Iain Duncan Smith accused of hiding bad news on universal credit after damning report is hushed up

The Work and Pensions Secretary has previously insisted that his department has never tried to sweep problems with the scheme 'under the carpet'

whitehall editor

Iain Duncan Smith has vetoed the publication of a damning internal assessment of universal credit that laid bare the problems facing his scheme, The Independent has learnt.

Today the Government published its annual review into the progress of around 200 projects representing £400bn of public spending – and rated each on a risk scale of green, red or amber.

The only project not to get a rating, as part of the Government’s drive to increase transparency, was universal credit. The Independent understands that the Major Project Authority (MPA) had rated universal credit as “red”, signifying that it is “unachievable within reasonable timescales and to a reasonable budget without urgent remedial action”.

But Mr Duncan Smith succeeded in an internal Whitehall battle in stopping the scale of universal credit’s problems being made public. It was also agreed with Downing Street to release the MPA’s report on the day of the local election results to minimise adverse publicity.

Mr Duncan Smith insisted just three months ago that at no stage had his department ever tried to sweep the problems with universal credit “under the carpet”.

A government spokesman said that universal credit had been excluded as a result of the “reset” in the project in February last year, which saw significant changes to the speed of implementation.

But sources confirmed the MPA risk assessment had been carried out more than seven months later, after the reset began, and at a time when Mr Duncan Smith was insisting the project was on track.

Anne Begg, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, said omitting universal credit from the assessment was deeply troubling.

“There is a worrying ‘good news culture’ in Mr Duncan Smith’s department where problems are not addressed and there is a lack of basic transparency,” she said.

“Our understanding is that minimal progress has been made rolling out universal credit in a meaningful way across the country and they are currently just treading water until they can find a solution to real problems they are facing with its implementation.”

In its report last year, the MPA rated universal credit as amber/red, suggesting its prospects of successful implementation have fallen. At that time it revealed the whole-life cost would be £12.8bn, over £10bn more than DWP said it would cost when it put the programme before Parliament in 2010. It is expected that the cost will rise still further but no assessment is made this time in the MPA report.

The wider document revealed a rosier picture of the state of major government projects. Half of the 30 projects which last year faced the most significant challenges have improved, and 47 new projects have entered the MPA’s portfolio.

Other projects including the new passport programme and the Greater Anglia Rail re-franchising have been successfully implemented and are no longer assessed.

However, the on-time and on-budget delivery of two new aircraft carriers was rated as “red” for a second year in a row, while other projects including the High Speed 2 rail link continued to get an “amber/red” rating.

Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said huge strides had been made in better management of large government projects.

“Before the last general election there was no central assurance of projects, a lack of the right skills and problems were not systematically highlighted before they spiralled out of control,” he said. “We know that transparency drives up standards.”

John Manzoni, the former BP executive appointed to run the MPA, said: “The MPA focuses on ensuring that the Government does projects the right way. Critical to this is building leadership capability, clarifying project leaders’ accountability and responsibility, while ensuring that rigorous project planning and assurance is undertaken.”

The DWP said the MPA’s judgement on universal credit was out of date because it assessed the project last September, and since then there had been progress implementing the scheme through a limited number of pilots.

“Universal credit is on track. The reset is not new but refers to the shift in the delivery plan and change in management back in early 2013. The reality is that universal credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way,” the DWP said.

But Rachel Reeves, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “The fact that universal credit was the only one of the 200 projects assessed by the Major Projects Authority to have been singled out is extremely concerning. It’s increasingly clear that universal credit is lurching from one crisis to another with incompetent ministers failing to deliver the savings they promised.”

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