Time to bin Keep Britain Tidy

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Time for Keep Britain Tidy to be put in the bin

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Nearly three years ago Parliament produced a damning report saying England was one of the worst developed countries in the world for litter and fly tipping. Worse than most of the rest of Europe, worse than Japan and worse than the United States and Canada.

Furthermore this situation has remained the same for 12 years under successive Labour, Coalition and Tory governments. And this is despite tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers money being poured into the former quango Keep Britain Tidy to provide leadership to tackle this problem.

The deregulatory coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats  thought they would find a solution by abolishing the quango and turning it into a charity  which now has to raise funds from cash strapped local authorities and big business.

The knee jerk reaction of a Left minded blogger might be to persuade an incoming Labour government to push taxpayer’s money back to Keep Britain Tidy. But after an investigation looking at its precarious finances and its rather lacklustre approach to tackling the problem this would be the worst thing it could do.

The real problem is that successive gutless ministers of all parties  (perhaps they have at the back of their minds that they could take lucrative directorships after leaving politics)  won’t tackle the real cause of much of our litter – the  products of big multinationals like McDonalds and Wrigley’s and the tobacco companies –  who take no or little responsibility for the problem.

There is a parallel here  with  Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – who connive with big multinationals to avoid paying their fair share of tax which would go a long way to providing better public services and a cleaner  public space.

There is a simple solution here either these companies pay up for a clean up or the Government levies a tax on them ( not us) to employ someone else to do it. I bet the firms would come up soon with some innovative solutions to avoid either.

Now why have I concluded that Keep Britain Tidy is a no no solution  despite being told by some people that its  new director,Allison Ogden-Newton is much livelier than her predecessor, Phil Barton.

The charity has a guilty secret. It has a pension deficit of  £4.5m  for a closed scheme on a turnover of just £5m and assets worth £2.5m. For some private companies this  could lead them to cease trading.

The 2015-16 accounts lodged with the Charity Commission say :

 “The pension deficit as at 31st March 2016 is £4.511m. Future contributions to the scheme have been negotiated with the Trustees of the scheme.
The Company is the principal employer and paid approximately £131,000 to reduce the deficit this year. Keep Britain Tidy will continue to make contributions in line with terms agreed at the last triennial review until any new scheme of payments is agreed. In the financial year to March 2017 it will pay approximately £134,000 towards reducing the deficit in addition to the scheme running costs of approximately £72,000.”

 

The report reveals that the trustees – who would be liable if  Keep Britain Tidy went bust – certify it is a going concern. But to do this they have had to put aside £2m – equivalent to six  months operating costs -to ensure that it stays afloat.

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Allison Ogden-Newton, new chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy

When I put this to the charity – who first ignored my request – I got this reply from Ms Ogden-Newton.

 “Our Annual Accounts have been audited by RSM UK Audit LLP and a clean audit opinion has been given. Standard audit procedures include an assessment of Keep Britain Tidy as a Going Concern and this specifically includes an assessment of our ability to meet the agreed pension scheme contributions. No issues were raised in this respect.
 “We have an agreed schedule of contributions between Keep Britain Tidy and the Pension trustees in order to address the pension deficit and this has also been submitted to the Pensions Authority whom have accepted this plan.
 “To that end we and the relevant authorities consider our agreed repayment programme to be satisfactory and sustainable for both the fund and Keep Britain Tidy.”
Now that is all well and good – but I don’t believe it doesn’t restrict its activities. It has got some income from the 5p levy on plastic bags ( notably £500,000 from Lidl) but as a Defra paper reveals most private companies use the levy to fund other worthy causes whether it is the Alzheimer’s Society, the Woodland Trust, animal welfare or Kew Gardens.
The other major reason why Keep Britain Tidy does not seem to be working well was shown up when MPs questioned the former chief executive at the Commons communities and local government committee.
 He was taken apart by MPs of all parties in an evidence  session.
He produced figures which he couldn’t defend, evidence that MPs found flawed and finally admitted that Keep Britain Tidy refused to talk to the tobacco industry. Given cigarette stubs are a source of litter MPs found this extraordinary.
Clive Betts MP

Clive Betts MP, chair of critical House of Commons report on the state of England’s litter.

Clive Betts, the Labour chairman of the committee, also made this observation.

