Government watchdog slaps down Esther McVey over 'incorrect' Universal Credit claims
Esther McVey has been accused of making "incorrect" claims about her department's flagship welfare shake-up by the Government's own spending watchdog.
In a stunning intervention, the National Audit Office (NAO) flagged up a series of inaccuracies in the Work and Pensions Secretary’s address to MPs following its damning assessment of the roll-out of Universal Credit last month.
The body’s chief Amyas Morse wrote to Ms McVey to condemn her "odd" claim that the NAO failed to account for "recent changes", saying it had seen "no evidence of such impacts nor fresh information" to support a string of assertions she made in Parliament.
He went on to criticise the Secretary of State for attacking the NAO over comments it had not made in the report, and said the watchdog had agreed its findings in full with her own senior officials.
"I’m afraid your statement on 2 July that the NAO was concerned Universal Credit is currently ‘rolling out too slowly’ and needs to ‘continue at a faster rate’ is also not correct," he said.
The watchdog chief added: "While we recognise regrettable early delays to Universal Credit, my recommendation made clearly on page 11 of the report is that the Department must now ensure it is ready before it starts to transfer people over from previous benefits.
“This will avoid the Department’s performance declining further as it faces high claimant volumes. I also recommended the Department learns from experiences of claimants and third parties, as well as the insights it has gained from the rollout so far."
The NAO's June report blasted the controversial welfare overhaul as potentially costing more to run than its predecessor, while accusing administrators of not showing "sufficient sensitivity to claimants".
In his rebuke to Ms McVey, Mr Morse said her claim that Universal Credit - which aims to roll all existing benefits into a single payment - is working "has not been proven".
"The Department has not measured how many Universal Credit claimants are having difficulties and hardship," he said.
The NAO boss added: "What we do know from the Department's survey is that although 83% of claimants responding said they were satisfied with the Department's customer service, 40% of them said they were experiencing financial difficulties, and 25% said they couldn't make an online claim,"
"We also know that 20% of claimants are not paid in full on time and that the Department cannot measure the exact number of additional people in employment as a result of Universal Credit."
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood said Ms McVey’s comments were a “very serious matter”, adding that she should either apologise or “consider her position”.
“Esther McVey appears to have misled Parliament in misrepresenting the findings of the NAO report,” she said.
“She sought to rubbish the NAO report, rather than respond to its findings, which were damning of her Government’s flagship social security policy, even though her own department had agreed the report prior to its publication.
“She must now make a full apology to the NAO, to Parliament and to the people who rely on Universal Credit for support.
“If she won’t then she should consider her position because people’s lives are being ruined by this botched policy rollout.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has been approached for comment.
Read the letter in full: