Skip to main content

Universal Credit

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 5 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the National Audit Office report.

“I had information on the Question being the letter I received yesterday, so that is obviously where we will be going on the letter that I received yesterday. Opening up on that letter was about a meeting that the Comptroller and Auditor-General had asked to have with me on 27 June, when he wrote, and our department got back at the end of the week. That meeting will be on Monday. There was possibly an inference from that that I had not accepted the meeting, or that there was not going to be one, but that had not been the case and it is diarised for Monday.

The next bit was about the information we received and accurate, up-to-date information being shared with the department, to which we agreed information had been shared up to 6 June. But what we talked about is when we signed off the factual information contained within it, raising the concern about the context and the conclusions drawn from that information and where we went from there. That goes on to the impact of those changes and if we look at the impact of those that were brought through—the waiting days being abolished on 14 February, the housing benefit being run on 11 April and the advance payment of 3 January—as I said in my apology yesterday, the impact of those changes is still being felt. Therefore the definition could not or cannot be that they have been fully taken into account by the NAO.

The Auditor-General also talked about slowing down the process, which we always agreed with, which is about the test-and-learn process. We will learn as we go along; that is what we agree with, too. But when he said,

‘I am also afraid that your statement in response to my report … has not been proven’—

the case for universal credit—that is where we differ in the conclusions. So while the NAO had the same factual information either way, depending on where you looked at it and how you then come to conclusions, we then came to very different conclusions because of the impact of those changes that we had brought in at the end of that period, which are still being felt.

That is where I would like to leave it. It said that you cannot measure the exact number of additional people in employment—we will agree with that. You cannot measure the exact number of additional people but we knew there was a plausible range which we had support on. There is a plausible range of people going into employment and we know that employment is increasing. Those are the key pertinent points from the letter and included with my apology yesterday for the phrasing of the words that I got wrong, which I fully accept, hence I came to the House. I will end that bit of the Statement there”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that deeply unsatisfactory Statement. This is quite extraordinary. The Comptroller and Auditor-General has been forced to issue an open letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to point out that she repeatedly misrepresented to Parliament the content of the highly critical NAO report on the rollout of universal credit. She has now apologised, up to a point, for one of the errors, in which she wrongly claimed that the NAO wanted UC rolled out more quickly.

However, Sir Amyas challenged two other misleading claims for which she has not apologised. The Secretary of State claimed that the NAO report had not taken account of the impact of recent changes to universal credit, even though her department had agreed the report just one week earlier, based on the latest information, and she repeated her unfounded claim that universal credit is working. Sir Amyas pointed out that the DWP has not even measured how many UC claimants are facing difficulties and hardship. I was particularly disappointed to see her repeat the claim that universal credit will help an extra 200,000 people into work, even though the NAO said:

“The Department will never be able to measure whether Universal Credit actually leads to 200,000 more people in work”,

because it is not able to separate other factors.

Anyone can misspeak—goodness knows, I have done it myself—but if the NAO says there is not and never can be evidence for a claim, you cannot simply say that it is a matter of interpretation. This is dangerous ground. The Secretary of State is entitled to her own opinion; she is not entitled to her own facts. The Government have told this House too many times that all is well with universal credit when manifestly that is not the case, so I have just two questions for the Minister. First, will the Government stop pretending that all is well and will they, in particular, stop using the misleading 200,000 figure and start telling the House how things really are? Secondly, will they implement all the recommendations in the NAO report? The DWP needs to put things right before anybody else is put through the misery of universal credit.

My Lords, first, I make it absolutely clear to your Lordships’ House that right from the start, when the report was published, there has been no issue with the factual information that the National Audit Office has used. In collating that information, there has been and continues to be a strong relationship between the National Audit Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the officials. That is important. It is the interpretation of these facts and the conclusions drawn as a result that the department questions, as I said in the Statement. A lot of it is about context rather than saying that there is any issue with the facts.

