Worst audit report for the Department for Work and Pensions in 33 years

A damning loss of control of Universal Credit payments has meant that the Department for Work and Pensions has received a drubbing from the ministry’s auditors, the National Audit Office, and led to its accounts being qualified for 33rd year in succession.

While the ministry has been praised for its swift response to the pandemic by uplifting Universal Credit by £20 a week and coping with a doubling of people on the benefit, the grim costs to the ministry’s finances are revealed in its annual report.

Overpayments on Universal Credit have skyrocketed, criminal gangs have targeted business payments and the ministry has had to set aside £1 billion to pay 132,000 pensioners who have been underpaid their pensions for up to 30 years.

A new problem of identity theft of some 5000 claimants has also hit Universal Credit leaving some claimants losing benefit for weeks.

Overpayments hit record £8.3 billion

DWP estimates it overpaid £8.3 billion of the £111.4 billion that it spent on benefits in 2020-21, an increase of £3.8 billion on the previous year. The rate of overpayments increased from 4.4% in 2019-20 to 7.5% in 2020-21. Nearly all of the increase in fraud and error was on Universal Credit. DWP estimates it overpaid £5.5 billion of Universal Credit (14.5%) and underpaid £540 million (1.4%).

The NAO reports: “DWP has identified four key fraud and error risks within Universal Credit that it needs to tackle, as they are the largest causes of fraud and error. It is looking to improve controls over incorrectly reported self-employment earnings, savings, living arrangements and housing costs. It has also identified several organised criminal attacks during the pandemic, with fraudsters targeting Universal Credit in particular and making claims in other people’s names.

The Department is owed £5 billion of overpayments, placing additional strain on its resources and potentially causing uncertainty and hardship to claimants. It is not sure how much of its estimated loss of £8.4 billion in 2020-21 it will recover, as it has attempted to recover only 10% of the estimated loss in the last 5 years.”

The ministry is now having to bring in more staff to sort out the fraudulent claims and a criminal investigation has been launched.

On the underpayment of pensions the ministry has promised to pay the people by the end of next year.

Gareth Davies, NAO head ” fraud and error at record levels”

The NAO report says: “The Department commissioned a root cause analysis to understand the cause of these underpayments. This analysis identified a range of process and control issues including poor staff training, instructions and quality review that led to the underpayments. These issues have also affected the Department’s initial work to quantify and rectify errors. The Department has asked the Government Internal Audit Agency to review State Pension legislation to ensure there are no further entitlements that may be underpaid.”

“The impact of this underpayment on the individual pensioners is significant, and it is vital the Department learns lessons to avoid systemic underpayments in the future and correct past underpayments.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said:

“I am concerned that the level of fraud and error in the benefits system continues to increase year on year, now reaching its highest level since records began. This has a real impact on public funds and on those who face deductions to their income due to overpayments.

“I recognise that the pandemic and the resulting surge in the number of claimants has increased DWP’s exposure to fraud and error. It must now review all cases that could have been subject to fraud during this time, whilst continuing to progress our past recommendations on how to reduce fraud and error.”

Revealed: The chequered past of the Highgate Care Home consultant assisting with evicting centenarians

Isla Meek : pic credit; Linked In

The controversy over the sale of the Mary Feilding Guild care home in north London to social care entrepreneur and property developer Mitesh Dhanak, continues unabated as he begins to arrange for the residents to leave.

Since his take over the now renamed Highgate Care Home he has brought in two consultants to help him move the residents out, two of them centenarians, so he can demolish the home and apply for planning permission to build a new one.

One of the consultants is Isla Joanne Meek. Her Linked In entry says she is managing director of Isla Meek Consulting, a small business based in Radstock, a town in Somerset. She has a long list of services she provides and she has both a management and nursing qualification. These include helping the management of new homes, safeguarding people, helping homes maximise their occupancy and charge higher fees for services and the occasional work advising homes how to handle Care Quality Commission inspections.

What she doesn’t disclose is that she was once consultant to a failing care care home in Westbury-On-Trym and for a period was struck off the Nursing and Midwifery Council register.

The care home in question ,Holmwood House nursing home, was subjection of a BBC TV investigation in 2014 and stories in a local community paper The Bristolian. The links to the tales are here and here.

Holmwood House; Pic credit:BBC

Holmwood House had eight substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect of residents there between 2012 and 2014,

Admissions had been temporarily suspended twice since June 2012 and, under a voluntary arrangement, no-one with nursing needs was admitted during that time.

The home’s owner Ghassan Al-Jibouri said he had “nothing to hide” and his first concern was the health and welfare of residents.

Isla Meek, then struck off by the NMC, was working there as a consultant and audited controlled drug records for manager Simone Smith which turned out to have had numerous forged signatures.

Since then Isla Meek has been reinstated on the NMC register – the NMC told me people could reapply for reinstatement five years after they had been struck off.

