Why Francis Maude and Amyas Morse are right to ginger up complacent Whitehall

2015 General Election - Cabinet

Lord Maude Pic creditL gov.uk

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Last week I attended  what turned out to be a highly controversial debate on the future of the civil service – one of a series on various issues chaired by John Bercow,  at Speakers House in the House of Commons.

I found myself  surprisingly agreeing with Lord Maude, the former  Tory Cabinet Office minister, and with his opponent, Bronwen Maddox, director  of the Institute of Government, ( who rightly highlighted the mistake to privatise the probation service) over why the top echelons of Whitehall need radical reform.

Don’t get me wrong I am not about to become a card carrying member of the Tory Party ( even if their average age at 72 is nearer mine) and I would  disagree with Maude profoundly over his savage cuts agenda, but on the management of Whitehall he is talking sense. He is also a Whitehall insider and his full speech is here.

I have often wondered why time and time again Whitehall is  dragged before the Commons Public Accounts Committee to explain fiasco after fiasco on how millions if not billions of pounds are wasted on defence contracts, computer projects, collecting tax, benefit errors and big transport  and energy infrastructure projects.

Francis Maude provided part of the answer – our top civil servants are not up to the job. because they are not trained properly  to do it. And they rely, I am afraid, still on too much secrecy, to cover this up.

They are not trained for the complexities of modern Britain and complacently still believe we have the best civil service in the world while the rest of the world is changing fast.

What was more shocking is that he proposed some  modest remedies to change this – and brought down a howl of protest from  stuck in the mud mandarins. He thought it might be a good idea if fast stream graduates got wide ranging training in different government departments over a  two year period rather than being stuck in one ministry.

As he said : ” Bright graduates thought they were joining the Civil Service; and were then surprised to find that they joined a specific ministry where training took a definite second-place to the job to which they were assigned.

My modest reform to make the Fast Stream programme look and feel more like a typical two year graduate training programme met with surprising resistance, with four permanent secretaries, including at the Treasury, showing up to tell me that it was completely impossible.

Apparently, if the Civil Service trained its graduate entry the way high-performing private sector entities do, the government would fall apart. If I insisted, as I did, that Fast Stream trainees did four six months postings in different parts of government, then they would be unable to do any useful work.”

He also suggested a much broader programme for the top senior mandarins – giving them international business school experience – and , believe or not, got threatened with exposure in the Daily Mail for wasting taxpayers money!

As he said: “The second eye-opener was when I proposed that senior civil servants headed for very big responsibilities should be put through top management courses, typically three months, at top business schools. High performing organisations routinely do this; and I have seen people come out transformed into a bigger, more confident and capable leaders. So I proposed first that the ten permanent secretaries should go through these courses before the 2015 election.

“The first objection was that this would be very expensive and that the Daily Mail would make a fuss. My response was to say: Bring it on. If the Mail really want to object to us spending £60,000 on someone managing a budget of tens of billions, I’d love to have the argument.”

He also, in answer to a question from me, about the secrecy surrounding who decided the bonuses paid to top Department of Works and Pensions who are responsible for Universal Credit, called for more transparency. He also suggested that civil servants should be much less timid in challenging ministers over public spending projects – ending the idea that when a top civil servant demands an ” ministerial directive” to do the job it shouldn’t be seen as a nuclear option but commonplace.

Since going to the debate I have discovered he has a strong ally over this – Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office -wrote a year ago about the failure of Whitehall to do the job in this area.

“The threat of this can prevent poor decisions about use of taxpayers’ money, and discussions about possible directions can have ‘invisible’ positive influence on decision-making.

” However, the evidence suggests the mechanism is not being used effectively. Major projects where there were clear value for money concerns, such as the FiReControl Project (2004-2011 which had cost £635 million when it was cancelled) or the National Programme for IT in the NHS (costing £11.4 billion between 2002 and 2011), were not the subject of directions.”

Instead the timid mandarins query  tiny projects by comparison – such as the use of money for a consultancy on the future of Manton Airfield in Kent- and are too frightened to challenge really big decisions.

The time has come for a radical change in direction in Whitehall to get better and more broadly trained civil servants at the top who would take better decisions on how they spend our money.

 

The £20,000 benefit bonus rewards for the metropolitan elite at the Department of Work and Pensions

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Neil Couling – £145,000 a year

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Last week I had a story in the Sunday Mirror about top bonuses and pay rises for five of the most senior  and well paid civil servants at the Department of Work and Pensions over the last two years.

The information was published in the annual report and accounts  of the DWP released last month. These same accounts were qualified for the 29th year  running according to the the National Audit Office – because of fraud and error in payouts to claimants rendered them inaccurate and wrong.

