Select Committee with top Civil Servant in charge of Social Security.
6th February 2017. Public Administration and Constitutional Reform Committee.
Paul Flynn: Mr Devereux, have you seen the film, “I, Daniel Blake”?
Sir Robert Devereux: I have not.
Q280 Paul Flynn: Don’t you think you should?
Sir Robert Devereux: I am in two minds about whether I should.
Paul Flynn: As just an average MP, I thought it gave an accurate portrayal of the good work of civil servants, the ones who are kind and conscientious, but also the other side, the results of what happens with policy. It portrayed what all MPs, I believe, see in our daily surgeries, the suffering and tragedy that result from the decisions made by your Department. I think you would find it educational to see the film.
Sir Robert Devereux: I spend two days a week on the road, sitting with colleagues, sitting with claimants, listening to telephones. With the greatest of respect, a fictional story is unlikely to improve on my knowledge of how the system operates.
Q281 Paul Flynn: I think you would find it of rare quality and it gives a different point of view, but I would urge you to see it. It is worth an hour of your time.
Sir Robert Devereux: I have colleagues who have seen it and they have the same view, that the way in which some of the work coaches come across is entirely as they would expect and the portrayal of the Jobcentre manager—I have not met one who remotely gets anywhere close to it.
Paul Flynn: It is an entirely accurate report
Sir Robert Devereux: So you say, but I have visited many more Jobcentres than I suspect you or the filmmaker have and since I have pride in the colleagues I work with, I know something about what they actually do. I will just choose to differ on whether or not this is an entirely accurate representation. It is a film.
Q282 Paul Flynn: I spoke to the man who made the film and he did say that much of the information in the film was supplied by people who work in your Department.
Sir Robert Devereux: Yes, he may well have said that. I have 75,000 staff so maybe a little bit of local knowledge might be allowed to be introduced to the conversation.
Q283 Paul Flynn: In December 2013, there was a damning report by the National Audit Office. They found that universal credit had failed to deliver value for money. Huge mistakes were made. Some obvious ones were £40 million on an IT project that has already been written off. There was £90 million spent on the computer, the software that the Department had known would be defunct in a very short period. The National Audit Office report of September 2013 concluded, “the Department’s ability to deal with weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales, and a lack of openness about progress”. Despite this I understood you were responsible for a string of overspending on these matters, but you appear to have accepted a £20,000 bonus that year that brought your salary up to £195,000. Is that a reward for failure?
Chair: This might be what you mean by exposure of Permanent Secretaries.
Sir Robert Devereux: Yes. I am now trying to think: the year in which that report was made, I did not get a bonus.
Q284 Paul Flynn: When did you get the £20,000?
Sir Robert Devereux: I think it was for the year that ended 2011.
Q285 Paul Flynn: What did you do in that year?
Sir Robert Devereux: I gave it away to charity. I think I gave the bonus in question to the charity for civil servants.
Paul Flynn: Okay. Highly commendable, I am sure, and absolutely right. But you still had the bonus—
Sir Robert Devereux: The bonuses are determined by the Cabinet Secretary in consultation with the Prime Minister. I do not judge whether I deserve a bonus, other people do that, and it was not in respect of the year in which you just quoted.
Q286 Paul Flynn: This is a long record of what appears to be abject, monumental failures, cock-ups. Who was responsible?
Sir Robert Devereux: You will be surprised that I do not agree with that. As things currently stand, I am running a Department that has 50,000 fewer staff than it had when I started. It costs £2.8 billion a year less to run. The performance levels in virtually every element of my business are better. I have transformed the contracts of 60,000 people. Your list of things is to do with a major programme, which we have been discussing with the Chair. These programmes are complicated. I don’t think there is a single major programme in Government that has not at some time found itself in some difficulty. I have tried to explain why that is but I simply will not sit here and believe that the entire thing is a shambles. If that were the case, I would not still be here, sir.
Q287 Paul Flynn: You will be familiar with the characterisation of the civil servant, the overriding ethos of the unimportance of being right. Those who kowtow to Ministers and say, “Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir. Would you like to walk over me, Mr Minister?” are the ones whose careers flourish and the ones who speak truth to power are the ones whose careers do not flourish. Is that true?
Sir Robert Devereux: Sir, I am trying to recognise that—
Paul Flynn: If we look at what Sir Jeremy Heywood was reported to have said, in your favour, he is supposed to have informed the Prime Minister in 2013 that he was concerned about the concerted political briefing campaign against you and all the failures in the Government’s universal credit programme. He is understood to have made clear that he did not believe Devereux should be singled out for blame for the project and that responsibility also lay with Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. Is that true?
Sir Robert Devereux: It is true that he said those things, I guess.
Paul Flynn: Yes, Jeremy Heywood?
Sir Robert Devereux: You are quoting what he said. I don’t have the source but if that’s what he said—
Q288 Paul Flynn: We have Lord Maude coming to see us. We are very familiar with him as a witness over the years during his period of office. According to The Independent newspaper, Francis Maude and Iain Duncan Smith tried to undermine you with a media smear campaign. It was suggested that you were responsible for the various failures of the Department. Is this right, that they were trying avoid their responsibilities?
