In news that will not surprise anyone on her native Merseyside, the alleged Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, now ensconced in one of the country’s safest Tory seats, has been caught not only lying, but failing to communicate with the National Audit Office. She has thus far survived, but is not out of the woods yet.
Never fart into a tailwind
Amyas Morse of the NAO had to write to Ms McVey because she wouldn’t talk to him. The comments in his letter put his concerns directly. “I am now reluctantly writing to you to clarify the facts … Our report was fully agreed with senior officials in your department. It is based on the most accurate and up to date information from your department … it is odd that by Friday 15 June you feel able to say that the NAO ‘did not take into account the impact of our recent changes’”. And there was more.
“I’m also afraid your statement on 2 July, that the NAO was concerned that universal credit is currently rolling out too slowly and needs to continue at a faster rate, is also not correct. My recommendation makes clear that the department must ensure it is ready before it starts to transfer people over from previous benefits”.
He also took issue with Ms McVey’s claim that his report showed that Universal Credit was working: “The department has not measured how many claimants are having difficulties … 40% of them said they were experiencing financial difficulties and 25% said they couldn’t make an online claim”. One of those unimpressed with the McVey stance was Theresa May, who duly threw her under the bus she didn’t want to discuss with Jeremy Corbyn.
As the Guardian has reported, “Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, has been forced to apologise to parliament after making misleading statements about the government’s faltering welfare changes … The MP for Tatton’s statement followed the release of a damning letter from Sir Amyas Morse, who told the minister she had misinterpreted a report by the National Audit Office on universal credit to make it look as if the new welfare system was working well”. But there was a problem.
“She is expected to face further parliamentary scrutiny over the debacle after Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions committee, asked the Speaker, John Bercow, for an urgent question as early as Thursday … MPs will ask McVey why her apology failed to address Morse’s complaint that she had misinterpreted the report”. Oh, and one more thing.
“They are also expected to ask why McVey’s statement to parliament appeared to contradict the NAO’s insistence that the report was up to date”. And there will be no opportunity this time for her old pal Iain Duncan Cough to slag off the NAO in order to deflect from her shortcomings. Like that she should no longer be in post.
After all, paragraph 1.3.c of the Ministerial Code is unequivocal on the point: “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.
Esther McVey is secure for now. But there are limits to how much a minister can take the piss and remain in post. And she’s very likely to hit those limits very soon.