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“I can say with the strongest feeling my concern about the hubris you have demonstrated and your tone to this committee. You haven’t explained – certainly to my own satisfaction, and I am sure anybody that has been watching will draw their own conclusions – you have not made any satisfactory explanation about how you have informed, and kept this committee informed, about the difficulties that the Department was experiencing. There has been obfuscation, smoke-and-mirrors, even up to a few weeks before the report from the National Audit Office. The memorandum that was released in August was clearly saying that everything was fine and dandy. It is, clearly, not. I’ll give you one more opportunity to answer, so you can explain to this committee why there is such poor information provided by your Department.”
These were the words of Commons Work and Pensions committee member Debbie Abrahams to Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith, just a quarter of the way through today’s (Monday) clash over Universal Credit and his Department for Work and Pensions’ appalling book-keeping.
Mr… Smith’s response typified the attitude that she was decrying. He said: “Well, I just don’t agree with you, and I don’t agree that we have done anything else but be open and honest about what the issues are, as and when they have been identified, and what we would do about them, as and when we had made our decisions about that.”
Oh, is that so? One of the first questions asked in the meeting was why Iain Duncan Smith did not tell the committee he had decided to conduct a ‘red team review’ of Universal Credit when he gave evidence to it in September 2012. He said the results had not been ready at the time: “With respect, I don’t have to tell you everything that is happening in the Department until we have reached a conclusion about what’s actually happening; I think I will take those decisions myself and account for the decisions that were taken.”
(He said “with respect” a lot. It became clear that he meant the exact opposite.)
Listening to the evidence again, it seems he tied himself in a knot, because he said the review had reported back in July of 2012, meaning there would have been plenty of time for him to make a full and formal account of his actions to the committee, long before September of that year.
His response? “It was an internal review.”
When committee chair Dame Anne Begg said the committee should have been told the plans were being reviewed as a matter of courtesy, and the September committee meeting would have been the perfect opportunity to explain that a review had taken place, “but at that session you were bullish about how successful everything was, Duncan Smith responded: “With respect [see what I mean?]… I don’t think this committee can run the Department.
This initial exchange set the tone for the entire meeting. Committee members asked questions and Duncan Smith treated them with discourtesy bordering on contempt.
He did not tell the committee about changes to the programme for rolling out Universal Credit because they were not fixed when he met the committee, he said – avoiding the fact that he could have at least said changes were taking place.
Universal Credit costs had not been written off, he said; they had been “written down” (meaning they were said to be worth less money now than when they were introduced). This seems like nonsense to anyone who has seen reports of the sums of money involved – anything from £40 million to £160 million.
Asked whether Universal Credit is still dealing only with single people at the moment, Duncan Smith sidestepped the question and responded that it was being rolled out in phases. Clearly he does have something to hide, even though he began his evidence by saying there had been no attempt to sweep anything “under the carpet”.
He said the whole (improbable) edifice would be working by 2016 – apart from cases involving the most vulnerable group, who receive Employment and Support Allowance. This is an extremely optimistic appraisal, as Duncan Smith is unlikely to be in office by then, and a future government may decide to scrap the whole project as a hopeless waste of millions of pounds.
There is no point in covering details of the whole meeting because you get the gist already. Iain Duncan Smith was determined to deny that he or his Department had committed any mistakes or wrongdoing, while giving away ample evidence that this was exactly what they had done.
And he was rude – at one point he told Glenda Jackson: “I have no idea what you’re asking… You lost me about five minutes ago.” Her equally abrasive reply, “You’ll have to try harder,” was drowned out as he muttered, “It sounds like a foreign language to me.”
The tone of the meeting was not lost on those who were using the Internet to watch it. Their attitude can be summed up in tweets from ‘Tentacle Sixteen’, who commented, “You’re not supposed to have a look of horror on your face when asked if you’ll make details of a public project public.”
He continued: “The most worrying thing out of this select committee so far is IDS’ constant assertion that he doesn’t have to tell people everything.”
And he concluded: “You’re a f***ing public servant IDS, you bloody do have to tell us everything.”
This is exactly the issue.
The information content of this meeting was zero – or as close to it as possible. What we got was a display of posturing, “hubris” – as Debbie Abrahams rightly identified it – and further obfuscation of the facts.
What the meeting did reveal was everything we need to know about Iain Duncan Smith. Here is a man who understands nothing about being a public servant. He thinks that, sitting in a plush Whitehall office, with civil servants running around clearing up his various disasters, that he is somehow above the rest of us and doesn’t have to justify himself.
He’s completely mistaken. He is there as our servant – to act in a way that suits us, not him. It is disrespectful of him to treat us this way.
But he just doesn’t get it.
If enough people had seen his performance today, he could have single-handedly lost the next election for the Conservative Party.
(If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can watch the meeting for yourself, here.)
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