We are absolutely clear that, as the report says, the National Audit Office completed its independent review of the universal credit programme after analysing evidence that we collected between August 2017 and April 2018. The issue we have is that we are still not able to judge, and nor is anyone, the full impact of significant policy changes that we have announced and implemented since the Budget last autumn. They include extending advances, which was implemented in January 2018, removing waiting days in February 2018 and the housing benefit run-on. The report makes it clear that it is referencing evidence up to April 2018. On the housing benefit run-on, it was impossible for us to measure the extra two weeks’ additional cash to cover people transferring from the old legacy benefit on to universal credit, which they would not have to repay. Each of these measures will take time to impact on the experience of claimants and stakeholders. Although some of these measures were mentioned in the report, their impact would not have been felt during the evidence-gathering period.

My Lords, I am absolutely in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. This is a quite extraordinary state of affairs. I have been following social security since 1986. I have never seen such an explicit letter of correction from such a distinguished public servant as the Comptroller and Auditor-General, Sir Amyas Morse. Two things follow from it. First, I hope the noble Baroness can give the House an assurance that the Secretary of State will take whatever steps are necessary to repair the relationship between the political leadership of the DWP and the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s office. That is essential for the good conduct of the universal credit programme in future, and that work needs to be done.

What I find extraordinary, because I know how much trouble goes into negotiating reports—and this one was signed off on 8 June—is that if the Secretary of State is founding her defence on the fact that she does not think that the NAO knows about the recent changes to waiting days, advance payments and HP run-ons, she is demeaning the value of the historical analysis that is so valuable to the prosecution of public policy. That must be put right too. This is serious territory that needs to be addressed urgently.

My Lords, it is important for me to make clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has already apologised, and that apology has been accepted by the House of Commons and the Speaker of the House of Commons. Following Oral Questions on Monday, my right honourable friend was afraid that she had mistakenly used a term that was not an accurate term reflected in the report. My right honourable friend therefore went to see the Speaker. This was entirely independent of the letter produced on Wednesday, so there is no question that my right honourable friend has tried to avoid, evade or do anything untoward. My right honourable friend was very clear that she was mistaken, she was wrong and she was very keen to put that right at the earliest opportunity. Hence, the Speaker accepted that apology yesterday.

The meeting on Monday will of course be extremely important. We accept the facts in the report. We do not deny the facts; we support the facts. In a sense, we are saying, “Please, please, National Audit Office, we want to demonstrate that the impact of the changes undertaken, particularly those made last autumn, is yet to be proven”. She will want to make that absolutely clear.

There is no question but that we will look with care at what has been said in the report. I am sure that we will implement those recommendations that we feel able to from the report.

My Lords, I do not think the House can ever have heard a less clear Statement than the one repeated today. I appeal to my noble friend to ask the Secretary of State—although I am not impugning her good faith in any way—to realise that it is important that when she communicates with either House of Parliament, directly or through another Minister, she does so with clarity and in plain English. Perhaps it would be a good idea if Sir Ernest Gowers’s book on plain English was circulated to all Ministers and civil servants before we have that gobbledegook reported from the Dispatch Box ever again.

I say to my noble friend that, given his extensive years in another place, he will appreciate that the job my right honourable friend is doing is very tough. She is involved with the most important, fundamental and huge piece of welfare reform that has taken place for many years. It is close to her heart, as it is to all of us in the department. We absolutely accept that it is important that we reflect the need to be agile. Indeed, one of the incredibly positive aspects of the NAO’s report is on page 15, which is all about the development of the full-service system. It talks about the department using an agile approach for the full service and the need to constantly test and learn, test and learn. We are doing this continuously.

I am sorry if my noble friend feels that my right honourable friend has been less than clear, but the reality is that we are very keen to explain to all noble Lords and Members of another place that what we are doing is the right thing. We just want to stress that it is important to reflect the impact of changes that are still coming through the system.