How the ” emotionally attached ” architect of Universal Credit will now be its chief DWP scrutineer

Dr Stephen Brien: The architect of Universal Credit. Pic credit: BBC

Self declared non politically active appointee turns out to be one of Iain Duncan Smith’s close advisers

A very important quango appointment has been made by the Conservative government which could affect the treatment of millions of benefit claimants -especially the huge number on Universal Credit.

It is to a fairly obscure body known as the Social Security Advisory Committee – which provides impartial advice on social security. It scrutinises most of the complex secondary legislation that underpins the social security system.

Put it more simply, its advice will influence how the DWP treats millions of poor, disabled, jobless people who are living on the breadline. It will cover a period when the government plans to to claw back money after the huge spending splurge to combat Covid-19.

The appointment is for the chair of the body and it has gone to Dr. Stephen Brien, a man who is publicly credited as the architect of one of the country’s most hated benefits, Universal Credit.

He will now lead until 2024 a committee of people who will both comment on future benefit changes and do independent research on the effects of the benefits system on the poor. The membership of the committee includes Seyi Obakin, Chief Executive of the homeless charity Centrepoint: Phil Jones,Director, The Prince’s Trust Cymru and Liz Sayce, board member of the Care Quality Commission.

Charlotte Pickles.Pic credit: Conservative Home

But Therese Coffey, the secretary of state for works and pensions, has also recently appointed Charlotte Pickles, director of the “non partisan” think tank, Reform and former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, who piloted Universal Credit. She wrote an article for Conservative Home calling for the abolition of child benefit for millions of people and taxing the Disability Living Allowance. Read it here.

The appointment process for Dr Brien was marred from the start. The works and pensions committee was never informed of the recruitment process which is a breach of Cabinet Office guidelines as the appointment has to be scrutinised by Parliament. They learnt about it after a member of the committee staff spotted it.

This led to an exchange of correspondence between Stephen Timms, the committee’s Labour chairman and Therese Coffey. It is reproduced here.

Not only did Mr Timms complain about the omission but also some subtle change in the wording of the job specification. The 2018 wording asked for ” strong leadership qualities”. The 2020 specification is ” measured and balanced leadership qualities”. Similarly the words ” independent” has been dropped in favour of “impartial”.

Therese Coffey defended the change in wording to reflect the future strategic direction of the organisation and that she wanted ” to strengthen relationships” between ministers and shareholders. She admits she was embarrassed by the omission but can’t bring herself to apologise. It took an earlier letter from Mr Timms to Baroness Stedman-Scott, Lords minister for work and pensions to give her ” sincere apologies”.

The appointment process looked fair – though the small number of applicants -12- were overwhelmingly white with just one disabled person. Six were ruled out without an interview including the disabled person.

Six made the interview including one BAME person. Four were women and two men but only three were considered appointable.

The interviewing panel itself did include one BAME “fast track” woman , Tammy Fevrier, from the DWP Partnership Division.

Dr Brien’s appointment comes under the category of a ” non political ” one according to the code adopted by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. He declares himself :” I am not now and have never been politically active.”

Yet his CV is pretty questionable on this matter. As well as developing the idea for Universal Credit he was on the board of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice from 2008-11 and 2013-19. This is where he developed the idea of Universal Credit and this is the body that wants to deprive people in their late 60s and early 70s of a state pension by raising the age to 75.

Official Commons portrait of Sir Iain Duncan Smith

On top of this he was a special expert adviser to Iain Duncan Smith in the coalition government from 2010 to 2013 at the DWP where in his words he “Played a substantial role the DWP’s engagement with the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility to secure the financial settlement for the reform programme” and “Worked in partnership with the senior officials delivering the Universal Credit”.

This was the time the Treasury insisted on speeding up the rise in the pension age to 66, refused to introduce national insurance auto-credits for women born in the 1950s while keeping them for men and imposed other welfare cuts.

And guess what Charlotte Pickles – also just appointed to SSAC- started her policy career at the Centre for Social Justice and then went on be the expert special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP. See her profile at Reform.

Critical friend

MPs did question Dr Brien thoroughly at the appointment hearing – with both Labour MPs Stephen McCabe and Debbie Abrahams pushing him on disabled people’s deaths and whether he was emotionally attached to Universal Credit. See here.