Sir Robert Devereux: The Chair can decide how you would like me to answer this. We have gone to some trouble to explain that the essence of a good Permanent Secretary is the quality of the relationship, which basically is in private, with Ministers.
Chair: Mr Flynn, you were out of the room for some of this discourse, which you will have missed.
Sir Robert Devereux: As a consequence, I think it probably is not highly appropriate for me to comment on what it is that may or may not have been going on. The reality is that you can read some things in the newspapers; you can also see that universal credit is now rolling out. You can see that the Secretary of State at the time, Iain Duncan Smith, repeatedly says, “I now do it on the basis of test and learn and do it gradually” and the thing is now in a position where it is being successful.
Q289 Paul Flynn: The rollout of universal credit was foul-up after foul-up and the embarrassment of Iain Duncan Smith trying to apologise and wriggle out of any responsibilities at the despatch box. Who was responsible? We are going to talk to Francis Maude. Was it you? Was it the Ministers?
Sir Robert Devereux: I have tried to explain this and I will try once more. The Government of the day had a view that a certain way of doing this would be possible within a certain timescale. It is quite apparent that that timescale was not possible and the Secretary of State of the time is now repeatedly on record as saying that in his view the safe way to do this is to test and to learn and to make decisions as it goes along. That is the position the Secretary of State has had. The vision we were on to start with was all to do with dates and that things would be ready at a certain point.
Q290 Chair: How hard is it to create a learning environment if experimentation, iteration and reiteration are exposed to hostility every time a lesson needs to be learnt? How much more difficult is it to have the open conversations if the atmosphere is created that everything that does not go completely right is going to be jumped on from outside?
Sir Robert Devereux: The obvious answer to that is that it is very difficult to do. Part of what is going on here is that there is more than one actor in the story, as you have already quoted. You might want to wonder what was passing between them both in advance and in arrears. The thing that I think has landed with Ministers—it certainly was true for Iain Duncan Smith and it is certainly true for the Major Projects Authority—is if you try to do something big and complicated you do need to think about doing it in stages and to learn as you go. That is the way in which we have done the child maintenance reform, which, by the way, to come back to Mr Flynn, was commended by the National Audit Office. It is the way we did the automatic enrolment, which, by the way, Mr Flynn, was commended by the National Audit Office. It is the way in which we have done the changes to the personal independence payment. Time after time after time the evidence is that progressive and careful rollout and learning as you go beats announcing in advance a date by which everything will be finished. That is my big learning from the world of complex programmes and it is a lesson that, in my view, the system has learnt. I do believe the system has learnt that.
Q291 Paul Flynn: The next time I get a tragedy in my constituency or some humble person who is deeply insulted by the way they have been treated, I will send them a copy of the answers you have just given. Mr Wormald, your predecessor, Una O’Brien, said that the number one priority for the health service was getting the NH finances in better shape and doing so while protecting quality. She said that shifting care out of hospitals was a close second. How do you progress on what she said?
Chris Wormald: This is much debated in public right now.
Paul Flynn: Every day this week we are hearing of horror stories upon horror stories about the reality of the health service.
Chris Wormald: The BBC has decided to run an NHS week so, yes, there are stories every day. There will, of course, be challenges out there. I am sure every single person sees that in their own constituencies. We have had a range of performance challenges in the system over the last few weeks. The NHS has been responding to those challenges. NHS England and NHS Improvement have been doing a considerable amount of work with individual hospitals and others, but I do not downplay at all that there are challenges out there in the system. In terms of what Una said, that is pretty spot on.
Q292 Paul Flynn: We do not need a “Yes, Prime Minister” programme. You have just answered me; you used the word “challenges” four times in your brief answer, which is a model of non-speak. If I could give that to someone who is suffering the great indignity of not having comfort, not having anyone to look after them, they spend six months in conditions of squalor and fear, if we send them a copy of your answer about the challenges you face—don’t you see that what the “Today” programme and others are putting out now is a picture of awful failure? Terrible failures are taking place in the lives of tens of thousands of other people.
Chris Wormald: No, I do not agree with that. In the vast majority of cases, the National Health Service does a brilliant job in treating and looking after patients. I am sure you have met hundreds of people from the NHS who do not act in the way you have described. Do some things go wrong occasionally? Yes, quite clearly. Government’s response has had a focus on quality in the NHS, including introducing proper inspections that no previous Government has had. I mean challenges because I mean challenges. I do not think anyone would deny that the health service faces a series of challenges, as does every other western health service at the moment. I do not agree with the picture you have painted, although of course there are individual things that go wrong and those need to be dealt with properly.
Paul Flynn: I think I am one of the two members of this Committee who can remember as a 12 year-old life before there was a health service. I am a great enthusiast. It is the greatest political decision and progress that has ever been made, but when you look at it and the evidence that it is starved of money, that it does not have enough, are you going to burble on about challenges with the platitudes that you have insulted this Committee with, with your answer? Are you going to say to your Minister, “Let’s have some more money”?
Chair: Order, I do not think this Committee feels insulted. You may feel insulted but I do not think the Committee does.
Paul Flynn: It was a terrible answer.