 ” Frankly Keep Britain Tidy was not a main part of our report or inquiry,. We were more interested in some of the innovative work down by local authorities to tackle fly tipping and litter.”
 Now this is really damning with faint praise given Keep Britain Tidy was meant to be the leadership body.
Since then nothing has improved much. A House of Commons library briefing on litter last July said this :
“Levels of litter in England have hardly improved in over a decade and 81% of people have said they are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter in the country. Local government net expenditure on street cleaning (which includes but is not limited to clearing litter) in 2015/16 was £683 million.”
It also clear that by dividing up responsibility between four Whitehall departments doesn’t work. Perhaps the Cabinet Office should take over responsibility for a national litter strategy. At the moment neither Keep Britain Tidy nor the various ministries seem capable of negotiating with a paper bag.

 

Have the Tories already sold our future green investments down the dump?

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Safeguarding UK green interests?The five new trustees of the Green Purposes Company – James Curran,Trevor Hutchings, Tushita Ranchan,Robin (Lord) Teverson and Peter Young. Pic Credit: Green Purposes Company

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The present government has two song sheets. One is that Britain must big up everything we do to become a ” world leader ” after Brexit. The second is that we must do everything we can to cut the deficit – whether it is fresh benefit cuts or selling off anything the government owns as fast as possible..

The two came into conflict recently with the sale of the Green Investment Bank – and the deficit cutters won. The story of the sale of the Green Investment Bank is told in a recent report by the National Audit Office. Unfortunately the detail  did not lead to much coverage in mainstream media which is why I am writing about it now. I have written a news story for Tribune magazine.

The deal which has allowed the sale to go ahead to Australian private equity bankers Macquarie for £1.6 billion is at the lower end of the its worth and without waiting for returns from big wind farm projects which are still under construction with public money.The NAO said this could have netted another £63m. This is the same company, by the way, that owns Thames Water, responsible for some of the worst pollution in the River Thames and also locally on the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal (see an earlier blog).

The companies  behind the sale did very well. The business department paid out a £1.1m success fee to Bank of America Merrill Lynch and a retainer of nearly £300,000 for completing the sale – part of a bill for £4.5m to sell the bank.

Macquarie picked up the bill for another £5m success fee paid  to UBS by the Green Investment Bank itself to handle the sale.

The Department appointed Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) to act as its legal adviser for the sale. HSF’s fee increased from £1 million to £2.36 million owing to the extended period required to complete the sale, the need for advice on restructuring GIB, the retained assets, the special share arrangements and judicial review which failed to challenge the sale.

Altogether Macquarie paid over £10m of the state bank’s fees to get their hands on the state bank. But what did they get in return?

An article in the This is Money website gives us a clue. It shows the government removed the restriction that the Green Investment Bank should only concentrate on the UK so Macquarie  could make money  worldwide and ignore the UK if it wanted. Greg Clark, the business secretary, personally signed this concession.

Macquarie of course denies this pointing out that it had invested £38m in a West Yorkshire waste from energy  from waste project and insisting it will be a big player in the UK and Europe.

But events since the take over suggest otherwise – and there is no guarantee either that it will continue to focus only on green energy. Greg Clark let the bank get away with a non binding public statement to finance green projects for the next three years and the setting up of a trust – the Green Purposes Company  -which could shame the new owners if they fail to keep to their pledge.

The evidence of backsliding comes from the trustees. In theory they have powers to prevent changes to GIB’s green purposes, but this does not extend to control of, or input to, investment decisions.

The five trustees are independently appointed and seem to be sound environmental figures. They include James Curran, former chief executive of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, and Lord Teverson, a former Liberal Democrat energy spokesman.But they are not paid to monitor such a big private equity company and a check on the website of the Green Purposes Company does not give much comfort either.

It reveals the first project  is in Sweden – with a 300 million Euro investment in what will be Europe’s largest onshore wind farm joint with the US listed company GE which is in financial trouble in the United States.

The second is in a £30m investment in solar power in India – admittedly with a UK solar park company, Lightsource, partly owned by BP. The company is concentrating on green power in the Middle East, Asia and Europe as part of its partnership with BP.

And the third investment will  be a 136 million Euro energy from waste scheme in Dublin, jointly run by a New Jersey incineration company, Covanta.

So far the new bank has invested £38m in the UK and over £400m (partly with GE) abroad.

The NAO conclude in their report  the future direction of GIB’s investment focus and its relationship with the trustees remain untested. From the first four projects it seems quite clear that the UK will be on the sidelines. The 436 million Euro investments will be great news for Donald Trump’s ” America First ” policy but not such great news for Theresa May.