Dr Brien’s mantra was he would be impartial and he kept repeating he will be a ” critical friend” of the ministry.

I wonder. It depends on the balance of being friendly and critical. Either he will use his knowledge- he claims to be passionate about social security since he was 19- to try and make the new system work better. Or will he be part of the new Chumocracy – which takes in everyone from Dominic Cummings, the PM’s adviser and Michael Gove to Rishi Sunak – and give a fair wind to new benefit cuts no doubt with the approval of Charlotte Pickles.

I did an article for Byline Times on how the Conservatives through a former Vote Leave adviser are trying to pack quango appointments with Brexit inclined Tories – though it is not clear whether this is one of them.

I shall be watching. He can start with something he did promise to MPs over transparency. The minutes of SSAC should be public. They have not been published for over a year which is a disgrace. Let’s see how he gets on with this first.

Universal Credit: Fear and Loathing for 2.9 million in the Poverty Trap

The government’s Universal Credit logo – the slogan is makes work pay. Pic Credit: gov.uk

Today the National Audit Office produces a timely report on the operation of Universal Credit and the impact on claimants of having to wait five weeks to get paid.

It comes when the numbers claiming the benefit has jumped from 2.9m to 6.1 million because of Covid 19.

The report investigates the plight of those needing to claim before Covid 19 struck and it paints a particularly bleak picture.

It is also relevant to the group of 1950s born women whose pension has been delayed from 60 to 66. As the Independent reported separately recently the rise of women making claims for such benefits – soared from 7,578 to 36,527 between 2013 and 2019 – and was almost three times more than men who are aged 60 and over.

Fear factor

What is alarming about the findings – which are an analysis by the NAO of the Department for Work and Pensions own figures – is that many of the people were too frightened to claim and delayed claiming for up to three months after they lost their job.

This damning point is raised in the report. It says:

“Our consultation with claimants and support organisations indicated
that a “fear factor” about Universal Credit is also likely to play a part in some people delaying a claim, or not claiming at all. This may result from people hearing about bad experiences from friends, family or the media, for example.
Some respondents told us they were worried about whether they would be able to cope during the wait.”

As a result the report says the DWP’s analysis of earning data ” found that almost half(49%) of households who claimed Universal Credit in the four years to mid-2018 had no earnings in the three months before they claimed the benefit.

Taking this into account and the additional five week wait to get the benefit this meant that many had to apply for advance payments to tide them over or go to food banks simply to get food to live which then had to be paid back by deducting it from the meagre universal credit they have to live on.

DWP headquarters in Westminster,London.

A particularly revealing table in the report puts together this bleak picture. It shows that an astonishing 80 per cent of all low income people starting to claim the benefit were in serious debt. Some 77 per cent had to rely on advance repayable payments. Another 34 per cent owed money to other government departments – often historic debts. And six per cent had third party debts,like unpaid council tax, child maintenance, rent and water arrears.

Nearly as badly off were claimants with a disabled child, disabled people and carers. Some 65 and 70 per cent had serious debts.

Now as the report shows this is against a dramatic improvement of paying the benefit on time from 55% in January 2017 to 90% in February 2020.

However, as the number of people claiming Universal Credit has grown, the number of people paid late has also increased from 113,000 in 2017 to 312,000 in 2019. In 2019 those new claimants who were paid late faced average delays of three weeks in addition to the five-week wait. Some 6% of households (105,000 new claims) waited around 11 weeks or more for full payment.

Universal Credit expansion delayed

The government has also limited the expansion of universal credit – delaying the final date of switching from other benefits from March 2023 to September 2024 at an extra cost of £1.4 billion to £4.6 billion.

Yet despite spending £39m to try and explain the new benefit to wary claimants the National Audit Office concludes the ministry has a communications problem.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said: ” too often the most vulnerable claimants still aren’t receiving the money they are entitled to when they need it most.”  

Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee. Pic credit: Twitter

Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee said:

“This hard-hitting report on Universal Credit from the National Audit Office confirms the Select Committee’s concern that that the five week wait for the first payment causes ‘financial hardship and debt’.