Wentworth Court: Pic credit; Care Choices

The Highgate Home is not the only work she has done for Mr Dhanak. She also acted as a consultant for Wentworth Court in Cheltenham, a home for people with serious dementia. The home has a good rating but its financing is similar to all Mr Dhanak’s other companies. It is run by First Cheltenham Care Ltd, a £100 company with him a sole director. The financing of the home comes loans and mortgages from Barclays Bank and the property is revalued most recently at £6.3 million.

Isla Meek Consulting is more modest. It has two directors, herself and Tim Meek and is based in a property solely owned by Tim Meek which he paid £170,000 five years ago. The latest accounts up to May 2020 show the business has assets of around £17,000 and capital and reserves of £7300.

I did ask Ms Meek for a comment via Highgate Care Home but none has been received at the moment.

The previous story is here: https://davidhencke.com/2021/03/15/how-the-genteel-retiree-world-of-centenarians-was-shattered-by-the-ruthless-modern-model-of-social-care-capitalism/

There is also an interesting article in the Ham and High: https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/care-experts-fire-mary-feilding-guild-warning-7896998 This warns about the dangers of severe health impacts on elderly people who are suddenly moved.

Mitesh Dhanak. Pic credit: Precious Homes

Independent panel of judges announced to head tribunal examining discrimination against women

Dr Jocelynne Scutt. Pic credit: Cambridge Labour Party

The campaign to introduce a comprehensive bill of rights for women by implementing in full the UN Convention for the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) takes a major step forward this weekend.

Five high profile women -one a former judge – have agreed to serve on the panel which will sift evidence to be presented at the CEDAW People’s Tribunal later this year presided over by John Cooper, QC, a human rights lawyer,.

CEDAW is “like motherhood and apple pie” – John Cooper QC

John Cooper said the issue should not be controversial – ” it is like motherhood and apple pie”.

He said the tribunal should have three main goals – independence, transparency and authenticity.

” There are three main areas to investigate: Why CEDAW has never put into UK law; whether there was any good reason for not doing so, and most importantly, to make recommendations on what should happen next.”

The movement to implement comprehensive changes in the law for all women and girls has come from the historic unequal treatment of women and the exposure of poverty and hardship by women born in the 1950s who had to wait an extra six years for their pension. Campaigners pointed out that Margaret Thatcher had signed up to the convention as long ago as 1986 but it had never been properly implemented into UK law -despite Gordon Brown’s government passing the Equality Act in 2010.

Worse the position of the 50s women was just the tip of the iceberg of unequal treatment which covers everything from unequal pay to discrimination in the workplace and women being subject to harassment and sexual abuse and even given poor treatment in jails.

The tribunal will take place as the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales are considering implementing laws to apply the convention – leading to an extraordinary situation where women will have more rights and redress against discrimination and inequality in Scotland and Wales than in England. All this will bring home the issue to the present Tory government whether it wants to do anything about it or not.

The president of the new panel is the Hon. Jocelynne Annette Scutt, an Australian feminist and human rights lawyer and senior law fellow at the University of Buckingham. She has written about money, marriage and property rights and more recently about plastic surgery, women’s bodies and the law. She was Tasmania’s first anti discrimination commissioner and is a member of the Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party. She is a former judge in Fiji.

The other panel members are:

Christine Chinkin

Christine Chinkin, FBA is Emerita Professor of International Law, Professorial Research Fellow and Founding Director of the Centre of Women Peace & Security at LSE. 

She is a barrister, a member of Matrix Chambers. Together with H. Charlesworth, she won the American Society of International Law, 2005 Goler T. Butcher Medal ‘for outstanding contributions to the development or effective realization of international human rights law’. She is a William C Cook Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

She has held visiting appointments in Australia, the United States, Singapore and the People’s Republic of China. She is currently a member of the Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Panel and was Scientific Advisor to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the drafting of the Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

Jane Gordon

Jane Gordon MA (Oxon) LLM (Distinction) is a human rights lawyer with over 20 years’ experience working in human rights legal practice and policy at domestic, regional and international levels. Jane co-founded Sisters For Change with her sister, SFC Executive Director, in 2014. Jane was Human Rights Advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board (2003-2008) where she co-devised the first ever framework for monitoring the human rights compliance of the police.

In 2009-2010, she was appointed Human Rights Advisor to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s national policing protest review. Jane has litigated cases of serious human rights violations against Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine before the European Court of Human Rights, and advised national human rights institutions, public authorities and oversight mechanisms in Jamaica, India, Malawi, Iraq, Ireland and across the UK. Between 2008-2017,

Jane was a Senior Fellow at LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights and LSE’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security where she delivered LSE’s practitioner short course on Women’s Human Rights. In 2013-2014, Jane served as gender advisor/SGBV investigator with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Jane is additionally a member of the Foreign Secretary’s Human Rights Advisory Group.

