Universal Credit: FDA lambasts MPs taking ‘cheap shots’ at civil servants

Dave Penman condemns “cowardly move” of politicians criticising DWP official instead of ministers 

The DWP director general for Universal Credit won a project management award this week. Photo: PA

By Tamsin.Rutter

23 Nov 2017

Dave Penman, the general secretary of FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, has criticised the negative comments made by MPs after an official working on Universal Credit won an award for project management.

Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow work and pension secretary, described it as “preposterous” and “shocking hubris” that Neil Couling, the Department for Work and Pensions director general for the contentious benefits programme, was singled out this week for his “significant contribution to the art and science of project management”.

But Penman told Civil Service World it was “a cowardly move” to take fire on civil servants who are unable to speak up for themselves and criticism should be directed at ministers.


He said: "It is once again hugely disappointing to see frontbench politicians train their fire on civil servants who are unable to speak up for themselves, a cowardly move that we have witnessed time and time again from MPs of all stripes.”

Penman explained that it was “perfectly legitimate” for MPs to raise concerns over policies like Universal Credit – which brings together six existing employment benefits into one payment system and has been widely criticised, in part for the built-in time lag until new claimants receive their benefits.

But he said criticism must be directed at the ministers calling the shots not the civil servants implementing their decisions.

“Instead, we're seeing high-profile politicians take cheap shots at the staff who work hard every day to try and implement one of the most complex public sector projects ever delivered,” he added. “Whatever anger those MPs feel, hitting out at public servants is beneath them and it must stop now.”

Penman’s intervention comes days after he told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into civil service capability, that officials are increasingly being singled out for criticism amid the “unedifying” Brexit debate.

Couling – who had been leading the Universal Credit programme since October 2014 and started his career in a local benefits office administering claims for Income Support – was one of the winners at the Association for Project Management Awards on Monday.

He tweeted: “Absolute honour to receive this reward on behalf of all the dedicated public servants working hard to make #UniversalCredit a success across the country #DWProud.”

Commenting on the prize in The Independent, Abrahams criticised Couling’s acceptance of the award when “his programme is pushing families deeper into debt, arrears and even evictions”. 

She added: “Labour has been calling for the government to pause and fix Universal Credit for months. The man in charge should stop patting himself on the back and get to work.”

Frank Field, the Labour chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, added: “The world has gone mad and a unicorn will shortly distribute Easter eggs to the entire country. It's preposterous.”

The chancellor Philip Hammond announced in the 2017 Budget yesterday he was investing £1.5bn more in the programme, to scrap the seven-day waiting period applied at the beginning of a new claim. This effectively reduces the lag from six weeks to five.

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