Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was forced to explain Treasury approval for Universal Credit today. Photo: Getty
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Treasury backing for Universal Credit scrutinised

Iain Duncan Smith said that the business case for universal credit has been approved by the Treasury, but only up to 2015.

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.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Theresa May's Brexit stance could come at a political cost

The Prime Minister risks raising unrealistic expectations among Leave backers.

Good morning. For Leavers, there's only one more sleep before Christmas: tomorrow Tim Barrow will moonlight as a courier and hand-deliver Theresa May's letter triggering Article 50 to Donald Tusk and Britain's Brexit talks will start.

Well, sort of. That we're pulling the trigger in the middle of, among other things, the French elections means that the EU27 won't meet to discuss May's exit proposals for another month. (So that's one of 23 out of 24 gone!)

The time pressure of the Article 50 process - which, its author Colin Kerr tells Politico was designed with the expulsion of a newly-autocratic regime in mind rather than his native country - disadvantages the exiting nation at the best of times and if there is no clear winner in the German elections in October that will further eat into Britain's negotiating time.

That Nigel Farage has announced that if the Brexit deal doesn't work out he will simply move abroad may mean that Brexit is now a win-win scenario, but heavy tariffs and customs checks seem a heavy price to pay just to get shot of Farage.

What are the prospects for a good deal? As I've written before, May has kept her best card - Britain's status as a net contributor to the EU budget - in play, though the wholesale rejection of the European Court may cause avoidable headaches over aviation and other cross-border issues where, by definition, there must be pooling of sovereignty one way or another.

That speaks to what could yet prove to be May's biggest mistake: she's done a great job of reassuring the Conservative right that she is "one of them" as far as Brexit is concerned. But as polling for BritainThinks shows, that's come at a cost: expectations for our Brexit deal are sky high. More importantly, the average Brexit voter is at odds with the Brexit elite over immigration. David Davis has once again reiterated that immigration will occasionally rise after we leave the EU. A deal in which we pay for single market access, can strike our own trade deals but the numbers of people coming to Britain remain unchanged might work as far as the British economy is concerned. May might yet come to regret avoiding an honest conversation about what that entails with the British public.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.