Aisha Gill : Pic Credit: Putney local website

Professor Aisha K. Gill, Ph.D. (University of Essex) CBE is Professor of Criminology at University of Roehampton. Her main areas of interest focus on health and criminal justice responses to violence against Black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women in the UK, Georgia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Libya, India, Pakistan and Yemen. Professor Gill is often in the news as a commentator on early/child/forced marriage, violence predicated on ‘honour’, and sexual violence in South Asian communities.

Professor Gill has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women and girls (VAWG) at the grassroots level for the past 21 years. She is invited adviser to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) strategic support group on investigations and complaints involving gendered forms of violence against women in the UK (including domestic violence); member of Liberty’s Project Advisory Group; member of Kurdish Women’s Rights Watch; Imkaan and Chair of Newham Asian Women’s Project (2004-2009). In October 2019, she was invited to join the Victims’ Commissioner’s Advisory Panel, chaired by Dame Vera Baird, QC.

Professor Fareda Banda Pic Credit:Black Female professors Forum.

Professor Fareda Banda, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

She joined SOAS in 1996. She has convened and taught English Family law, Human rights of women and Law and Society since then. She has also contributed to various courses including Alternative Dispute Resolution, Law and Development, Law and Development in Africa and Legal Systems of Asia and Africa.  She has supervised PhD theses on topics including children’s rights, sexual violence against women, post-conflict reconstruction and gender. She writes on women’s rights, family law, and, more recently, religion. Fareda has been an active member of the School’s Equality Committee, first in her capacity as the union equality officer and more recently as the representative of the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences.

The new panel members are delighted and honoured to be appointed. Dr Davina Lloyd, Chair of the CPT Steering Committee, said:” The well being of future generations is in excellent hands”.

Expect more of this on my blog as the campaign gains momentum throughout the rest of this year.

Official: The Department of Work and Pensions has never bothered to assess the impact of raising the pension age on the 3.8 million women themselves

BackTo60 women outside the Royal Courts of Justice in 2019

It’s official. The Department for Work and Pensions has finally admitted after more than 25 years that they never thought of doing any impact studies on the effect of their decisions to raise the pension age from 60 to 66 for 3.8 million women.

A Freedom of Information request from a 1950s born woman seeking details of impact studies on the group of women most affected has forced the ministry to admit that there are none.

The letter says: “The Act does not oblige a public authority to create new information to answer questions; nor does it require a public authority to give advice, opinion or explanation, generate answers to questions, or create or obtain information it does not hold.
“If you ask a question, rather than requesting recorded information, we will provide you with the recorded information that best answers the question. Once we have provided the recorded information, we have met our obligations under the Act; interpreting the information provided is up to you.
“Your request makes statements and seeks to engage us in debate which you want us to
respond to. This would need new information to be created.”

No information held

It goes on : “We do not hold any recorded information of an impact assessment of the effects on women of the State Pension Age that informed the rises of 1995. However, you may find the following explanation useful. We have provided this outside our obligations under the FOI Act”.

The Department has released the White Paper that preceded the 1995 Pension Act and the impact statement the coalition government produced before implementing the 2011 Act which speeded up the rise. And guess what the ministry are right there is nothing about the impact on women before the government legislated for the change.

There is one concession – the idea of extending the auto credit of national insurance contributions to women. Men over 60 had this concession since 1983. Women would have had it once they started to raise their pension age from 60 in 2010 but of course this was never implemented and men continued to have it until 2018 when the pension age was equalised. Instead there is much concern repeated in the 2011 impact study of the effects of the change on business and occupational pensions. The 2011 impact study is more comprehensive but also concentrates on the savings the government will make.

Sir James Eadie

So no wonder Sir James Eadie QC when acting for the DWP in last year’s Court of Appeal case brought by BackTo60 to seek restitution for the 3.8 million affected made it clear that pensions were not a social measure aimed to reduce poverty or inequality. The ministry never had the issue on their radar when they introduced the change in 1995. These women were not even thought important enough to require an study on how it would affect their lives.

How the genteel retiree world of centenarians was shattered by the ruthless modern model of social care capitalism

Mary Fielding Home, Highgate Pic credit: Mary Feilding Guild

This spring a group of very elderly, sharp minded and bright people will be evicted from a care home where they hoped they would end their lives by a ruthless capitalist who epitomises the new privatised world of social care providers.

The home is unusual in many respects. It caters for bright academics and authors and is a living community of a university of the third age – the oldest is 104 and still going strong. It also occupies a site on the borders of Highgate and Hampstead in London with a book value of £3.8m -a tempting find for any developer.

The group have been placed in this position by the failure of the unique trust, the Mary Feilding Guild, a charity set up in 1962 but dating back to 1882, to make ends meet. The combination of Covid 19, the closure of one of its properties on the site, not being in a position to take new residents, and the need for major modernisation all contributed. The value of the charity’s investments fell from £1.8m to £824,142 in one year.