 

The top Tory power grab that turns their party members into mere pawns

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Rob Semple, chair of the Conservative Party Convention, and Theresa May – the ” Old Elizabethans” Pic credit: Twitter

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Update December 21: Since writing this piece I have discovered that the Conservative Home website, had already raised  objections to the power grab a few days after the convention. The link to their story is here .

 It is good news  for democrats everywhere that  some Conservatives are challenging this. For avoidance of any doubt my Conservative source and myself were unaware of this when I published the story.

While  the public and press have been absorbed in Tory battles over Brexit the top hierarchy in the Conservative Party have mounted an extraordinary power grab behind the scenes that strips their ordinary members of any meaningful say in the running of their organisation.

On November 25 the party held a convention in Birmingham attended by 100 invited people which rewrote sections of the party’s constitution. For policy nerds I attach the document sent out by Rob Semple, chairman of the Conservative Convention and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Board. I have also written about this in Tribune magazine.

Masquerading as ” small suggestions to bring us into the 21st Century “the convention agreed to rewrite the party constitution to remove references to constituencies altogether;limit the right of local associations to choose their own candidates and scrap the annual meeting of the Conservative Convention where people could listen and vote for candidates for top posts. Instead on line voting would be used for all top posts in the party.

The changes will go for final approval next March at a meeting of the Conservative Convention and will be put to MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee in Westminster the same month.

The Tories are hoping that by removing the word constituency from the constitution it will encourage people to form wider associations – which has had some success in Kent where six associations in the Thanet area have combined. But it also reflects the dire state of activists in some Tory constituency associations – where a number have now fallen to fewer than 50 members and operate from a P O Box address.

 The change in selection proposed in the constitution gives power to the candidates committee of the Board of the Party – whose members are appointed rather than elected. The new wording is:“The selection of all candidates, including Parliamentary, Police Commissioners, Elected Mayors and local government candidates shall follow a process in accordance with rules and guidance published from time to time by the Committee on Candidates of the Board of the Party.”

Not surprisingly the proposals have been  vehemently attacked  by Tory members who quite naturally believe if they join a political party – they should have some say in its policies and be able to choose their own candidates.

John Strafford, chairman of  Conservative Campaign for Democracy. said: “If these proposed changes are not voted down you might as well say The Conservative Party: The End”

 “And if MPs don’t take any action to stop these proposals they will find the only activists campaigning for them at the next general election will be themselves.”

 I did contact Conservative Central Office last week  for a comment but there has been no response and there does not appear to be a press release.

And in addition the review  into the failed General Election campaign by  Sir Eric Pickles, the former MP and chairman – probably about to be made a peer by Theresa May – contains one extraordinary overlooked proposal.

It suggests the Tory Party – which wasted £4.5 million on consultants to the failed campaign this year – could hand over lock, stock and barrel – the running of the next campaign to a private company.

This frankly is an extraordinary state of affairs in British politics for the 21st century.

Two parties – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – will fight the next general election with  the largest number of members and supporters  they have had for ages- reflecting a democratic revolution.

The top Labour Party people will be elected by the membership – there is an election for the National Executive Party going on now. So will the candidates.

But the  cash rich Conservative Party will basically turn itself into an unelected commercial organisation – where investors and private companies will decide the presentation of policies for the people.

The contrast could not be much starker. Labour will go into the next general election as a mass movement with a mass membership who can influence policy and decide on who stands for Parliament, the police and the local council.

The Tories go into the election as a small clique with their members little more than cannon fodder.

A libertarian academic suggested to me that the Tories had turned politics back four centuries – to the days when the Elizabethans and the Dutch Indies companies – used private investors to  create a joint enterprise to rule parts of the globe and general populus had no say. What an achievement in 2017.

 

 

 

 

Unreported by the national media: How some bosses can help if you are one of 2 million people enduring domestic abuse

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Elizabeth Filkin: chair of the steering group of the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse

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This week the BBC hosted an extraordinary conference on how business and public employers can act to help employees if they are suffering the living hell of domestic abuse.

The conference attracted big names. Lord Hall, director general of BBC; Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner; Amber Rudd, the home secretary (by video); Ben Page, chief executive of ipsos MORI;Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, Chief of Defence People;Victoria Atkins,Home Office minister for crime and directors from accountancy giant, Grant Thornton, and Vodafone, the mobile phone provider.

