Duncan Smith denies 'deception' over universal credit

Ian Duncan Smith

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A Labour MP has accused ministers of a "deliberate act of deception" over whether the Treasury has signed off the business case for universal credit.

Chris Bryant was rebuked by the Speaker for "overstepping the line" by suggesting ministers had "misled" Parliament.

Mr Bryant accused Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith of "beating around the bush" on the issue.

Mr Duncan Smith said the case would be signed off by the Treasury "very soon".

He accused Mr Bryant of making the "most pompous, ludicrous statement that I have heard", adding the real issue was "about Labour's failure to come to terms with welfare reform".

And in a strongly worded attack across the floor of the Commons, he described Mr Bryant as "a man in an ill-fitting anorak dancing on the head of a pin - I think it is quite pathetic, and he needs to think again about welfare reform".

Earlier this week, top civil servant Sir Bob Kerslake said the business case for universal credit - the government's flagship welfare reform programme - had not been approved and the Treasury was releasing money on a step-by-step basis.

The troubled project aims to consolidate six working-age benefits into a single payment.

'Conditional reassurance'

Its rollout has been delayed amid IT and other problems, although ministers insist that it is on track following a "reset" last year and its objectives to incentivise work and simplify the benefits system will be delivered.

Sir Bob told MPs on Monday that taxpayers' cash was only being released in stages as efforts continued to get the multibillion pound project back on track.

Chris Bryant

"We shouldn't beat about the bush. It hasn't been signed off," he told the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Mr Bryant seized on the head of the civil service's remarks, saying they contradicted accounts given by Treasury Minister Nicky Morgan and Employment Minister Esther McVey, among others.

He accused the government of engaging "in a deliberate act of deception" and misleading Parliament.

Of Mr Duncan Smith's response, he said: "That was a spectacular instance, as Sir Bob Kerslake might put it, of beating about the bush.

"It's a very, very simple question, to which the answer can only either be yes or no - has the Department for Work and Pensions business case for the implementation of Universal Credit been approved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

"It's depressing that this Tory minister and the Tory prime minister can't tell the difference between an annual budget and a business case - it's pretty straightforward."

'Smoke and mirrors'

He went on: "The same simple question has now been answered eight contradictory ways - not everybody can be telling the truth.

"There has been so much beating about the bush that it feels as if this House has been misled by a government engaged in a deliberate act of deception.

"The truth is the department is relying month-by-month on handouts from the national food bank, how ironic."

He added: "We'd love to help you implement Universal Credit but confession comes before redemption and as long as you remain in denial you remain beyond help."

Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chairman of the influential Public Accounts Committee, said she supported the aims of Universal Credit, but she added: "Isn't it time, and I plead with the Secretary of State that he should be open and honest with all of us rather than hiding behind smokes and mirrors to create a false impression that Universal Credit is on time, in budget and delivering in full its intended objective."

Mr Duncan Smith insisted the policy was "on track".

He told MPs: "The overall strategic business case that takes us right to the full lifetime of this programme is in discussion right now for that completion.

"But all of the elements that are relevant that is the strategic business plan for this Parliament, which includes all the roll out, all the investments which she [Mrs Hodge] will be aware of and the roll out through to the North West all of that has been approved, there will be no other further need for approvals this Parliament."

He added: "It is rolling against the plan we set out last year, all those approvals are agreed and the final element of that which would logically come at the end of that process we hope will be agreed very shortly with the Chief Secretary."

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