In an unprecedented intervention, the National Audit Office (NAO) has accused a government minister of making false statements to MPs to downplay failings of a flagship Tory policy.
There were calls for Esther McVey to resign after the Auditor General wrote in an open letter to complain that the Work and Pensions Minister had misrepresented their report on the suffering and cost of the government’s Universal Credit scheme.
In April, McVey’s Conservative colleague Amber Rudd was forced to resign after it was revealed that she had mislead MPs about the treatment of people caught up in the Tory Windrush scandal.
In its report on June 15, the NAO detailed the suffering caused across Britain by the hated new scheme brought in by Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey at the Department of Works and Pensions.
And the report was equally scathing about whether the costly scheme had even saved money while causing immense suffering to many people on a variety of benefits and tax breaks.
The Conservative Universal Credit roll out concluded the NAO is “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”.
But today in an open letter, Esther McVey was accused of misleading parliament when she had dismissed the failings and cruelty of the flagship Tory policy outlined in the NAO study in a statement that belied her constant contact with the NAO over its damning report.
In his letter, Auditor General Sir Amyas wrote: “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. Your Department confirmed this to me in writing on Wednesday June 6 and we then reached final agreement on the report on Friday June 8.
“It is odd that by Friday June 15 you felt able to say that the NAO ‘did not take into account the impact of our recent changes’.
“You reiterated these statements on July 2 but we have seen no evidence of such impacts nor fresh information.”
Sir Amyas added in his letter to the Works and Pensions Secretary: “Your statement on July 2 that the NAO was concerned Universal Credit is currently ‘rolling out too slowly’ and needs to ‘continue at a faster rate’ is also not correct.”
Theresa May is facing a tough week with Tory Brexit rebels threatening to unseat her if last minute talks to thrash out the Tory negotiating Brexit position don’t go their way.
The beleaguered Prime Minister can ill afford to lose another minister and evaded questions about sacking McVey at PMQs today.
May left hurriedly before, to shouts of “resign” by opposition MPs, McVey was forced to make a grovelling apology to the House of Commons.
“I mistakenly said the NAO had asked for the rollout of Universal Credit to continue at a faster rate and be speeded up.
“In fact the NAO did not say that and I want to apologise to you [the Speaker] and the House for inadvertently misleading you,” confessed McVey, adding, “I hope you will accept my apology.”
But there are mounting calls for McVey to resign and take responsibility for the costs – both human and financial of Universal Credit – as well as misleading parliament when the NAO exposed the policy’s mess.
Green Party leader Caroline Lucas tweeted: “Things have reached a new low when the National Audit Office accuses a Cabinet Minister of lying. #UniversalCredit is failing, and if Esther McVey is not up to the job of sorting it out – as seems to be the case – then she has to go.”
1.3.c of the Ministerial code states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
In April Theresa May lost an ally when Amber Rudd had to resign as Home Secretary after she told MPs that she had no knowledge of her department’s targets, even though evidence emerged that she had been informed of them. Theresa May was also on the email chain, raising uncomfortable questions about whether she had known that her minister misled MPs twice about the removal targets she had promised Theresa May she should achieve by diverting resources from crime fighting to removals.
In June Greg Hands quit over being forced to vote for the Heathrow Expansion that he had told his constituents he would object to – as had Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Theresa May in the past.
The trade minister was the sixth ministerial resignation since Theresa May formed a weakened majority with the DUP when the snap general election she called last summer for a stronger mandate for her Brexit negotiations backfired spectacularly.
Last November Michael Fallon stepped down as Defence Secretary amid accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, admitting his “previous conduct” towards women had “fallen below” what is acceptable.
A week later Priti Patel was forced to resign as International Development Secretary after she breached ministerial protocol with Israeli visits that she was accused of carrying out without informing Downing Street or the Foreign Office. She had recommended that her department give British foreign aid to hospitals for Syrians run by the Israeli army. A senior colleague told the Telegraph that Priti Patel “saw the Israeli Prime Minister with a donor lobbyist, and failed to declare or admit to the meetings. She commissioned policy work as a result. It is a total breach of the code. She’s toast.” Though reports emerged that again Theresa May was aware of all this but kept quiet.
The month after, Theresa May lost her close ally Damian Green after it was found that he had lied to colleagues over pornography found on his computer. There were further calls for Green to resign as an MP over a dirty tricks campaign against Kate Maltby, a young Conservative activist who had accused him of inappropriate sexual advances.
And in April Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary.
With Conservative rebels sharpening their knives and briefing Westminster correspondents of plots to oust her, Theresa May can ill afford to lose another minister.