U.K. Officials Lobbied to Blame Ministers for Welfare Mistakes

U.K. ministers and their politically neutral officials both lobbied a parliamentary committee to shift the blame to each other for mistakes on a flagship welfare policy, according to the panel’s chairwoman.

A Nov. 7 Public Accounts Committee report on the Department for Work & Pensions’ Universal Credit program described “a shocking absence of financial and other internal controls” and “extraordinarily poor” management. Its chairwoman, Margaret Hodge, told students Nov. 11 that officials tried to blame ministers including Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, while ministers put the blame on officials, including the department’s most senior civil servant, Robert Devereux.

“I can’t tell you how much inappropriate talking there was to me and other members of the committee, by both ministers and civil servants, either to get me to blame the permanent secretary in the DWP and therefore transfer blame away from Iain Duncan Smith or to put the blame on Mr. Devereux and to ensure ministers escaped blame,” Hodge said at the Birkbeck College, London seminar. Her remarks, which recorded and published online, were confirmed by a spokesman for the committee.

Hodge’s comments expose tensions within the DWP over one of the government’s highest-profile projects. They also suggest a breakdown in trust between ministers and officials. U.K. ministers are members of Parliament, and almost all government staff are part of the permanent civil service, which is supposed to serve whoever is in power without bias.

‘Publicly Backed’

Duncan Smith “has publicly backed the permanent secretary throughout this process,” the DWP said in an e-mailed statement, using Devereux’s official title. “He never asked for anyone to be named in the report.”

Under the British system, ministers are in theory accountable for the actions of civil servants, even if they’re unaware of them. Hodge cited the maneuvering over the Universal Credit report as evidence for her view that this system is “complete nonsense.”

She also raised doubts about the reliability of Devereux’s testimony to her committee, saying she still didn’t know what ministers or civil servants had known and when. “I’d much rather Devereux had given us an honest discussion about how on earth these ridiculous decisions were taken,” she told the students.

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