It also was addressed by a remarkably brave woman,Serena, who told her story of both child sexual abuse and an adult abusive relationship, which led her unsympathetic employer to sack her and the actor and series producer of TV drama Holby City, whose story line included an abusive gay relationship which ended up with one partner being beaten up.

The event was organised by an organisation you have probably never heard of – the Employers’ Initiative  on Domestic Abuse – run by Elizabeth Filkin, a no nonsense figure who as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards once took on Peter Mandelson and Keith Vaz over allegations of bad behaviour..

People might think what has business got to do with people’s personal lives – but what was noticeable was the firms that are backing the initiative had got involved after a traumatic event involving their staff.

Cressida Dick told the extraordinary story of how a very competent senior police officer in the Met rang her own switchboard to report that she was  a victim of domestic abuse. The police commissioner read out her testimony and described how she , though finding it an extremely difficult thing to do, is now coping with it

Another  big accountancy firm became involved after an employee jumped off London Bridge and committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with domestic abuse.

And a person attending from a hotel group told me they got involved after a young man attending a function was sexually abused when sleeping off the effects of too much alcohol on their premises. He went to the police, they decided they should join an organisation that dealt with abuse.

The BBC’s involvement comes some 18 months after the shock of the Jimmy Savile scandal – and ironically the conference was held in the same room where Tony Hall pledged to take action in the wake of Dame Janet Smith’s devastating findings on the issue.

Ad the Ministry of Defence actually tackles predators as well both those serving in the forces and those in the families of serving officers.

But they are the good ones. Ben Page told the conference that HR departments ” talked the good talk ” but often didn’t take any action or did not know how to to take action. Only one in twenty medium and large companies have a policy to deal with domestic abuse.

He described the present situation as akin to the position on mental health – which had been ignored by firms but was now accepted as an issue. He was an optimist saying ” In 10 years time all the misogynists will be dead ” – a point challenged by Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Yardley, who takes up domestic abuse issues, and is regularly trolled by people on the net.

Probably his most interesting admission was as chief executive of an organisation employing 1400 he did not know or had never come across a case of domestic abuse among his staff. He admitted that could not be the case.

His report makes a number of recommendations which could be included in the government’s new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill- including removing the minimum qualifying period for domestic abuse victims to get flexible working and introducing  ten days paid leave a year for domestic abuse victims. The latter, he admitted, would lead to protests from the Tory right. I can just imagine MPs like the nappy change refusnik Jacob Rees Mogg having apoplexy.

The government is obviously keen on employers sharing responsibility. But below the surface there are huge issues of resources, the fate of women refuges, austerity, pressure on local authorities and the police and social services to handle this huge problem.

I shall return to some  of these issues in future blogs. But one point needs to be made. This conference was covered by none of the national media – not even the BBC who hosted it. Only The Telegraph and ITN did show some interest. And that is despite energetic efforts made by conference  organisers.

There is an interesting parallel. In the media industry – only the BBC and ITN – have  signed up  to the group which now numbers over 150 companies who are trying to help victims of domestic abuse.

So the entire national  and regional press and the major social media sites believe there is no problem with domestic abuse among their thousands of employees. A likely story. No wonder they didn’t cover it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nuclear decommissioning: How Whitehall turned toxic waste into a dirty mess

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Decommissioned power station at Wylfa in Anglesey

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It is possibly Whitehall’s biggest blunder. it certainly involves one of the biggest contracts ever let by government. And you will have shelled out hundreds of millions of pounds for very little in return.

The subject is the decommissioning of 10 nuclear power stations and two research centres – now all past their sell by date – and all leaving the taxpayer with an almighty bill to detoxify them and make them safe.

The total bill to do this was meant to be £3.8 billion but it turned out to do it properly would cost £6.2 billion- making it possibly one of the biggest contracts ever let by Whitehall.

And what a mess Whitehall civil servants and their ministers made of it. The whole sorry story was revealed in a report by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, this month.

. The  £6.2 billion contract was approved by the Treasury because it promised to save taxpayers £904m by loading risks on the contractors. Instead it has only saved £255m and this has been partly wiped out by a botched tendering procurement which ended up with a rival consortia being able to sue the government for damages.

The company that won – an American led consortium Cavendish Fluor Partnership (CFP) based in Texas- was awarded the contract illegally.

We know this because its rivals Energy Solutions which includes Bechtel successfully sued  the government in the High Court last year and the High Court ruled that Fluor should have been disqualified because the final contract was nothing like the one put out to tender.The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministry has just settled the bill with Energy Solutions by agreeing to pay then £97.3m in compensation.

