McVey under fire for misleading universal credit comments

4 Jul 18

Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey has come under pressure to withdraw what have been described as misleading remarks about the success of the universal credit programme.

In a highly unusual intervention, the head of the National Audit Office Sir Amyas Morse wrote to the secretary of state highlighting misrepresentations about universal credit in her statements to MPs.

Following this, Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions committee, called on McVey to withdraw her remarks.

“This is so serious that I will ask the speaker for an urgent question tomorrow [Thursday], for the secretary of state to return to the house and withdraw what the NAO believes to be totally inaccurate - as DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] officials well know.”

In his letter, Morse stated that it was “odd” that McVey had said the recent NAO probe into universal credit had not taken account of recent changes to the programme.

“You reiterated these statements on 2 July [in the House of Commons during work and pensions questions], but we have seen no evidence of such impacts or fresh information,” he wrote.

“I’m afraid your statement on 2 July that the NAO was concerned universal credit is currently ‘rolling but too slowly’ and needs to ‘continue at a faster rate’ is also not correct.”

He said, in the NAO’s view, the DWP needs to ensure it was ready before it started to transfer people on to the new benefit. This would avoid performance declining further.

The letter also highlighted McVey’s claim that universal credit was working but said this had “not been proven”.

“The department has not measured how many universal credit claimants are having difficulties and hardship,” Morse wrote.

Last month, the NAO issued a report that was highly critical of universal credit, concluding that it was not value for money and was being implemented with a lack of “sensitivity” to claimants.

The letter also revealed that McVey had not yet met with the auditor general to discuss the findings of the report, despite a request being sent on 27 June.

The DWP has been contacted for comment.

UPDATE at 13:50 on 4/7/2018

Since this story was published, Esther McVey has apologised to MPs. She acknowledged that the NAO report did not suggest the roll out of universal credit continue at a faster pace.

“I want to apologise to ... the House for inadvertently misleading you. What I meant to say was that the NAO had said that there was no practical alternative to continuing with universal credit.”

However, she stood by other aspects of her comments.

“With regard to the NAO report not taking into account the impact of the recent changes to [universal credit], I still maintain this is the case - such as housing benefit run-on and 100% advances and the removal of waiting days.

“The impact of these changes are still being felt and therefore, by definition, couldn’t have been fully taken into account by the NAO report.”

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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