” It provides further evidence that the initial planning assumptions for Universal Credit were naive. We now know UC will cost an extra £1.4bn to the public purse.  It will take more than twice as long to roll out as originally planned.  Far from reducing fraud and error, Universal Credit is driving historic record high levels – more than £1 in every £10 paid through UC is incorrect”

Neil Couling director general Universal Credit

There is one man who has done rather well out of all this. He is “Mr Universal Credit” Neil Couling, who is in charge of the benefit at the DWP. According to the latest DWP accounts for 2019 he received a bonus of £15,000 on top of a salary of between £150,000 and £155,000 a year. He has got pension benefits worth a cool £80,000.

He will be appearing before the Commons work and pensions committee next Wednesday to explain how well he has handled the benefit for the 2.9 million claimants.

Revealed: 32 years of benefit payment failure by the Department of Work and Pensions

DWP celebrating 32 years of inaccurate accounting

Yesterday while all eyes were on Boris Johnson’s ” Build,Build, Build ” speech the Department for Work and Pensions slipped out their annual accounts for the last financial year.

In what looks like a classic “cover up ” job to bury bad news, the ministry probably did not want the world to know that their accounts had been censured for material inaccuracy for the 32nd year in a row.

The reason is the failure of the ministry to be able to account for unacceptable levels of fraud and error in the huge number of benefit payments. Billions of pounds have been overpaid to claimants through fraud and mistakes by claimants and errors by officials. And billions of pounds have been underpaid by officials to claimants because they have made mistakes in calculating people’s benefits.

The latest figures are a record for every year since John Moore, was social security secretary under Lady Thatcher in 1988.

It shows that ” Excluding State Pension, the estimated rate of overpayments has increased again to 4.8% (£4.5 billion) of estimated benefit expenditure, from a restated rate of 4.4% (£3.8 billion).

“The estimated rate of underpayments, excluding State Pension, has decreased to 2.0% (£1.9 billion), from its estimated rate of 2.2% (£1.9 billion) in 2018-19. The rate of overpayments in 2019-20 is the
highest estimate to date.”

The worst benefit is the new hated Universal Credit which has suffered from both overpayments and underpayments and claimants have to wait five weeks before they can get it. Since the payment depends on claimants’ monthly varying income the scope for inaccurate reporting of the money is large.

The report says: “For Universal Credit, the estimated rate of overpayments increased from 8.7% to 9.4%. This is the highest recorded overpayment rate for any benefit other than Tax Credits (administered by HMRC), which peaked at 9.7% in 2003-04.”

“Underpayments rates have fallen for Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Pension Credit, and the estimated rate for Housing Benefit has increased. Personal Independence Payment has the highest rate of underpayments at 3.8% of expenditure in 2019-20. This rate has not changed from 2018-19.”

But the small print of the report also reveals how the Department calculates this. It takes samples of benefit payments to arrive at these figures but the National Audit Office reveals that 61 per cent of the benefits paid out to claimants are based on recalculated estimates for the previous year.

Some other omissions are staggering. The Department has never checked whether payments are accurate for claimants on Disability Living Allowance for 16 years – last done in 2004-05.

More extraordinary the Department has never checked whether money paid out to 12 million pensioners is accurate or not since 2005 – that is 15 years ago.

Instead the department maintains there is no serious fraud or underpayments in pensions – calculating it as just £300 million out of an annual payment of £98.6 billion.

Given this year we had a case this year of a 94 year old pensioner being owed a staggering £117,000 because of 34 years of underpayments, I find this complacency mind blowing.

I also think the National Audit Office, as their auditors, is remiss in not asking for an update.

Next year’s estimate of benefit fraud and error is likely to even more out of kilter thanks to Covid 19 as the ministry have got rid of staff monitoring fraud to be able to pay out the 2.6 million claims for universal credit.

And although the department is said to be investigating 143,000 suspicious claims under Covid 19, it can’t follow them up because it can’t visit them at home.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said :

“I am concerned that fraud and error in benefit payments have risen again. Fraud and error have a real cost, both for those who face deductions from their income due to overpayments and because it reduces the public funds available for other purposes.

“As the Department takes on a set of unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19 it is more important than ever that my qualification is not seen as business as usual and the Department responds in a cost-effective way to minimise risks of fraud and error.”

