Iain Duncan Smith was forced to explain today what level of backing the Treasury has granted Universal Credit, after the Government's flagship welfare scheme came under scrutiny.
The Work and Pensions Secretary told the Commons that the strategic case for the ambitious IT project had been approved by the Treasury for the remainder of this Parliament. Treasury approval for the entirety of it has not been agreed, however, though he added that it was expected “very soon”.
Labour MP for Rhondda Chris Bryant was granted an urgent parliamentary question in the Chamber today about the status of the scheme, in which he said: “There has been so much beating about the bush that it feels as if this Parliament has been misled by a government engaged in a deliberate act of deception.”
He was rebuked by the Speaker for “overstepping the line” in suggesting that ministers had misled the government. Duncan Smith hit back at Bryant, describing the Labour MP’s words as the "most pompous, ludicrous statement that I have heard".
Bryant's question was prompted by revelations from Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the Civil Service, who said earlier this week that Universal Credit had not received Treasury approval, and instead was being funded on a step-by-step basis.
He told MPs on Monday that taxpayers' cash was only being released in stages as efforts continued to get the multibillion pound project back on track.
"We shouldn't beat about the bush. It hasn't been signed off," Kerslake told the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
"What we've had is a set of conditional reassurances about progress and the Treasury have released money accordingly. That is one of the key controls."
Conservative welfare minister Esther McVey responded on Tuesday: "The chief secretary to the Treasury has approved the universal credit strategic outline business case plans for the remainder of the Parliament, 2014-15. That is the response and I've just had it verified."
The project, which is designed to simplify and digitalise welfare payments, has been beset by troubles. Last year it was “reset” by the Major Projects Authority, following delays and multi-million pound write-offs.