Neil Couling, the ‘Director General’ of Universal Credit and the Senior Responsible Officer accountable to Parliament, has a long track record of denying what everyone else can see. In 2012, he was the one who claimed that there were no targets for conditionality and sanctions, despite the detailed evidence provided by the PCS and Guardian. In 2013, he fronted the UC Full Business Case, where he wrote that
This Business Case clearly demonstrates that Universal Credit provides value for money and huge benefits for claimants, the broader population and the economy as a whole. Some of the most compelling aspects of Universal Credit are also highlighted here: the £2bn total cost of investment against a social return to the economy of £34bn over ten years; and an increase of people in employment of 200k.
The National Audit Office expressed its doubts, as well it might; there was no evidence to back up those claims.
This year, it fell to Couling and his colleagues to defend the DWP’s perverse practice of pretending that there were no bank holidays. LJ Rose, for the Court of Appeal commented:
Mr Couling’s evidence is that as at the date of his statement in September 2018 the universal credit IT system had cost £1.3 billion to build and the estimate was it would need another £1 billion to finish the task. Any additional adjustments would increase this cost. Building another calculator to allow the amendment of assessment periods would, he says, require a complete rebuild, therefore substantially increasing the cost to the taxpayer by at least many hundreds of millions of pounds. … Taking full account of all the SSWP’s evidence … I cannot accept that the programme cannot be modified … This case is, in my judgment, one of the rare instances where the SSWP’s refusal to put in place a solution to this very specific problem is so irrational that I have concluded that … no reasonable SSWP would have struck the balance in that way.
And now we have the latest report of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which takes Mr Couling to task over several points. First, he wanted to deny that people on UC were falling behind on their rent.
“When asked about the comparison between arrears, in Universal Credit and the legacy system, Neil Couling, the Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, said that it was not possible for him to create a counterfactual” (pp 14-5)
Then he wanted to deny that the DWP had failed to provide the recommended support mechanisms for vulnerable claimants:
“We cannot agree with the assertion made by Neil Couling, Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit, that the Department is currently providing a “de facto Universal Support”. ( p 46)
And he also wanted to claim that UC was not slower to deliver benefits for people with disabilities than other benefits have been:
the NAO found that, while 84% of claims from people receiving Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) were paid the core elements of their Universal Credit claim on time, only 75% of claims were paid in full and on time. … Neil Couling told us that the data on whether disabled claimants are paid in full and on time can “overstate” the degree of lateness … He told us : “Some of the lateness is artificially created by the way in which we are forced to collect the data, which is much better than the legacy system, I am hastening to add …” (p 53)
There is a pattern of behaviour here. The Public Accounts Committee reported in 2018, after it had received evidence from Mr Couling and his most senior colleague, that
The Department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme.
I am less concerned about the risks to UC, which has never been able to live up to its sales pitch, than I am with the effect on claimants. The impact of cumulative delays, restrictive conditions, sanctions, an over-reliance on technological wizardry, debt and the devastating removal of minimum entitlements, has subjected millions of people to privation. But it doesn’t help to be told that none of this is happening.