Comment: The ruling which reveals IDS’ campaign of secrecy over universal credit
Francis Maude's promise to make the UK "the most transparent and accountable country in the world" was never worth much. Across the board, the coalition has been just as violently secretive as its predecessors and, in all likelihood, its successors.
But, in this as in many other things, Iain Duncan Smith emerges as a particularly egregious example.
The work and pensions secretary's universal credit system is the most ambitious welfare project since Beveridge. It has been typified, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), by a "fortress mentality" and a "good news culture" which prevented it addressing the ever-greater problems it faced.
The inability to handle criticism led to a situation where – and again, this is the judgement of the respected NAO – there was no "detailed view of how universal credit is meant to work". It's hard to imagine a more damning statement, given the stakes. The public accounts committee agreed with those judgements and added that the universal credit team was "isolated and defensive".
This week a ruling by the tribunal on information release provided a glimpse into exactly how secretive the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has become and the lengths it will go to stop the public seeing how catastrophic the universal credit project has become.
The ruling upheld a decision by the information commissioner to overrule the DWP on whether it would have to release some of the documents raising concerns about the scheme. But it also, in turn, overruled the information commissioner and demanded the DWP also publish a risk register into the plans.
What's telling about the tribunal report are the details of how even harmless information which would have struggled to get any press attention was aggressively kept secret by the DWP with a variety of fallacious arguments.
The tribunal's ruling for publishing the risk register should be read closely by any civil servant hoping to protect themselves from scrutiny by saying that publishing internal concerns about major projects would rob ministers of the ability to hear them.
This argument has always treated the public as an infantile blob. It relies on the premise that the public are unable to assess the source of information – something everyone does many times a day.
"The purpose of the RR [risk register] is easily explained," the ruling says. "Ordinary people, properly informed, are capable of grasping why a document dwells on problems rather than successes. Ignorance of how a major programme is being conducted seems to us far more likely to distort people's perception of the state of progress of UCP [universal credit programme] or other major programmes than the degree of transparency afforded by disclosure of this RR."
The ruling shows the DWP tried every avenue to prevent publication of concerns about the universal credit programme. And all the while it was misleading the public by pretending everything was fine. A press release from IDS for the period in questions saw him insist that the project was "on track and on time for implementing from 2013". A DWP spokesperson was quoted in a press release saying: "Liam Byrne is quite simply wrong. Universal credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is incorrect."
That was the external message. Internally, the department's own 'starting gate review' said there was "a very real danger the department may lose some of the expertise that it will need to deliver universal credit successfully".
How did they square this? According to the tribunal, their evidence "appeared to indicate that a programme might be regarded by the DWP as 'on schedule' even though milestones had not been achieved on time, provided that punctual fulfilment of the whole project was still contemplated".
The tribunal's rather dry response to this argument was that "the public should have been made aware of it, because prompt completion following missed interim targets is not a common experience".
And then the tribunal makes its central case, the case which should not need making: that information around the universal credit must be made public because it is clear this massive project is going completely off the rails and the public have a right to know. It's worth printing in full:
"Where, in the context of a major reform, government announcements are so markedly at odds with current opinion in the relatively informed and serious media, there is a particularly strong public interest in up-to-date information as to the details of what is happening within the programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well–founded.
"The very great costs involved and the development of a huge complex IT interface with local authority systems are further features underlining that interest."
The universal credit programme is a bomb under the table. Its demise before the planned 2017 start date would have far-reaching repercussions. After all, George Osborne (laughably) balances his budgets by making cuts to it, despite the fact that it does not exist yet. It would signal the end of IDS' distasteful mixture of Bible-thumping insolence and Whig sermonising. And it would put the lie to the Tories' claim to represent competence and financial prudence.
But a breakdown in the programme once it was implemented would be much, much worse. It would impoverish hundreds of thousands of people – maybe millions. And at the bottom, hand-to-mouth end of the economy, a gap of weeks between benefit payments can be a matter of life and death.
IDS' fight to keep details of the programme secret is an affront to the concept of accountable government and ministerial responsibility.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.