So the trustees decided to sell it as a ” going concern ” with the aim of finding someone who would keep the residents there and have the funds to improve and modernise the home. Enter Mr Mitesh Kumar Dhanak or Mr Mitesh Girharlal Dhanak as he now prefers to be called. He offered to buy it as a going concern.

Mitesh Dhanak Pic credit: Precious Homes

Within five days of owning it for as yet undisclosed sum he decided to evict everyone by the end of May, declare the staff redundant, demolish the entire home and put a planning application for a new home to Haringey Council.

Mr Dhanak, 63 next month, is not a trained social care or health specialist. He is an accountant with a degree from Sheffield University. He set up his first business Precious Homes in 1994.

His views on the sector were outlined at a Care Conversation webinar on 14 October last year: ” “In terms of the KPIs ( Key Performance Indicators )that funds would look at, it’s property backed, it’s resilient cashflow, it’s government backed – it ticks all the right boxes.” He added later: “Unfortunately, the British press loves the horror stories. It’s about lobbying the government and making sure that our voice is heard and our contribution is recognised. It’s incumbent on all of us to try to do that.”

Now Mr Dhanak has created a complex group of interlocking companies – holding according to Companies House – 27 appointments. All of them are virtually one man bands – himself and a secretary and nobody else – making it difficult to follow his story.

They embrace a small number of care homes for adult care plus the elderly with Alzheimer’s Disease and a property company with investments from Neasden in North London to Barnsley and St Albans. He also got into an enormous tussle with Revenue and Customs when he moved some homes tax free into his pension based in Guernsey- but after a bitter battle he proved the tax people had made an error in law and he won.

The services he provides are rated Good by the Care Quality Commission and he has ploughed money from bank loans into providing a good standard. He also is a trustee of the Cheltenham Playhouse.

The centre of his operations are Precious Homes at Magic House close to Palmers Green. Each each company follows a similar pattern. They are £100 off the shelf companies and within days of him either setting them up or taking over from another operator their assets are mortgaged to the banks – his favourite ones being Coutts and Clydesdale Bank.

His latest £100 company which took over the Mary Feilding Guild home ,Highgate Care is a good example. He has already mortgaged the site to one of his own companies Precious Homes. But this time he has decided to go to a tax haven to get a second mortgage from the Waymade Capital, a Jersey based company run by brothers Vijay and Bhikhu Patel.

The company also has interests in health care, pharmaceuticals, and property and the brothers, both Kenya Asians, originally made their money by setting up a chain of pharmacies which they sold on to Boots. Vijay was awarded an OBE in 2019 under very controversial circumstances. An investigation by the Times revealed he had rebranded generic drugs and overcharged the NHS. This was not picked up by the committee awarding him the honour.

It wrote “Atnahs, a company he co-founded, acquired the rights to old medicines and increased prices by up to 2,500 per cent, costing the NHS at least £80 million. A packet of antidepressants rose from £5.71 to £154 and an insomnia drug soared from £12.10 to £138.” The company now has a financial interest in the Highgate home.

No answers to questions on finance or the price he paid

Mr Dhanak declined to answer through his communications agency any questions about the financing of his ventures or the price he paid for the property.

He did provide an explanation for his change of mind. “The team held meetings within days of completion as there was no desire to mislead residents or staff once a decision was made. Within five days, nearly 40% of the residents have already found potential new homes and we are confident that this trend will continue with the support of the Highgate House team.”

“Since the sale was agreed, the new owner in consultation with professional advisors reviewed the existing model and considered a number of options, including operating the home in its current format and concluded that regrettably it would not be possible to continue to provide care in the same way.  The home has been financially unsustainable for a significant period of time and the Mary Feilding Guild trustees would be aware that a new owner would have to make significant changes.”

owner intends to demolish property, says trust

The trust have also issued a statement: “We now understand that the new owner intends to demolish the existing property and build a completely new home on the site. Four days after completing the sale the purchaser announced a three-month notice period to the staff and residents after which the home will remain empty.

“However, it will take at least seven months to produce a detailed design, obtain planning permission, and commence construction. During this time the home could have been kept open for existing residents, and staff, rather than force them to move, and making staff redundant. The elderly residents will now be forced to seek alternative accommodation during the COVID restrictions, therefore severely limiting their choice.

Please don’t evict them by the end of May

” We are appealing to the new owner to reconsider this wholly unnecessary decision to shut the home immediately. We believe that it is not unreasonable to delay the closure procedure, to one month, before a start on site is possible. This would allow residents and staff reasonable time to consider their options, and by this time the pandemic should have eased.”

