One of the most senior civil servants responsible for the government's Universal Credit welfare programme has been accused by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee of presiding over a "litany of failures" that could cost taxpayers up to £160m.
Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), admitted to MPs that, despite being one of the biggest and most complex IT projects in government today, he only met the officials in charge of delivering it once every three weeks.
It took him more than a year to realise that there were problems brewing with the programme.
Furthermore, he told MPs that, despite being the senior civil servant in charge of delivering the project, he had no way of knowing that it was going awry until an external review highlighted the problems, bringing them to his attention.
MPs, though, accused Devereux of "blaming everyone under him" for the shortcomings in the Universal Credit project after he suggested that the people he had appointed to run the programme only delivered good news.
"I put people in who were the best I had available. The reality then is that if a culture starts to permeate through, I had no way of detecting that," Devereux told MPs.
But the PAC deputy chair, Richard Bacon MP, was scathing: "This is the biggest programme run by your department. You were the accounting officer. This is a litany of failures – are you saying you were unaware of this?"
Universal Credit underpins the government's plan to cap total welfare spending to no more than £26,000 per person by bringing together a plethora of benefits and benefit systems into one payment. This should also help the DWP, which has taken control of the administration of tax credits from HMRC, to more easily tackle benefit fraud.
The PAC investigation follows a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) that indicated some £34m had already been written off in IT software and hardware that had been developed or acquired for the programme, but which would never be used.
Dr Norma Wood, the interim director general at the Major Projects Authority – the government organisation that reviewed the project – said "a significant chunk" of the £300m-plus that had been invested in the IT development side of Universal Credit would probably have to be written off.
Officials at the DWP have been accused of writing a "blank cheque" for suppliers and failing to keep ministers "properly informed", while PAC chairwoman Margaret Hodge accused Devereux of being disorganised
"It is pretty basic," she told Devereux. "You did not have a business plan. You did not have a strategy. People did not know what they were doing... you must be accountable for this."
But Devereux told MPs "it did not feel to me as if the entire thing was happening without a plan".
The write-off is expected to be between £140m and £160m
Devereux, meanwhile, is under pressure to stand down, although he claimed that the project would be delivered on time and within budget by 2017 – despite the failures uncovered so far.