Next year I am certain will be the 33rd year the ministry accounts are questioned and found wanting.

Welcome to your new rulers: UK Commissioners Gove, Johnson and Cummings

Commissioner Johnson ?
Henry VIII: Pic credit BBC

The most famous rallying cry by the Brexit campaigners was ” Take Back Control”. The people who supported this saw it as simply meaning taking away powers from the unelected European Commissioners in Brussels and giving it back to the British people. It meant the sovereignty of the British Parliament to make laws solely for the British people.

Well a completely ignored report from the House of Lords suggests we are about to discover something altogether different. I wrote about this in Byline Times last week.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee – not a well known body – has done a forensic job examining every bit of legislation passed and going through Parliament to change the law after Brexit becomes a reality on January 1 next year.

These are not just the better known laws like the  European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 but new Acts of Parliament covering covering agriculture, money laundering, immigration, trade, taxation,reciprocal health agreements and even the granting of road haulage licences.

What this comprehensive analysis reveals is that far from Parliament getting new freedoms to introduce new laws for the British people the powers are being transferred from the European Commission to government ministers and indirectly to government advisers like Dominic Cummings.

What is happening is that the perceived rule from Brussels by Brexiteers is being replaced by a real rule by decree by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Henry VIII powers

How you might ask? The answer is the widespread use of what are known as ” Henry VIII ” powers – or more arcanely known as statutory instruments. These are orders allowing ministers to change the law by decree – either putting down an order which Parliament has 90 minutes to debate or a negative order that if MPs don’t spot it is already law unless Parliament can overturn it.

Now what the peers have discovered is that all these bills are littered with these powers – 40 in the agriculture bill alone – giving huge discretion to introduce not only rule by decree but powers to introduce new criminal offences with unlimited fines.

One extraordinary power governing export and import duties give ministers huge powers – including one to change the law by “ public notice” avoiding informing Parliament at all. This brings us back to Tudor times when all Henry VIII had to do was to pin up a notice ordering the dissolution of the monasteries..

Now why does this matter? Take the agriculture bill which will govern the rules if, as the US wants in trade negotiations, for us to import chlorinated chicken and according to recent reports to change food labeling laws in the UK. Now this bill in its initial form gave ministers a Henry VIII power to change the law for the marketing of food including what is on the label.

So if Waitrose followed what it said it will do and clearly label chlorinated chicken a government minister could just change the law by decree making it illegal to do so. And if Waitrose disobeyed they could face unlimited fines.

Now the bill has been modified a bit but MPs and peers ought to be careful that powers don’t sneak in by the back door.

150 new ministerial powers running to 174 pages

Another more obscure Act according to peers also gives huge powers to ministers.

The report said: “The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill involves a massive transfer of power from the House of Commons to Ministers of the Crown. Ministers are given well over 150 separate powers to make tax law for individuals and businesses. These laws made by Ministers will run to thousands of pages. The Treasury’s delegated powers memorandum, which sets out in detail all these law-making powers, alone runs to 174 pages.”

And ministers are also taking powers in some circumstances to override laws passed by the Scottish Parliament by government decree and to interfere in which already adopted EU case law can be decided by tribunals and lower courts.

Courts facing ministerial directions

The peers were incandescent about the latter.Their report said:

“The granting of broad ministerial powers in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 to determine which courts may depart from CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) case law and to give interpretive direction in relation to the meaning of retained EU law was – and remains – inappropriate. 

“Each of these powers should remain the preserve of primary legislation. There is a significant risk that the use of this ministerial power could undermine legal certainty and exacerbate the existing difficulties for the courts when dealing with retained EU law.”

Now in my opinion because of the Covid-19 crisis the government is using this to introduce major changes to our unwritten constitution to bypass Parliament. I don’t blame my lobby colleagues for missing this – the 24/7 news agenda hardly gives them time to study a detailed House of Lords report.

It could be that a post Brexit Parliament may not need to sit as often as now – but just meet occasionally to scrutinise the latest ministerial decree.

I don’t think this is what the average Brexiteer will have envisaged. I don’t think the majority of people in this country want to live in a society where ministers and Downing Street have overweening powers to create new criminal offences by decree without being properly scrutinised by Parliament. We are losing our safeguards by stealth.

