Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey has apologised to MPs for “inadvertently misleading” the House over an NAO report scrutinising the roll-out of Universal Credit.
McVey told MPs that the report – which found that the government’s flagship welfare reforms may never deliver value for moeney – had called for the roll-out of reforms to be speeded up.
“In fact the NAO did not say that Mr Speaker, and I want to apologise to you and the House for inadvertently misleading you,” McVey said. “What I had meant to say was that the NAO had said that there was 'no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit'."
The minister was forced to make the correction after NAO chief Amyas Morse wrote to her challenging statements she has made in response to his most recent report on Universal Credit.
Morse said that he had requested a meeting with McVey after she told the House on 21 June that this report did not take into account recent changes to the roll-out of Universal Credit, and that departmental analysis showed the reform, which sees six working age benefits rolled into one, is “working”.
Morse directly challenged this, saying: "The department has not measured how many Universal Credit claimants are having difficulties and hardship.”
Responding to McVey’s claim that the NAO report was based on out of date information, Morse writes that the report was "fully agreed with senior officials in your department" and based on "the most accurate and up to-date information from your department". This had been confirmed in writing with the NAO on 6 June, he said.
"It is odd that by Friday 15 June [when the report was published] you felt able to say that the NAO 'did not take into account the impact of our recent changes',” Morse continued.
McVey told MPs that she had come to “correct the record” on the matter of Universal Credit roll-out, but stood by other remarks she had made.
“With regards to the NAO report not taking into account the impact of the recent changes to Universal Credit, I still maintain this is the case,” she told MPs. She added that the impact of changes such as the removal of “waiting days” – which lengthened the time between people making claim and receiving their first payment – and extra support for Housing Benefit claimants moving onto Universal Credit “are still being felt and therefore by definition couldn’t have been fully taken into account by the NAO report.”
McVey did not address Morse's remarks about her statement that Universal Credit is "working".
Following the publication of the NAO report, the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith described the report as “a shoddy piece of work”, while separately a roundtable event hosted by the Institute for Government and the Social Security Advisory Committee found civil servants thought the NAO needed to take a more constructive approach to scrutinising welfare reform.
However following Morse’s open letter yesterday, the watchdog received support from former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nick Macpherson, who described the NAO as the “taxpayers friend” and said Morse is right to hold the project to account.
The NAO is the taxpayer's friend. Sir Amyas Morse is right to hold HMG to account for value for money of universal credit. #vanityproject
— Nick Macpherson (@nickmacpherson2) July 4, 2018