Iain Duncan Smith has dismissed fears over the future of the Government's flagship Universal Credit scheme after the public spending watchdog condemned its chaotic management and flawed IT.
The Work and Pensions Secretary insisted problems highlighted in a damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) were "historic" and he had already intervened to sort them out. In fiery Commons exchanges, Mr Duncan Smith also branded Labour counterpart Liam Byrne "pathetic" for suggesting he should apologise for the state of the project.
Universal Credit is due to replace a bundle of means-tested benefits by 2017, with the department estimating it will save £38 billion in administration, fraud and error costs by 2023. It is also designed to encourage people to take up work by ensuring they will always be better off having a job.
But pilots have been scaled back and delayed, and a former Olympics executive was drafted in earlier this year to "reset" the programme.
The NAO criticised "weak management, ineffective control and poor governance" of the scheme, saying that of £303 million spent on IT up to April, £34 million had been written off and the systems still had "limited functionality".
It found the IT system could not identify potentially fraudulent claims, meaning manual checks were needed on claims and payments. "Such checks will not be feasible or adequate once the system is running nationally," they added. "Delays to the roll-out will reduce the expected benefits of reform and - if the department maintains a 2017 completion date - increase risks by requiring the rapid migration of a large volume of claimants."
Mr Duncan Smith strongly defended the project he has championed, touring television and radio studios before facing questions from MPs.
"In the summer of 2012, or rather before that, in early 2012, I instigated an independent review because I was concerned that the leadership of the programme was not focusing in the way that it needed to in delivering the programme as it was originally set out," he said. "This internal report showed me quite categorically that my concerns were right, that the leadership was struggling and that there was a culture of good news prevailing and that intervention was required."
Mr Duncan Smith said that, as a result, he changed the leadership team on the project and brought in the "brilliant" Philip Langsdale, who was responsible for Heathrow's Terminal 2. He said the scheme needed to be reset but Mr Langsdale died and was replaced by David Pitchford, from the Major Projects Authority. Former Olympics executive Howard Shiplee has now taken over.
"Every NAO recommendation that they made in the report has already been made," Mr Duncan Smith said. "And the key lesson that I take from this is simply this - that, unlike the previous government who went and crashed one IT programme after another, no government ever intervened to change them early so they delivered on time. We are not doing that. I have taken action on this particular programme. This programme will deliver on time and in budget."