But the real bill was even more. The NAO found that the full cost amounted to £122m.  It spent £13.8 million on legal and external advisers. Of this, £3.2 million was spent on the competition and £8.6 million was spent on legal fees in the ensuing litigation. The NDA estimates that in-house staff time has cost £10.8 million. This excludes the cost of staff time of senior central government officials who were heavily involved in decisions, particularly about the National Decommissioning  Authority’s settlement and its decision to terminate the contract.

One reason for this debacle is believe or not is that officials  did  not know the state of some of the decommissioned  power stations so had to revise its estimates as more problems came to light- changing the terms of the winning bidder’s contract.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office: “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.

In light of these issues, the Department must consider whether its governance and oversight arrangements surrounding the NDA are sufficiently clear and effective in providing the scrutiny and assurance it requires to meet the standards expected in managing public money.”

There is now an inquiry going on under Steve Holliday, former chief executive of the National Grid. Its terms of reference include whether disciplinary action should be taken against the civil servants who made such a botched job and cost us even more money. It could mean heads should roll.

And it leaves the government another big problem because the contract with the present consortium has had to be terminated in 2019 – nine years before it is due to end.

And the axe is due to fall just as Brexit comes in – leaving more unfinished business just when Britain may well leave Euratom. What a mess.

I have written about this in Tribune. The full NAO report is here.

 

 

 

How you will soon be paying for Trident on your electricity bill

Whether you support or oppose Britain’s very costly renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent  you  would expect to pay for it through general taxation.

You wouldn’t expect to have to subsidise it by paying even higher prices for essential and already expensive electricity to light and heat your home.

Yet this exactly what is going to happen following a  disclosure this month after a very short exchange between MPs and senior civil servants at a  hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee this month. And you won’t be seeing this spelt out in your bills.

The hearing was not into Trident but into the rapidly increasing costs and management of Britain’s first nuclear power station for decades at Hinkley Point.

But the issue was raised from a paper submitted to the committee by the Sussex University Social Science Policy Research Unit from Prof. Andy Stirling, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Dr Phil Johnstone.

Its key words were: ” an undetermined part of the full costs of this expensive, controversial – but officially highly-prioritised [3] – military infrastructure are in effect (without clear public acknowledgement or justification), being loaded into electricity prices. With costs of alternative large-scale domestic low-carbon energy resources like offshore wind power confirmed as significantly more favourable than HPC [4], it seems a hidden subsidy is being imposed on electricity consumers.”

“If a UK withdrawal from civil nuclear power on grounds of uncompetitive economics were to leave these shared costs borne entirely on the military side, then UK military nuclear infrastructures would be significantly more expensive.

“If civil nuclear commitments are being maintained (despite adverse economics) in order to help cover these shared costs, then it is this that amounts to a cross-subsidy.”

The problem was that these academics could only speculate they have no proof. Until now.

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the committee, without referring  to all this detail from Sussex University got an admission. She questioned Stephen Lovegrove, former Permanent Secretary, Department for Energy and Climate Change, on the issue.

This is the exchange:

“ Mr Lovegrove, there has been an argument put forward by Sussex University that Hinkley is a great opportunity to maintain our nuclear skills base. With your hat on at the Ministry of Defence, are you having discussions with the business Department about this?

Mr Lovegrove: “We are, yes. In my last year at DECC, I was in regular discussion with Jon Thompson, former Permanent Secretary at the MOD, to say that as a nation we are going into a fairly intense period of nuclear activity…. We are building the new SSBNs (nuclear armed nuclear submarines) and completing the Astutes.

…We are completing the build of the nuclear submarines which carry conventional weaponry. We have at some point to renew the warheads, so there is very definitely an opportunity here for the nation to grasp in terms of building up its nuclear skills.

“I do not think that that is going to happen by accident; it is going to require concerted Government action to make it happen. We are speaking to colleagues at BEIS ( Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) fairly repeatedly about it, and have a number of forums in which we are doing that.”

So it is true. The two programmes ARE linked. And with  the cost of nuclear powered electricity at £92.50  per unit compared to £57 from other sources including renewable energy you are going to pay substantially more.

One company that is publicly delighted by this is Rolls Royce.  They are quoted saying : “that “expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability. This would free up valuable resources for other investments”.

