, with 3 million more people in work and unemployment at a near record low. Universal credit builds on this success, delivering welfare reform that works for everyone.