Iain Duncan Smith has insisted that HM Treasury is due to sign off the full business case for Universal Credit ‘very shortly’ despite it being five months since it was submitted.
In a debate in the House of Commons yesterday, the work and pensions minister explained: “The final stage in Treasury approvals is sign-off of the full business case, which covers the full lifetime of the programme.”
He added: “I genuinely believe, from my discussions, that it will be signed off very shortly.”
However opposition MPs rubbished the claim.
Labour MP Nicholas Brown said: “The answer to a similar question two months ago was “very shortly”, but it is taking rather longer than the secretary of state intended.”
Chris Bryant MP said that the programme “is being kept on a life-support system, and all he [Duncan Smith] can say is that the Treasury has guaranteed another 247 days of funding, with nothing beyond the end of this parliament.”
During a select committee hearing in July, then civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake admitted that Universal Credit, which aims to merge six benefits into one payment, is being drip-fed funding by HM Treasury as it receives updates and assurances on progress.
During a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) session he admitted: “We shouldn't beat about the bush. It hasn't been signed off. What we've had is a set of conditional reassurances about progress and the Treasury have released money accordingly.”
A week later it emerged that Kerslake is due to step down from the civil service this autumn.
Figures published by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) last month showed that the number of people claiming Universal Credit has dropped to the slowest rate since July last year, with just 540 individuals starting to claim the benefit in May.
According to shadow work and pensions minister Rachel Reeves, at the current rate of progress it will take over 1,000 years for the welfare programme to be rolled out across the country.
The National Audit Office is currently conducting a follow-up study into Universal Credit, due to be published in the late autumn.
It released a damning report into the early progress of the project last September, which revealed losses of at least £34 million, weak management and poor implementation.
The DWP has said that the rollout of Universal Credit across jobcentres in the north west will be complete “by the end of this year”, bringing the total number of centres where it is available to 90.
It is currently available in 39 of about 750 jobcentres across the UK.