The most senior civil servant responsible for the Government’s Universal Credit programme was tonight accused by MPs of presiding over a “litany of failures” that could cost the taxpayer up to £160m.
Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions, admitted it had taken him more than a year to realise that there were problems with the programme and had only met with the officials in charge of delivering it once every three weeks.
But he insisted that he had no way of knowing what was going wrong until an external review last year drew the problems to his attention – and denied that he had put off demands for ministers to hold the review earlier.
Looking clearly uncomfortable as he was accused by members of the Public Accounts Committee of “blaming everyone under him” for the failures so far in the Universal Credit programme, Mr Devereux insisted he took responsibility for the scheme’s “poor value for money”.
But he said: “I put people in (to run the programme) who were the best I had available. The reality then is that if a culture [of only delivering good news] starts to permeate through, I had no way of detecting that.”
The PAC’s deputy chair Richard Bacon told him: “This is the biggest programme run by your department. You were the accounting officer. This is a litany of failures – are you saying you were unaware of this?”
The hearing followed a scathing report by the National Audit Office that revealed around £34m had already been written off in IT software and hardware that could not be used for the programme.
But Dr Norma Wood, interim director general of the Major Projects Authority (MPA) which reviewed the project, said that “a significant chunk” of the £303m so far invested in IT development could also be written off.
Estimates ranged from £140m to £160m, but DWP officials giving evidence alongside Mr Devereux said they hoped some of the equipment could still be adapted for other uses.
PAC chairman Margaret Hodge said a “blank cheque” had been given to suppliers while officials had failed “to keep ministers properly informed”. “It is pretty basic,” she said.
“You did not have a business plan. You did not have a strategy. People did not know what they were doing... you must be accountable for this.”
The hearing is likely to put further pressure on Mr Devereux. Senior political sources have already suggested he should stand down, saying he had been on “thin ice” for a while. However, he insisted the project was now on track and should be able to be delivered on time and on budget by 2017.