Is Universal Credit progressing as well as it should? Yesterday Sir Bob Kerslake, who is not consistently helpful to political colleagues, dropped a bit of a bombshell during a Public Accounts Committee hearing. Discussing the Treasury and the business case for Universal Credit:
‘We shouldn’t beat about the bush: it hasn’t been signed off.’
Labour got very excited about this, with Chris Bryant pointing out that last week Esther McVey told Rachel Reeves in a parliamentary answer that ‘the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament’.
The DWP argues that this is wrong, and that the Treasury has ‘approved all funding to date’. Here is the full response:
‘Universal Credit is on track to roll out safely and securely against the plan set out last year – the new service now available in 24 JobCentres, and last week expanded to claims from couples. The Treasury has been fully engaged in the roll-out plan and have approved all funding to date.’
Civil servants haven’t always signed off on Universal Credit as a principle: indeed, one of the reasons relations grew quite so bad between ministers and the department’s permanent secretary, Robert Devereux, was that he saw UC as just one of the DWP’s many projects, rather than the most significant one that he must devote a large chunk of his time to. That has long since changed after aggressive Westminster briefing against Devereux.
But Kerslake’s comments show that there are still shaky foundations under the reform, which should worry those desperate to see it survive the general election.