Cummings cunning Whitehall revolution

Next month Boris Johnson is expected to have a Cabinet reshuffle. This will be his chance to mould his government’s image for the rest of the Parliament.

If he takes the advice of his chief of staff Dominic Cummings it will be another opportunity to throw a disruptive spanner in the works.

For Cummings is already on record as saying he wants big changes.

At an event hosted by the think tank IPPR in 2014, he was reported as saying: “The whole Cabinet Office structure and No. 10 structure is completely broken, [as] anyone who has to deal with it knows.”

Cabinet size “a complete farce”

The system had to change, he said, and the Treasury’s broken, while having a Cabinet of 30 people was a “complete farce” and should be whittled down to just six or seven key ministers.

Whether Johnson goes as far as this will be a matter for him but I would not be surprised to see some radical changes. And what changes he makes to the Cabinet will affect Whitehall. Since Parliamentary scrutiny through select committees is based on Whitehall departments , it would also affect the accountability of government.

As I wrote last week on Byline Times, the Whitehall revolution has already started. You can read the article here.

It began with the first Cabinet reshuffle after the general election when the former Chancellor Sajid Javid resigned rather than take Cummings diktat that he should lose all his independent advisers.

Marched out by armed police

That has already come back to bite him. As The Guardian reported one of his advisers, Sonia Khan, who was marched out of the Treasury by armed police, is taking the case to a tribunal as a sex discrimination case. Cummings dismissed her by phone for allegedly lying about talking to one of Philip Hammond’s ( remember him! he was the chancellor under Theresa May) advisers.

A judge ruled out an attempt by government lawyers to have Cummings name removed from the case – meaning he will have to defend himself publicly. There is a five day hearing put down for December. I would not be surprised if the Cabinet Office tries to offer her large sums of our taxpayer’s money to have it settled out of court to avoid embarrassment to the PM and Cummings.

Parallel to the denuding of independent advisers to the Treasury, Cummings has strengthened his position by appointing Vote Leave campaigner Alex Hickman as the PM’s adviser on business and getting Ben Warner, who worked with him at Vote Leave, as a special adviser in Number Ten. His brother Marc, has a controlling influence in Faculty, a high tech start up, which has already been awarded million pound contracts by the NHS to deal with Covid-19 without competitive tendering.

new permanent secretary

But Cummings wants to go much further in Whitehall. On 1 May, a US recruitment agency won a contract from the Government to headhunt a new permanent secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – a ministry that will play a crucial role in building up Britain post-Brexit. The job is not being advertised internally as is the normal practice.

The New York based firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, is principally a high tech recruiter and its philosophy is pretty much in line with the Cummings credo. Its website is here. The firm believes that all organisations should be run like high tech companies not as bureaucracies.

“The organisations that don’t disrupt themselves are the ones that will be disrupted,” it states.

Cummings is a passionately in favour of the high tech companies – who often employ highly skilled computer savvy people on short term contracts and would like to see Whitehall remodelled along these lines.

In 2018, Cummings expanded his attack on Whitehall in a paper which predicted: “There will be a chance for a small group to face reality and change the political landscape with new priorities and a new approach to the whole problem of high-performance government.”

Permanent secretaries are key figures in Whitehall – the 40 or so are the people who glue together the system – providing leadership and setting the tone of their department. They also can hold ministers to account over unauthorised spending.

The new permanent secretary will start in September well in time to work on business post Brexit. He will act, in my view, as a Trojan horse, to change Whitehall for good if Cummings has his way.

Why Dominic Cummings, the Goddess of Chaos, won’t quit

The rare press conference in the garden of Downing Street at which Dominic Cummings explained why he was not going to resign over breaking lockdown rules

One of the extraordinary questions that have puzzled people is why Dominic Cummings – who has been in the centre of a storm over breaking Covid -19 lockdown regulations – has not been forced to quit.

Much of the speculation has centred round the PM’s weakness in not sacking him, despite over 90 Tory MPs attacking him, one minister resigning and widespread anger among the law abiding majority of the public. Even a collapse in Tory support has not led to it.

