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Judge orders Universal Credit internal reviews must be disclosed

They thought they could hide. Then the law got involved

Analysis The jury is still out as to whether Britain's Universal Credit will go down as one of the major IT disasters of our time.

This is mainly because the UK Department for Work and Pensions tore up the original project, started again and then moved the completion date multiple times.

The total lifetime cost of the project has increased by £3bn over the past two years to £15.85bn, according to the Major Projects Authority's report in 2015.

Yet the DWP has fought tooth and nail against the disclosure of internal reviews relating to the start of the project in 2012 under Freedom of Information laws – despite those documents now being significantly out of date.

This week the First-Tier General Regulatory Chamber ruled for the second time that the documents should be released. The department now has 28 days to comply or appeal once again.

La la laaa, everything is sweetness and light

The crux of the argument against disclosure appears to be concerns over the precedent it would set, preventing civil servants from giving frank written advice out of fear it would later be released. This is what the government calls a "chilling effect", preventing officials and politicians from recording decisions because they may get released under FOI.

However, in his valedictory speech in 2014, former civil service head Bob Kerslake blamed the civil service's “culture of good news” for preventing the scheme's original unrealistic deadline being recognised sooner. (Kerslake also told Civil Service World last year: "If people are experiencing a chilling effect it's largely in their own heads, not in reality.")

So it's hard to see how greater transparency would further hinder the already disaster-prone project. Or, to put it another way, Universal Credit has managed to go significantly off track all of its own accord.

Back in November 2011 the DWP issued a press release in which it announced that more than one million people would be claiming universal credit by April 2014, with 12 million claimants moving onto the new benefit by 2017. The latest stats for March 2016 show just more than 200,000 people are currently on the scheme.

In 2012 the DWP responded to criticism the project would not arrive on time by saying Universal Credit is on track and on budget: "To suggest anything else is incorrect.”

At best, that message proved to be entirely false; at worst, it was a downright lie.

Reviews carried out in mid-2012 identified that the DWP's decision to ring-fence the Programme team had led to “...a ‘fortress’ mentality with the programme team and a ‘good news’ reporting culture.”

The project then underwent a huge reset between February and May 2013 after the Major Projects Authority identified “…serious concerns about the Department having no detailed ‘blueprint’ and transition plan for Universal Credit.”

Whoops. It's all coming out now

In his summing-up as he ordered the reviews to be disclosed, Judge Chris Ryan, sitting in the First-Tier Tribunal and handing down judgment on 11 March, said the tribunal did not accept the argument that significant change would have been likely if "information under consideration in this case were to have been disclosed four and six months after it had been created."

He said: "We are not convinced that reasonably robust civil servants would consider that the risk of disclosure in those circumstances would create pressure to change the way in which they operated."

Ryan also dismissed arguments by the department that the project is already exposed to sufficient public scrutiny and therefore disclosure is not necessary.

"On the particular facts of this case it is clear that the true story about the troubles which the Programme team faced only came to light a long time after the event and then showed a markedly different picture than had been portrayed by government statements issued at the time."

John Slater, who submitted the original FOI request along with investigative journalist Tony Collins, said the department seems to treat everything it does as if it were subject to the Official Secrets Act.

"I would hope a release of the documents would lead to an understanding of the programme and what the leadership knew at the time of the request compared to reality," said Slater.

It's certainly possible those documents might cast some light on what went wrong with the programme: whether it was a failure of civil servants to 'talk truth to power', ministerial will blindly pushing the project through, or a bit of both.

Slater notes: "Did people know it was badly designed? Were they telling the senior team that the timescales were unrealistic and was that ignored? There might be the odd thing in there that no one knows about - but its more about what was known, how it was been run and was it a question of ineptitude or lack of information."

As David Cameron once said when in opposition: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” ®

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