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Universal Credit

Volume 755: debated on Wednesday 30 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to increase transparency and openness in the implementation of universal credit.

We consistently and regularly update Parliament and stakeholders on universal credit implementation, and the universal credit programme continues to be subject to substantial scrutiny. We will maintain every effort to communicate openly and on a timely basis.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, and I would like to wish him a peaceful and happy Recess. But in the mean time, many noble Lords will, like me, have been shocked to hear the head of the Home Civil Service say on 7 July that the business case for universal credit has not been approved by the Treasury. He said:

“We shouldn’t beat about the bush: it hasn’t been signed off”.

Does the Minister know of any other project on which £612 million has been spent without the business case for that project being signed off by the Treasury?

I do not have a review of all the business cases, but I know that we have 44 separate business cases for change programmes in my department, the DWP, and that this is the most reviewed. What we have said—and I have said it in this House—is that the plans in the strategic outline business case for the remainder of this Parliament have been cleared, and that we are looking to get formal full clearance for the case shortly.

My Lords, the universal credit is providing great opportunity for people and is being rolled out slowly. It is also giving Jobcentre Plus advisers an opportunity, for the first time, to advise customers so that they get comprehensive support. Most of the problems seem to be about the future. Can my noble friend therefore reassure the House that it will be rolled out to and engage a large number of people by May 2015? What milestones does he anticipate we will have passed by the time that we get to May 2015?

My Lords, we are rolling out universal credit on a careful basis right the way through the north-west. We are currently at 38 jobcentres across the country, the bulk of which—32—are in the north-west. On Monday we moved from singles to couples as well, and that will be introduced right the way through the north-west as we finish this rollout this year. In the autumn we will move to families; so there will be a substantial number as we do that rollout. I must emphasise that we are not doing this rollout in the same way as past programmes have been brought in, on a big-bang basis; we are making sure that we understand what is happening and we go at the pace at which we can do it safely.

My Lords, as universal credit rolls out to couples and families, the question of the impact of the payment into a single account on women who are subject to domestic violence becomes more urgent. In oral evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently, Women’s Aid expressed its fears that the new payment arrangements will endanger such women. It warned that the discretionary power to make split payments—which, of course, will require women to identify themselves as victims of domestic violence—simply will not work. Will the Minister therefore commit to work with Women’s Aid and similar organisations to find a more effective solution to try to avert this very real danger?

One of the things that we are doing as we roll this out is to watch key factors very closely. That is the point of going at this pace, so that we can see small numbers to start with and see what is happening. I will watch this very closely. I talked to the Women’s Aid groups intensively on a number of things of great concern to them and to me, and I will keep watching this one very closely.

My Lords, although I welcome the Minister’s commitment to transparency, I was reading this week about the DWP’s battle to stop the publication of the risk register and other documentation relating to universal credit. The Information Commissioner said that the other papers should come out, and a tribunal added the risk register, but the department has appealed. One journalist has pointed out that the judge said that he could see,

“no support for the argument”,

and that the department had not, “provided any persuasive evidence”. The department now wants to appeal again. I have two questions for the Minister. First, what exactly are the Government trying to keep from us? Secondly, how much public money have they spent in the attempt?

This is a government policy; it was equally a matter for the previous Government as it is for this one not to publish particular information about the business case, risk registers and so on. It is something that we are maintaining not just for this programme but generally. I will say, however, that there has been an enormous amount of information put out on this programme, more than for any of our other programmes. There have been reports from the SSAC, from the NAO, from the PAC; it was in the MPA; and it was in our annual report. We are talking to the Select Committee and going through the contents and information within those business plans without breaking the norms of what Governments do in terms of providing a specific document.

My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to my noble friend Lord McAvoy, and although it was quite a lengthy response, it was pretty clear to me that, in relation to the Treasury at any rate, he did not answer the question. So given that it was a splendid question and a not-so-good answer, could the Minister please put a copy of the full details of a proper response in the Library and send a copy to my good friend Lord McAvoy to read over the Recess?

I am always very pleased to provide the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, with reading material, and I shall do so in this case. However, I must make the point that we have gone through this question in some detail both in the other place and here. I have explained here that we have got the strategic outline business case plans approved, and we are expecting that the actual full strategic outline business case will be approved shortly.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that some of us feel that, as Ministers go, he is as transparent and open as anyone could be, and that he has the virtue of being comprehensible as well?