Major Projects Authority 'tried to hide Universal Credit data to avoid scrutiny'

The Major Projects Authority (MPA) failed to rate the risk of the beleaguered Universal Credit project to try to hide information and avoid scrutiny, according to MPs.

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The Major Projects Authority (MPA) failed to rate the risk of the beleaguered Universal Credit project to try to hide information and avoid scrutiny, according to MPs.

In May, the MPA assessed and rated a range of major central government programmes on a four-point scale to show how well, or not, they were progressing. However, it noticeably ducked out of rating Universal Credit, saying that the welfare reform programme had been ‘reset’. This meant that certain information, such as whole life cost of the project, was not provided.

In the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into the MPA published today, MPs questioned the reason behind resetting the project.

“The MPA should publish more information on each project, including the amount spent to date, even if this means reviewing the government’s transparency policy,” said Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chair Margaret Hodge MP said.

“We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the Universal Credit project may have been an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny.”

The MPA was set up in 2011 to improve the delivery of major projects across government. It operates as a partnership between the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury and oversees a portfolio of projects worth £488 billion, up £134 billion on last year.

More power for the MPA

While the PAC generally supports the work of the MPA, it believes that the unit lacks power and authority in its current form.

“The MPA only has informal influence over departments,” said Hodge. “It supports the Treasury in approval and funding decisions but there is no obligation on the Treasury to follow its recommendations. It has no powers if a department decides to proceed with a project against MPA advice.

She added: “It needs to have stronger, more formal mechanisms for driving change, and there should be transparency where ministers or officials have rejected its recommendations.”

Hodge said that government projects “constantly” suffer from a lack of robust planning, which means the MPA could have more of an impact if it focused its efforts on the early stages of the project, including the concept and design stage.

It could also have more impact by prioritising its work to tackle the most high-risk projects.

“The Department of Health (DH) has two red and nine amber-red rated projects, while the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has one red and six ambers, for example,” said Hodge.

Next section: Ownership and leadership of major projects

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