The lessons from this saga are two fold. The trust’s lawyers appears to me to have been very naive in not demanding guarantees for their residents in writing. And Mr Dhanak’s business strategy depends of an ever rising property market and ever bigger sums of money being available to local authorities for social care. If there is a major hiccup in either or both of these – the banks are going to demand their money back pretty sharpish and lot of vulnerable people are going to be evicted.

In the meantime Mr Dhanak can retire to his beautiful home in Hampstead Garden Suburb purchased for £2.5 million with a Clydesdale Bank mortgage, according to the land registry,. Here’s a nice picture of it.

Whitehall embarrassment: How the DWP took 16 months to respond to a MPs report that single mums were turning to “survival sex” because of Universal Credit

It was a subject of great embarrassment to officials at the Department for Work and Pensions. A prominent committee of Mps then chaired by the Independent MP, Frank Field, decided to hold an inquiry into why people having to wait five weeks to get their first Universal Credit payment were turning to offer sexual services to men to make ends meet.

That is not the sort of news that people responsible for the ministry’s flagship benefit wanted to hear. So they sent what MPs called a “defensive, dismissive and trite” submission. Instead of wanting to know why this might be happening the officials immediately tried to dismiss the idea.

As the MPs say: “The Department’s first written response to our inquiry addressed the narrow question of whether there is a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “prostitution”. The Department displayed little interest in either the lived experience of claimants or the expertise of frontline support organisations.” Indeed, officials tried to blame everything but the benefit, citing drug addiction, the rise of AirBnB, even EU immigration.

Then matters took an unexpected turn. Will Quince, the junior minister for family support and benefit delivery took against his officials. As the report said: the committee held “an evidence panel in private with B, K, M and T: four women who are, or have been, involved in survival sex or sex work.”

“Given our concerns about the Department’s engagement with our inquiry, we invited the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince MP (the Minister), to attend our private panel with B, K, M and T. We hoped that hearing directly from people with lived experience of the relationships between sex work, “survival sex” and UC would help the Department to better understand the issues.”

The evidence was graphic:”I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately […] The thought of going into debt and having no money is really frightening. I have children. I can’t do that. I will sell my body. – K”

“I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month. The thought of going into debt and having no money is frightening I will sell my body”

“I didn’t go out looking for it, I said no at first. It wasn’t until about three weeks later
that I said ‘OK, yeah,’ because I thought I need to, because I need money […] It was
during the eight weeks that I was waiting to get the Universal Credit. I couldn’t wait
eight weeks for money. I just couldn’t. – Julie”

Will quince MP and DWP minister: Pic credit: willquince.com

It changed the minister’s mind and he wrote a letter to the committee apologising for his official’s submission, He wrote a letter to the committee praising the bravery of the people who came forward and in evidence later made it clear that he disagreed with his officials submission. The submission was revised.

The report came out in October 2019 and it proposed some practical ways to change the situation – particularly ending the now 5 week delay before people can get any money. The ministry has tweaked the rules and allowed people to take out loans which they have to start paying back after three months and they are reducing the maximum amount each month that has to be repaid. But the ministry will not budge over the wait. Fast forward 16 months and the ministry have finally replied to the MPs now with a new chair, Labour MP Stephen Timms. Earlier this week he commented: “The experiences of survival sex heard by the last committee act as a reminder of the hugely damaging impact that the wait for a first Universal Credit payment has been having on so many for so long. The Government’s latest rejection of constructive proposals for cutting the five week wait goes down as another wasted opportunity to rectify the harm it is causing to many vulnerable people.”

The reply, in my view, also tried to evade the issue. They have written a new guide. As their response said:

“The Department has developed a new Universal Credit Detailed Help and Support Guide for stakeholders, partners and support organisations to help vulnerable claimants get the financial and practical support they need, including helping them to make a claim for Universal Credit.

The new guide has been drafted and designed by working in collaboration with key stakeholders, including organisations who provide support and other areas where further detailed information is deemed beneficial.”

New DWP guide still not published

Unfortunately it is still to be published. On the specific issue the response said:

“Our Work Coaches are trained to encourage disclosure in the most complex and sensitive
of situations. This includes domestic abuse, modern slavery and immigration concerns.
We deliver this type of support daily across our jobcentres.”..The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which constitute offences.”

It goes on to talk about modern slavery and sex trafficking which are serious issues. But I feel it still doesn’t address the main point – the problem people have feeding their family while they wait five weeks for their first payment. My feeling is that the officials are still embarrassed by these revelations. The women involved are not slaves nor are they being used as sex traffickers – they are desperate for money and this is an extreme example of what happens when they are. It brings it back to the very issue officials won’t talk about – the structure of Universal Credit.

Another fine mess: MPs slam £425m school food voucher scheme as firm walks off with the profits

The Department for Education promoting the Edenred scheme

Company predicted “successful business performance” on the back of feeding poverty stricken children

The spectre of poor children going hungry during the Covid 19 crisis is something the government have had to be put under pressure to remedy – notably by Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer.

