The great government cover-up

kerenThe Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published its latest progress report into Universal Credit (UC) last week and the results are disappointing (to use the polite vernacular of such reports). Criminal is probably what the rest of us would say.

It warns that £310m will be written off in unused IT, although the Major Projects Authority warned last December that it could ultimately be more like £663m. In the last five years £700m has been spent overall and yet just 0.3% of those eligible are actually receiving UC, which is still being delivered manually.

Amongst a barrage of other criticisms, the PAC stated that they were ‘disappointed that the department chose to fight a protracted legal battle to prevent the publication of its programme milestones schedules against which it could be held to account publicly’. The report goes on to say that, ‘We observed that a lack of openness remains within the department, as does an unwillingness to face up to past failings.’

Protracted legal battles are being held, at great

public expense, to hide uncomfortable information

The legal battle to which the report refers is a Freedom of Information request for UC management reports from 2012. The department has now lost in three tribunals trying to protect this information and still refuses to publish. Robert Devereux, the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) permanent secretary, when asked by the PAC for the reasons behind withholding the information claimed that it was because similar reports in other departments were also unpublished.

In May 2010 David Cameron wrote to all government departments announcing that, ‘Greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.’

He stated that there would be limited exemptions relating only to national security and personal privacy grounds. He definitely did not say that, ‘It’s not fair; you’re picking on us’ is a valid reason, which is basically Devereux’s excuse.

It’s funny how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new governments are. They come in determined to herald a new era of this or that, promising to be all round bloody marvellous. Then a few years on they realise how much they’ve cocked up this or that and have to start hiding the evidence. For there can be no other logical explanation for the refusal to publish year’s old management reports (when Iain Duncan Smith was repeatedly saying that UC was on time and on budget) other than to hide how much they knew it was being cocked up and to avoid someone being held accountable.

Other, similar, protracted legal battles are being held, at great public expense, to hide other uncomfortable information. Take a look at the Vox Political website to get a detailed insight into the legal battle the DWP has fought to keep secret the numbers of deaths of people declared fit for work or work related activity after or during a work capability assessment.

The last published figures from 2011 showed around 73 deaths per week and caused such an outcry that the department has hid the figures down the back of the sofa ever since.

In early replies to the request for this information the DWP claimed it would be too costly and distracting to collate the figures. However, it later admitted to the Information Commissioner’s Office that, ‘We can confirm that the department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit, some of the information requested.’ It just won’t.

The department has now fallen back on a S22 exemption, meaning the information is intended for future publication and can be withheld until then, although they don’t have to give a publication date and have so far declined to do so.

The DWP even fights to hide research commissioned by other government departments. For example the Defra report into food banks was completed in June 2013, but not published until February 2014. It was designed as a ‘rapid evidence assessment’ over two months, but after completion it took eight months before the DWP had finished commenting on it and allowed publication. FOI requests into what was said by the DWP during this period have been returned saying no information was held, although I’d hazard a guess you could boil it down to: ‘Bugger me, how are we going to save Freud’s ass this time?’.

Buried deep within acres of waffle about experiences abroad and surprising conclusions like ‘those who are more food insecure are more likely to turn to food aid’ the report clearly states the link between food bank use and welfare reform (primarily benefit delays and sanctions).

So now ministers do what Esther McVey did to the Work and Pensions Committee a couple of weeks ago and quote church leaders saying it is ‘wrong to politicise food banks’, in order to shut down the debate. Even worse than calling the police on the clergy for delivering a letter to the PM about food banks, is to cynically twist and exploit their words.

In his memoirs Tony Blair recounts his greatest regret as prime minister; not the Iraq war as one might expect of a religious man, but the Freedom of Information Act. ‘You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.’ He says of this, probably his most decent act.

As citizens are frequently reassured by governments about national surveillance, those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.


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Bill Irvine
Bill Irvine
9 years ago


Good piece.

As well as all the problems you’ve alluded to, there’s even bigger problems awaiting those organisations & tenants who rely on assistance with accommodation costs. It comes in the form of the DWP administration, which, perhaps not surprisingly, is a complete and utter shambles, at this stage. I represent both private & social landlords with both the current Housing Benefit & Universal Credit schemes. LAs are by no means perfect in their handling of HB but after 30 years have all the key structures& processes in place to deliver a very much better service. Unlike UC, housing benefit is delivered locally and landlords of all types have, on the whole, good relationships with HB decision makers. Where they encounter problems they can refer disputes to the independent tribunal service.

LAs were responsible for delivering key parts of the welfare reforms: Bedroom Tax, Benefits Cap, Discretionary Housing Payments, Welfare Assistance schemes. All were delivered on time and without any fuss or problems. The DWP was asked to deliver UC and has completely failed on so many levels. One of the aims of UC was to make the new scheme easier to access & understand but if you examine some of my bulletins on the topic it’s developing into a mindbogglingly complex scheme to administer. Instead of regulations we’re left with DWP guidance, poor decisions being made, and often no right of independent challenge to, for example, a tribunal.

I wrote an article more than three years ago predicting “Hitting the DWP brick wall” – it’s already happening!

Keep up the good work.


9 years ago

Thanks a million for writing this article it should be headlines in every paper in the country

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