You can tell how little someone respects and admires someone by the number of times they say ‘with respect’. Based on the number of times Iain Duncan Smith and Robert Devereux used that phrase in today’s Work and Pensions Select Committee, relations have really hit rock bottom between DWP and the MPs scrutinising the department.
Just to underline his irritation at some of the questions, IDS told Glenda Jackson that he had ‘no idea what you are asking’ and that to understand her, he would have to take a foreign language course. Devereux snapped that she was criticising him for answering the question she’d set, and repeatedly complained that the committee was ‘going round in circles’. Debbie Abrahams asked questions, let IDS utter a few syllables, and then bellowed ‘can I move on now minister, thank you very much’. Jackson herself told the room she was ‘in a fog’. And IDS managed to confuse everyone from the outset: as he was denying that the DWP accounts had been ‘swept under the carpet’, he told the committee that if this had been the case, he too would be under the carpet. Later, he retorted to one member: ‘I don’t understand how you define a pilot different from what you call “guinea-pigging”.’ Still, the committee didn’t cover lobster-potting or jam jars, as it did last time round.
What made matters worse was that during the section on universal credit, the select committee MPs and the DWP witnesses seemed to be talking about two different programmes. If you listen to the MPs, the programme has already flopped. If you listen to the DWP crowd, it’s on its way and moving on from the troubles of last year.
Most ministers – even those who have been very supportive of universal credit – are nervous about the project. But there is some optimism that things have indeed moved on from the darker days that the reports from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee dealt with. IDS and Devereux apparently get on much better now, too: partly because the number of voices calling for the Permanent Secretary’s head shocked him into paying greater attention to universal credit rather than treating it as just another project. But then again, today we found out that Howard Shiplee, appointed to rescue the project, has been on long-term sick leave. So it looks as though we’re destined to stay in the fog over universal credit for a little while longer.