But now it has emerged that even when the government finally did the right thing – they managed to make a mess of it. The initial scheme was poorly implemented and the supervision by the Department for Education (DfE) of the private company, Edenred UK Ltd, was lamentable.

Naive civil servants thought they were getting a bargain when the company told them that they get the supermarket vouchers for them at their face value without it costing them a penny more. What they hadn’t realised was that the company could get a huge discount from supermarkets by bulk buying and pocket the difference themselves. And on an initial contract worth £77m later increased five fold to £425m that’s a lot of cash.

Whitehall ” surprisingly unconcerned” about Edenred making big profits out of taxpayers’ money

The report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee expresses dismay that the ministry even now seemed ” surprisingly unconcerned” about the profits made out of our money and has hit back at the MPs for suggesting it – backing the company which is also trying to deny it. A wonderful example of how the Johnson government is prepared to be shamed faced about making money out of Covid 19 and the plight of poor children.

There were serious problems in the early weeks of the scheme” and “unacceptable delays in Edenred processing orders from schools and getting vouchers to families,” the report reveals..

Those words cover up the distressing evidence given by individual schools to MPs.

School staff had to work in the middle of the night to get Edenred’s vouchers

Ms Andrea Howard ,School Business Manager at Truro & Penwith Academy Trust at the time of using Edenred, wrote to Mps, saying she was ” subjected to extreme levels of stress.”

“From the onset, the portal was not fit for purpose, initially it continually crashed and when the portal was first upgraded, there was a very long wait to access the site, this wait was sometimes more than two hours.  “For several nights in a row, I and many other school business manager colleagues took to waking up in the middle of the night to attempt to upload our spreadsheets, and site traffic was better in the early hours of the morning.  However, the fact that there was still traffic at these times is evidence of the desperation of school staff to be able to provide their families with vouchers.”

“Once parents received their vouchers, we had reports from the majority that they were not able to access the platform to redeem them.  It must be recognised that many of these families have limited access to the internet and tried to redeem the vouchers through their phones using their limited mobile data. 

 ” Additionally, we are located in a rural part of Cornwall with no nearby supermarkets, many of our families do not have access to their own transport and there is a very limited bus service, however the vouchers were only able to be used in large supermarket chains and not local shops such as co-op (initially) and Spar. “

Gavin Williamson, education secretary

Gavin Williamson made ” untrue statements”- headteacher

Raphael Moss, Headteacher, Elsley Primary School, Wembley, told MPs:” Due to the untrue statements made by the Secretary of State [Gavin Williamson] and DfE, their lack of acceptance of many of the issues, or the downplaying of the impact, I feel compelled to submit evidence for what amounts to gross negligence. As a result of the delays to providing vouchers, our own school set up a food bank, relying on donations from staff and the public, to ensure that children did not go hungry. “

“A major flaw in the scheme was that there was a huge incentive for schools to use the Edenred scheme rather than use a local alternative. A school’s own scheme would require laying out the cost of it it ourselves, with DfE guidance placing several limitations on which schools could claim and maximum amounts that could be claimed.

“The Edenred voucher amount of £15 was also in excess of the usual funding of £11.50 which also acted as an incentive to use the Edenred scheme. The public messages implied that schools had a choice to use their own scheme but without mentioning the limitations on schools reclaiming costs.”

Profits of £10.7 million

Taking this evidence it is quite clear that the scheme was aimed ( with Whitehall connivance) as much as benefitting Edenred as the poor hungry children. No wonder after a National Audit Office investigation and a critical report by MPs they have decided to return one per cent of the cost of the contract.

Their latest accounts – they are a subsidiary of a French firm – show they made profits of over £10.7 million.

Their annual report says they were ” honoured ” to get the food voucher contract which” will enable a successful business performance in 2020.”

You bet it did. The pay rise for their highest paid director last year was £136,000 – it went up from £235,000 to £371,000. That pays for a lot of food vouchers – more likely in caviar and French champagne than baked beans and spaghetti.

A damning indictment on the uncompassionate Roman Catholic Church

Cardinal Vincent Nichols: Pic credit: Twitter

The Independent Child Sex Abuse Inquiry’s verdict on lip service provision to tackle child sexual abuse

The CSA inquiry report into the Roman Catholic Church -published this week – and its handling of years of child sexual abuse makes very grim reading . It suggests that while the Church may have put in structures to deal with the issue there was no real compassionate commitment from the top of the Church to act.

In particular the report is scathing about Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the  Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, for his lack of compassion and the extraordinary failure of the former Papal Nuncio,  Archbishop Edward Joseph Adams, to proffer even a statement to the inquiry. Instead he retired without saying a word.

This would suggest that neither Pope Francis nor the Cardinal – whatever words of contrition he made – are really bothered about the serious state of child sex abuse in the church in England and Wales.