The answer has been staring people in the face. One of the issues I wrote in Byline Times – Dominic Cumming’s billion dollar brainbox – last week. While the pandemic was gaining pace, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, gave Dominic Cummings £800m, for a project about which he has been campaigning for years – the setting up of a Downing Street Advance Research Projects Agency. Sunak described it as a “blue skies funding agency”.Who would want to quit when they have received such largesse for a pet project that they have slaved over for years?

In 2018, he wrote a 47-page document concluding that a British ARPA would cover research into “machine learning, robotics, energy, neuroscience, genetics, cognitive technologies… and, crucially, funding what now seem ‘crazy’ ideas just as the internet and quantum computers seemed ‘crazy’ before they became mainstream”.

Scientists would be given millions of pounds for unaccountable projects – some of which will fail – with the aim of changing Britain forever.

He also wanted to scrap European data protection laws which allow individuals to refuse access to their personal data on privacy grounds when they go to websites – allowing extensive data mining for venture capitalists who will exploit the new products to make billions of pounds.

Now, the second reason he will not go is that he wants either a “no deal” Brexit or for Europe to capitulate to the UK’s demands, so that Europe is no longer an integral working single market.

Both proposals – the ARPA scheme and No Deal Brexit – are potentially dangerous because they will cause chaos.

But I think that is exactly what Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson want – in fact Cummings relishes it.

Both are intelligent men. Both have degree – level knowledge of the classics and ancient history.

Both will know about ancient Greek mythology. One of the most ancient Greek goddesses is the goddess of chaos. chaos is an ancient Greek word and is the source of our English word. There is a useful website here about the ancient Greek history of chaos.

It says : “Chaos was the origin of everything and the very first thing that ever existed. It was a primordial void, which everything was created from including the universe and the Greek Gods. In ancient Greek, Chaos is translated as ‘the gaping void.’’

Here’s a simple YouTube video about it:

A simple Greek mythology guide to Chaos


chaos is an ancient Greek word and is the source of our English word.

Cummings is now planning to create the UK’s own ”year Zero” with a modern twist – by leaving the EU after such a long time Britain will have start from scratch – and use modern technology to survive. His ARPA project will dictate where we go in the future.

The author Naomi Klein wrote about “disaster capitalism” in her book The Shock Doctrine, as described here.

Now Cummings, who spent 1994-1997 in Russia, is putting “disaster capitalism” theory into practice. And, of course, chaos serves the Russian political machine, just as it serves the extremes of Western free-market capitalism.

You and I might find this rather scary but for Cummings the chaos is his seventh heaven – a once in a lifetime chance to reshape Britain while disrupting everything that could be said to be stable.

And at the moment the ” Goddess of Chaos” holds a lot of the cards – his worshippers include most of the Cabinet who are required to tweet their support like a mantra from a Greek chorus. And the ” Goddess of Chaos” even has two altar boys – Conservative right wingers Tom Harwood and Darren Grimes – to do his bidding and explain away his faults.

There is a final irony. The last General Election was fought on the lines of the danger of a left wing Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn destroying Britain and creating “chaos”. The negative campaigning by the Tories and right-wing press worked.

But what we will have now is such a cultural and chaotic revolution under Cummings that will make any perceived threat from Corbyn look like a Teddy Bears picnic.

The plan to put your health records in a computer cloud – the next expensive mistake by the NHS?

New World of NHSX doctor talking to patient once they have digitalised all patient records Pic credit: Gov.uk

NHSX, the new body behind the covid 19 tracing app,is planning a further IT revolution which will be a bonanza for multi national tech companies

Probably everybody remembers the fiasco under Labour to introduce a national computer system linking the whole of the NHS. The ten year programme which never worked properly was abandoned in 2011 after wasting some £10 billion of taxpayer’s money.

But now NHSX, the new body set up by the government in July 2019 without any Parliamentary approval and virtually no oversight outside the NHS, is planning a new national system to centralise NHS patient records.

I wrote about it last week in Byline Times following the publication of a report by the National Audit Office on NHS Digital.

Most of the press reports concentrated on the back story that the NHS was s in a digital mess and that a £8.4 billion programme under way to modernise the system had still not everything right- with 46 per cent of trusts relying on paper for patient records.

The real story was at the end of the report where the NAO raised a red flag about a plan to put everybody’s patient records in a cloud which has still not been fully worked out by NHSX.

