In June, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its latest and most damning review of Universal Credit yet. Even by the standards of previous NAO reports on major projects that have gone awry, the report made for grim reading: hardship among claimants, a department not listening to feedback and doubts over whether the project would ever be value for money.
The Minister responsible for Universal Credit – Esther McVey – stood up and denied much of the NAO report in Parliament. She claimed that the NAO was pushing for faster implementation, and that the report was not based on the most recent information. This led the head of the spending watchdog to write an unprecedented public letter accusing her of misrepresenting the NAO findings to MPs – a clear breach of the ministerial code.
Breaking the ministerial code is usually reason enough for a minister to resign – or be sacked. But McVey’s response was far from contrite. In a second statement to Parliament, she apologised for claiming the NAO had told the department to speed up the rollout of Universal Credit (they had in fact said the opposite) and for ‘inadvertently’ misleading Parliament. Then McVey went on to repeat much of her original statement – including that the NAO had not considered the most recent information available (the NAO signed the report off with officials only a week before publication).
This throws into sharp relief the difficulties that our institutions have in holding ministers to account.
The NAO is the watchdog charged with helping Parliament hold government accountable for public spending. Yet McVey appeared unconcerned about its head publicly accusing her of making false claims to Parliament: she offered only a semi-apology while going on to repeat aspects of her original statement.
This is not the first time that ministers have brushed off criticism by well-established watchdogs:
- The UK Statistics Authority has previously criticised David Cameron for claiming 43% of EU migrants claimed benefits within four years of arriving in the UK (the watchdog’s chair said he had no idea how this figure had been arrived at);
- Grant Shapps for saying that ‘nearly a million’ incapacity benefit claimants had decided not to face a medical examination (the actual figure was closer to 19,000);
- (and perhaps most infamously) Boris Johnson for repeating the claim the Government would have an extra £350million a week to spend after Brexit (a claim he has repeated many times since the UK Statistics Authority intervened).
In the case of McVey – as with Johnson - ministers have continued to make claims which they had been told on reliable authority were incorrect. Indeed, there appear to be few consequences for ministers who are called out by these watchdogs – even when they have broken the ministerial code.
Our work on accountability highlights that ministerial accountability operates in a seemingly unstructured and inconsistent fashion. It varies widely depending on media pressure, potential political damage to the Prime Minister and party support. A well-functioning, professional organisation would not operate in this way.
Other ministers who have committed similar breaches have tendered their resignations, but McVey appears to have faced no consequences for misleading the House. If that doesn’t matter, what does?