Well Rolls Royce got £100m out of the submarine order and are happy for you to pay for the nuclear research. So it is more profit for them, higher bills for you.

The original article is published in Tribune magazine this week.

 

 

 

Gag, cover up and secret privatisation: What is the real story behind the NHS clinical correspondence scandal

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NHS archives. Pic credit: Health IT Central

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A week ago the media was full of the huge scandal of over 700,000 clinical correspondence documents – including details of sensitive patient conditions – going missing and  instead of being delivered to GPs being dumped in rooms.

The story was originally broken by the  Guardian in February this year which revealed that NHS England was secretly working on how to sort out it  without disclosing the scandal to the public. Jeremy Hunt had made a perfunctory statement to Parliament in 2016 not disclosing the full state of affairs in July 2016.

Last week the National Audit Office published a very thorough investigation into the scandal – including discovering that somehow the NHS also lost  highly confidential reports dating back to 2005 which identified children subject to child protection orders which must never be disclosed to the public without the individual’s consent. And in 1788 cases it look possible that patient treatment could have been harmed as a  result.

The mislaid and unprocessed correspondence covers GPs and now abolished Primary Care Trusts in the East Midlands, North East London and South West England .

The NHS has paid GPs £2.6m up front  to examine the mislaid documents but they have yet to complete the work so a proper picture can still not be obtained.

In one bizarre incident some 205,000 documents were kept in a room marked “ clinical notes”. The report says: “A subsequent review found that the label had been removed by an SBS general manager because “you don’t want to advertise what’s in that room”.

“ NHS SBS told us that it was important that documents were held securely and therefore not having a label on the door was appropriate as part of this.”

Now this scandal is bad enough but in the small print of the National Audit Office report there lurked another extraordinary scandal – SBS  and its auditors, BDO, decided to frustrate the National Audit Office finding out what had gone wrong.

Both the company and the auditor refused to hand over the files unless the National Audit Office signed an indemnity letter – which  could get them off the hook should enraged patients decide to sue them for their negligence.

The NAO to its credit refused to do so and in its own report says, if it had, Parliament would not have been told the full story. As the report says:

“NHS SBS and BDO felt unable to share with us their reports into the incident unless we also signed a letter (which would indemnify them). This is common practice among audit organisations.

“We declined to sign any letter that would limit our ability to report on the incident.”

Instead the NAO used its statutory powers to force NHS England, which had copies of the documents after signing the indemnity letters, to hand them over.

Now NHS Shared Business Services was set up as a joint venture with the private sector  under the Blair administration in 2004 when John ( now Lord ) Reid was health secretary. It was an equal partnership between the  Department of Health and Xansa Ltd,a British outsourcing technology company 50 per cent owned by the staff. In 2007 it was taken over by Steria, a French  rival, with British staff pocketing millions of pounds as the French paid a 70 per cent premium on the share price.

In 2014 Steria merged with another French rival Sopra creating a French owned global conglomerate. They are now planning to take over a Swedish firm

But two years before Andrew Lansley, then secretary of state for health, quietly and without any public announcement, transfered a single share to the French company, so it became the majority owner and could dictate policy. Just to make sure the Department of Health, which had civil servants on the board, declined to take up the directorships on the grounds of ” conflict of interest”.

I asked BDO and NHS Shared Business Services why they had sought to frustrate the NAO.

BDO replied putting the onus on the privatised company  saying :

“BDO was in no way obstructive or concerned about making its reports accessible to the relevant third parties.” BDO has a contractual duty of confidentiality to clients as well as an ethical duty of confidentiality under the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW). Therefore, unless required by law or regulation, we cannot disclose information to third parties (such as the NAO) without the express permission of our client. 

The letters dealing with obtaining the necessary consents and agreeing the basis for access are drafted in accordance with professional guidance issued by the ICAEW. As the NAO report acknowledges in its report (paragraph 3.19), this is “common practice among audit organisations”.

 Patients of the NHS are not a party to such letters and therefore their legal rights are completely unaffected.”

NHS Business Shared Services said :

“The recent NAO report highlights a number of failings in the mail redirection service provided to NHS England. We regret this situation and have co-operated fully with the National Audit Office in its investigation. All of the correspondence backlog has now been delivered to GP surgeries for filing and NHS England has so far found no evidence of patient harm. NHS SBS no longer provides this mail redirection service.”

There appear to be contradictions in both statements.  I gather the safe delivery of clinical correspondence  is now in the hands of Capita.