3000 complaints of sexual abuse

And serious it is. The report says:

“Between 1970 and 2015, the Church received more than 3,000 complaints of child sexual abuse against more than 900 individuals connected to the Church. Those complaints involved over 1,750 victims and complainants. Civil claims against dioceses and religious institutes have resulted in millions of pounds being paid in compensation.

Even so,the true scale of child sexual abuse is likely to be greater than these figures.” (my emphasis).

The Church’s attitude is in contrast to the Anglican Church – which while by no means perfect – does seem committed to change its ethos and culture. Archbishop Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, seems more determined to take practical measures than Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

Not that the Roman Catholic Church did not know it had a problem. Two reports -one by the late Lord Michael Nolan – who also was the founder chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life which investigated Westminster- and another by Baroness Cumberlege, a former health minister in John Major’s government -looked at the issue.

Both provided a framework to protect and safeguard children and adolescents from sexual abuse.

Lord Nolan’s thorough review

Lord Nolan made a thoroughly reviewed the situation, The inquiry said:

“His report, published in 2001, contained 83 recommendations applicable to the dioceses and religious institutes. At the heart of the Nolan report was the ‘One Church’ approach – a single set of principles, policies and practices across the Church that put the welfare of the child first.

“The first recommendation required the Church to “become an example of best practice in the prevention of child abuse and in responding to it”.

 A body was set up to implement Nolan but it was not wholeheartedly done with some bishops opposing it and Baroness Cumberlege did another review in 2007. There were improvements but more needed to be done.

The report says:

“In May 2019, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “We humbly ask forgiveness … for our slowness and defensiveness and for our neglect of both preventative and restorative actions”.

“That slowness is exemplified by the Church’s failure to fully implement two of the Cumberlege Recommendations (one of which was 13 years overdue) and by its failure to establish the Safe Spaces joint project with the Anglican Church until September 2020. Six years have elapsed since this project was commenced and it seems little progress has been made to ensure that victims and survivors have access to the pastoral and therapeutic support that the Safe Spaces project was set up to provide.”

I suspect Safe Spaces was set up because the church knew they faced criticism by the inquiry.

The report details the most harrowing cases of sexual abuse.

As it says: “we heard appalling accounts of sexual abuse of children
perpetrated by clergy and others associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The sexual offending involved acts of masturbation, oral sex, vaginal rape and anal rape. On occasions, it was accompanied by sadistic beatings driven by sexual gratification, and often involved deeply manipulative behaviour by those in positions of trust, who were respected by parents and children alike.”

sexual crimes

Examples include sexual crimes against children at Gilling Castle, a preparatory school for Ampleforth College; Downside School, Ealing Abbey St, Benedicts School in Ealing. Ampleforth College was particularly determined that these crimes should not exposed. Child sexual abuse at St. Benedicts was described the report as extensive.

Yet despite this harrowing evidence Cardinal Nichols did not show any compassion for the victims and survivors. The report says:

“”As the figurehead and the most senior leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Catholics look to Cardinal Nichols to lead by example. During the final public hearing in November 2018, he apologised for the Church’s failings, noting that this was a source of “great sorrow and shame for me and, indeed I know, for the Catholic Church”. But there was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change. Nor did he demonstrate compassion towards victims in the recent cases which we examined.”

terrible indictment

This is a terrible indictment of both the man and the organisation. The report makes seven recommendations ” covering leadership and oversight on safeguarding matters, a framework for dealing with cases of non-compliance with safeguarding policies and procedures, re-framing canonical crimes relating to child sexual abuse, reviewing policies and procedures, and also a complaints policy for safeguarding
cases.”

My worry is that the Roman Catholic Church will still see a repeat of these problems even after receiving such a damning report. If the leadership is not there to get things changed, there will be no real progress.

Will the Church of England keep faith with supporting and compensating child sex abuse survivors?

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, moved to help survivors with emergency fund

It will take time to implement and insiders think it will cost the Church tens of millions of pounds to put right

Just three weeks before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse produced its shocking report on child sexual abuse inside the Anglican Church, the Archbishops Council decided to provide both help and financial support for survivors of this heinous crime.

The support was two fold – an emergency fund drawn from the reserves for just over a handful of desperate child abuse survivors and a long term project for a major compensation and support scheme for possibly hundreds if not more survivors.

As well as direct financial support this would fund counselling for survivors which is by nature long term and very expensive.

bigger demand from survivors

Inquiries revealed that the emergency package of help has already produced a bigger demand from survivors than anticipated. As the Church Times reported one survivor known as ” VB” received emergency funds both before ( at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s insistence) and after the emergency fund was set up after suffering bouts of severe depression following historic child sex abuse by multiple church officers as his business, already hit by Covid-19 was about to go bust.

Last week the Church confirmed that three survivors had received emergency help – one of them receiving a large sum – and that 12 people had either been referred or applied for help from the fund.