It says NHSX is working on creating communication protocols known as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which would go through different layers so they could transfer patients’ data from an individual health trust or GP surgery to a cloud. This is similar to people transferring their own personal data and files on their computer or smart phone to a Google cloud.

A NAO spokesman said: “The use of APIs with a data layer, is at an early stage. It does not have a clear scope yet, so we are unable to comment on its implementation, much less how it affects the Covid-19 response. But we note that other parts of government found similar approaches to be difficult and expensive.”

The NAO also revealed that unlike the first failed computer system – which was paid out of general taxation – the new cloud service will come out of general day to day running costs – which means if it goes wrong the cash will be taken from patient services and given to tech multinationals to solve the problems.

More seriously how safe are your records when this happens. Already NHSX has had the embarrassment of computer magazine Wired discovering they had left future plans for the app – publicly accessible through Google Drive – by mistake.

Image how you will feel if your personal health records were hacked and sold on to commercial interests.Or some computer error released sensitive infoirmation. This plan needs to be thoroughly scrutinised before it goes ahead. Or it will be a waste of money and a possible security risk to your sensitive personal information.

HS2 Fiasco: Should these two top Whitehall figures get the sack for covering it up?

Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Transport Pic credit: gov.uk
Mark Thurston, the £605,000 a year head of HS2. Pic credit: HS2

The damning report by the Public Accounts Committee out today tells you everything you already knew about HS2 – the high speed rail link from Euston to Birmingham and eventually Manchester and Leeds.

This rail line – at one stage facing being scrapped by Boris Johnson – earned a reprieve despite costs escalating almost out of control from costing £55bn when it was commissioned to an estimated minimum £88 billion today. Even commitments to petitioners against the scheme were wrongly calculated at £245m when the figure is now nearer £1.2 billion .And that may not be the end of the story as costs could still rise while the public will get a much delayed service with fewer trains.

The report also shows there is a huge problem with the redevelopment of Euston station – used by millions of mainline travellers and commuters – which no doubt will create another out of control of budget. We still don’t know the real cost for that.

But what I found really distasteful that Bernadette Kelly, the highly paid permanent secretary at the Department for Transport and Mark Thurston, the UK’s highest paid public official in charge of HS2 – he is on an eyewatering £605,350 salary and got a £46,000 bonus despite not keeping public money under control- conspired to cover up their failings and keep information from the public and Parliament.

The report is quite clear desperate officials were well aware that public money was going down the toilet but decided NOT to tell Parliament and be less than honest in the official annual accounts of HS2 to disguise the mess they faced.

Bernadette Kelly revealed to MPs in March that she had undertaken four separate assessments to see if the project was viable last year – but neglected to tell MPs anything about it when she appeared before them. She claimed it was ” commercial sensitivities ” that held her back.

This is serious stuff. As the report says: ” We are disappointed by the Permanent Secretary’s response to our concerns about her failure to explicitly inform the Committee of the programme’s delays and overspend when asked about the general health of the project.

“This was something that an accounting officer should share with the Committee. Failure of an Accounting Officer to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and a breach of Parliamentary Privilege. “

To put it bluntly she may have broken the Civil Service code which lays down the ethics and rules governing how officials should behave and she may have lied to Parliament.

In that case I think there should be an inquiry and if she is found to have behaved as badly as that she should be disciplined or even sacked.

Mark Thurston appears to made sure that his company accounts did not give too many hints of the failure to control money. Why he should have a bonus when his costs went sky high – is a mystery to me. He should pay it back and questions asked whether he is the right man for the job..

I agree with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP and deputy chair of the committee: “This PAC report on HS2 is one of the most critical, in both the transparency of Government and the handling of a project, that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

“The Permanent Secretary appeared before the committee in October 2018 and again in May 2019. In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally told the Department it had breached the terms of the Development Agreement, and would be unable to deliver the programme to cost and schedule – yet the Permanent Secretary did not inform the committee on either appearance that the programme was in trouble.

“This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to Parliament and hence to the public, which as the report says, will undermine confidence. Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform Parliament that value for money .on the project was at risk.”

The United Kingdom used to be regarded as a world leader in upholding high standards in public life. The actions of these two individuals in trying to cover their tracks is more in line with a banana republic.

