12 July 2018

Setting aside a telling-off by the National Audit Office and a stunt from Labour, Esther McVey has escaped unscathed from the Universal Credit row. Effectively she has not been held to account, says Benoit Guerin.

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.

Far from being contrite, McVey repeated much of her statement

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.

McVey is not the first minister to ignore an official watchdog

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?

Comments

seem's to be no punishment for their wrong doing's yet a claimant only 5mins late for an appt will be sanctioned for months on end ?? this is not her first lie and certainly wont be her last, not just her quite a few in parliament but she knows exactly what she is doing and should be punished asap.

Righteous indignation. Surely the question is why MPs (in this case Tory MPs) value parliament (the House of Commons) so little. The NAO is a parliamentary body because the C&AG is an officer of parliament. So parliament's own function has been traduced by McVey. But Tory MPs put party first - as MPs tend to. The 'corporate' identity of parliament, always weak, proves secondary to partisan identification and support. And this is a Tory Party riven top to toe.

The lack of accountability and ministerial arrogance in the face of reasoned criticism is one reason the public hold politicians in such low esteem. The handling of the current rail debacle is another example of lack of accountability

Blame the Prime Minister. If Mrs May had not expressed "full confidence" in Esther McVey, who, let's not beat about the bush, lied in public to the House of Commons, and not for the first time, McVey would by now no longer be in post. The fact that McVey remains in the cabinet is by the fiat of Theresa May. Politicians these days seem no longer to possess honour, honesty or shame.

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