The good news is that the Church says none of 12 has been ruled ineligible for help and that more money will be forthcoming from the reserves to help them if that is what is required. The figure for the fund is being kept confidential but I understand it is not far short of £1m.

The big question us the long term solution. Phil Johnson, chair of the Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, and has been critical of the support given to survivors in the past, is delighted at the support being given now.

Could cost tens of millions

He estimates that if the Church is to help all the people who have been victims of child sex abuse the cost could run ” to tens of millions of pounds”- if not shy of £100m.

This will be a tall order and must raise the issue of whether the Church will have to sell any of its assets and investments.

The Church itself says: “No way to tell [the final cost] and there is an important point to make that redress is not all about money but also apology, restorative justice and other factors. The Church is now responding to and engaging with survivors to provide the help and support needed to overcome the impacts of abuse, whatever form that takes. This is initially with the most urgent cases for help but eventually to address the needs of all Church-based abuse survivors.”

The delay in setting up a permanent fund is because it will take time to set up formal structures and procedures and the Church hopes to learn from running the emergency fund the best way to proceed.

Meg Munn

Meg Munn, chair of the National Safeguarding Panel, is also keeping an eye on progress.

She said :We were updated that work is ongoing on the final scheme with recruitment of a manager for it. Work is also underway to establish the interim hardship fund that was agreed by the Archbishop’s council in September.

“We don’t have a date for when the interim scheme will be in place, but we were assured that there is a desire to have this in place as soon as possible.”

Meg Munn’s warning

In a recent blog she wrote: “Profound change will not be established until there is complete acceptance across the whole of the church that striving for a safe church is at the heart of its mission. Consequently, the current structure which sustains unaccountable and powerful clergy must change. Without this, the Church will continue to have dangerous places for children and adults as I described in my interview nearly two years ago.

“There may never be a better opportunity for those with responsibility and influence to step up to this challenge. It will mean tackling long and dearly held principles, something some might not want to do. But not doing so will lead to more lives devastated, and more damage to the reputation of the church. Is this generation of church leaders prepared to accept that? “

If the Church do proceed and keep up their good intentions perhaps at last the stain of hidden child sex abuse will be finally removed. That is why I am pleased IICSA will look again at the progress made by the Anglican Church before the inquiry is over.

Updated: Why Rishi Sunak’s rip off rates at National Savings should be boycotted this month

Rishi Sunak: King of the rip off rates for the ordinary savers

See end of this blog for three accounts offering you more money than these scam rates

While The Treasury has had to hand out the largesse to keep the economy alive during the Covid-19 pandemic a really nasty trick is being played on the millions of small savers who rely on National Savings for a safe home for their money.

Effectively Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is making sure that millions of savers and those who have a flutter on the Premium Bonds subsidise the government’s multi billion pay outs by losing money every year they invest.

Their savings are being destroyed and made smaller every year – even if we are having record lower rates of inflation.

It is also sending out an appalling message to people who wish to save money by telling them that even their meagre savings will be reduced year on year as inflation erodes them.

What I am talking about is the new interest rates being offered by National Savings from November 24. They echo the free fall in interest rates offered by most banks hit by the Covid-19 panic. The only difference is that this government will use your money to prop up their finances.

The rates are truly horrendous as shown here. The worst case example are Income Bonds shown here.

As you can see the rate falls from 1.15 per cent to 0.01 per cent – virtually providing nobody with any income. Indeed if you have less than 646 pounds invested you literally won’t even get a penny.

Similarly with an investment account. And you will get far fewer prizes from premium bonds – the odds rise from 24,500 to 1 to 34,500 to 1.

So basically this is one giant rip off – in total contrast to the rich and wealthy who can game the stock market , invest in tax havens or have the money to take advantage of investment returns in China and the Far East. Indeed as there is a limit on claiming Universal Credit if you have savings above six thousand pounds in National Savings it is worth spending them or your payment will be reduced. If you have over sixteen thousand pounds you won’t get a penny.

I notice Rishi Sunak himself has recently set up a blind trust which means he has substantial investments – which he does not want people to know about. I bet you they are not offering a return of 0.01 per cent to help fund his millionaire life style.

UPDATE: Three accounts which give you higher interest if you want to boycott National Savings

According to the reliable Which? Money there are three instant access savings accounts that offer you higher interest and allow you to access your money. All three have unfortunately now been withdrawn but their replacements still offer better value than anything at National Savings

The new ones are:

Coventry Building Society Easy Access Isa. Tax free and pays 0.50 per cent . Can withdraw money at any time

Principality BS Easy Access Web Saver 0.6 per cent with unlimited withdrawals

Yorkshire Building Society Six Access e-Saver No 3 and e-Saver ISA issue 3 both over tiered rates between 0.2 per cent and 0.6/0.55 per cent and allow sui withdrawals a year