Wasted: £1.35 billion cost overrun (already!) on the cost of replacing Trident

MPs slam latest Ministry of Defence scandal as typical of 30 years of contract mismanagent

Burghfield Site: Massive cost overrun and six year delay

Taxpayers are set to fork out anywhere between £41 billion ( latest government estimate) and £205 billion ( if you believe the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament estimate) to pay for replacing Trident.

So it is extremely disturbing to discover that the first facilities to allow this hugely expensive military project to start – are already wildly over budget and years behind schedule.

Our present nuclear deterrent is due to be upgraded in 2030 with the building of four Dreadnought submarines and the government is considering ordering new nuclear warheads from the United States. No doubt this will be one of the discussions between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

To get the programme on the road the government signed contracts worth £2.5 billion to upgrade three facilities. They will now cost at least £3.85 billion.

These were a new a new nuclear warhead assembly and disassembly facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment site at Burghfield.

A new nuclear core production capability at the Rolls Royce site in Derby to produce the latest nuclear reactor core designs.

And a new facility at the BAE Systems shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness where the new Dreadnought class submarines to carry nuclear missiles will be built.

After a damning National Audit Office investigation into the projects MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee have produced their verdict on the projects and it is not a pretty sight.

Warning to the public: is your taxpayer’s ,
money safe here?

For a start the whole cost has shot up by well over 50 per cent and we haven’t even completed any of the projects. The worst case is the project at Burghfield whose costs have increased from £1.8 billion to over £2.8 billion and it has gone up 146 pc since first proposed in 2011. It should have been completed three years ago in 2017 but won’t now be ready until 2023.

Similar cost and time overruns apply to the nuclear reactor core programme which will now cost £484 million should have completed next year but won’t be ready until 2026.

And the work at Barrow now costing £240 million won’t be ready until 2022 – some 20 months behind schedule.

Part of the reason for the mess is that the projects were poorly designed and the ministry went ahead before they had finalised the upgrades.

Scathing remarks from Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee
Pic credit: Creative Commons

No wonder Meg Hillier, the chair of the committee, is so scathing today about the waste of money.

“ To utterly fail to learn from mistakes over decades, to spectacularly repeat the same mistakes at huge cost to the taxpayer – and at huge cost to confidence in our defence capabilities – is completely unacceptable.  We see too often these same mistakes repeated.

“The Department knows it can’t go on like this, it knows it must change and operate differently. The test now is to see how it will do that, and soon.

“We expect the MoD to report to us later this year, in its 2020 update on the Dreadnought nuclear submarine programme, on how it is working with industry and other departments to develop and keep in place the skills it badly needs to take forward nuclear work.

We also expect a detailed assessment, of whether the current ownership arrangements for nuclear regulated sites are in the best interests of the taxpayer, to be provided to us by the end of this year.” 

What is extraordinary is this ministry has a track record of over budget and late projects stretching back 30 years. Boris Johnson’s spooky adviser, Dominic Cummings, wants a review of how the ministry runs its entire procurement programme.

I don’t agree with him on practically everything else but in this case he is spot on.

Useful documents: House of Commons library report on the cost of the nuclear deterrent here.

National Audit Office report on the scandal here.

Public Accounts Committee report here.

On Byline Times: Refurbishment of the iconic Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben mismanaged by Parliament at huge cost to taxpayers

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have today put out a story on Byline Times some damning findings by the National Audit Office on the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower and the Big Ben bell and clock face. You can read it in full here.

The report is important because the government is committed to spending billions of pounds – a £4 billion estimate will go nowhere near the real cost – -refurbishing the Palace of Westminster over a decade.

This project was a tiddler compared to that – originally thought to cost £29 million -now 80 million. And if Parliament’s managers can’t properly manage that – what great mess awaits us over the next decade.

The report also reveals one extraordinary fact which shows that the Victorians were as bad at controlling taxpayer’s money and managing big projects as we are today.

The present building built after fire destroyed most of the old Parliament in 1834 was completed 18 years behind schedule and at three times the original cost.

Effectively the governments of Robert Peel and Lord Palmerson were no better at controlling budgets than those of David Cameron and Boris Johnson today. Plus ca change etc.