 

 

Sir Robert Devereux pic credit Twitter

Sir Robert Devereux – £190,000 a year Pic credit : Twitter

The bonuses announcement came at the same time as 31 Labour MPs had called for a pause in the roll out of the ministry’s new Universal Credit  programme – which replaces five benefits – because of reported chaos in its administration leaving some claimants without money for up to six weeks. One of those 31 MPs, Kevan Jones, who represents Durham North said the bonuses were a ” reward for failure”.

He described them as “an insult to many of my constituents who are already living on the breadline. In my constituency they plan to introduce this in November which could leave thousands of people without money in the run up to Christmas.”

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Mayank Prakash £220,000 a year including £20,00 bonus Pic credit: DWP Digital

Within days of the publication of the story the FDA ( the First Division Association) which represents the top civil servants attacked the article in a report in Civil Service World.

Jawad Raza, FDA national officer for DWP, said officials should not be used as targets by political opponents of the system simply for doing their jobs.

“The suggestion that these civil servants have been ‘rewarded for failure’ shows a blatant disregard for the facts regarding their pay and

Jeremy Moore pic credit

jeremy moore – £135,000 plus £20,000 bonus

wilfully misrepresents the true complexity of their roles,” he said.

“Senior civil servants have delivered billions of pounds worth of savings since 2010 with an ever reducing workforce. These are highly skilled professionals working in challenging circumstances and they deserve to be adequately remunerated without having their names and faces spread across news pages.”

Sorry Jawad I think there is more to this.

The five civil servants are Sir Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions; Neil

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Andrew Rhodes – £140,000 a year plus £15,000 bonus

Couling, director general of universal credit; Jeremy Moore, director of strategy; Mayank Prakash, director general of digital technology and Andrew Rhodes, director of operations have received between £10,000 and £20,000 each .They are nearly all paid more than Theresa May, the PM.

The bonuses were awarded for “ top performance “ and “ leadership “when the rest of Whitehall is limited to one per cent pay rises and many benefits have been frozen.

Sir Robert last year received up to £20,000 extra on a salary of up to £185,000 a year. This year he hasn’t received any bonus but his basic salary has moved to £190,000 a year.

Neil Couling, who is directly responsible for universal credit, got a bonus of up to £20,000 last year on a salary of £125,000 a year. This year instead of a bonus his salary has jumped by £20,000 to £145,000 a year.

Mayank Prakash, director of digital strategy has received a bonus of up to £20,000  this yearon top of salary of £200,000 taking his annual salary to £220,000 .

Jeremy Moore, director of strategy, has received bonuses two years running –  totalling up to £40,000 over the two years – taking his total salary to £155,000 a year.

Andrew Rhodes, director of operations has received a £10-15,000 bonus this year, taking his salary to £155,000 a year. He also claimed £37,600 in travel expenses.

The ministry insist that all these pay rises were decided objectively by line managers.

In a statement it said:

Line managers are required to make an evidence-based and objective assessment over whether objectives have been met, not met or exceeded. 

 Individual performance is assessed by the individual’s line manager through an appraisal discussion, with supporting evidence from a range of stakeholders.

But apart from Sir Robert – whose bonus was decided by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary – the Department declined to say who these line managers are and which outside organisations and people recommended they should get bonuses. The bad news for the DWP is that Kevan Jones plans to table a Parliamentary Question next month to find out who.

Now the FDA has a point that compared to the top of the  private sector they are badly paid. A report put out by the House of Commons library revealed that the top 3000 bankers are ALL earning over £884,000 a year – which makes £20,000 sound small beer. But if anything that reflects that huge growth of inequality in Britain.

At other end of society how effective are these five top men ( note they are all men) in delivering what they are supposed to do. All are responsible in one way or another for the delivery of Universal Credit.

At present they are using Newcastle-upon-Tyne – to roll out the full effect of Universial Credit.

Catherine McKinnell , Labour MP for Newcastle North, said:“ My office has been deluged with complaints from constituents about a Universal Credit system that is clearly struggling to cope and failing to deliver the support that claimants need in anything like an orderly or timely fashion.”

Her debate can be read here.  Suffice to say it reveals a very sorry picture. The  new IT system means people can’t talk to a human. It has  a verification process that requires claimants to produce photographic identification such as a passport or driving licence, “which many simply do not possess and certainly cannot afford, even though some have been in receipt of benefits for several years.”

“I also have numerous examples of Universal Credit claims being shut down before they should be; of documentation being provided to the DWP, at the constituent’s cost, and repeatedly being lost or even destroyed; and of totally conflicting, often incorrect, information being provided to constituents about their claims.”

For a time the ministry effectively banned MPs from taking up cases by making impossible verification demands before they would talk about it.

What this shows to me is a growing disconnect between the people at the top – who are computer savvy, have nice centrally heated homes, no problems with bills, can afford expensive holidays, and can’t conceive of anyone not having a passport – designing a system for poor, dispossessed, desperate people without any understanding of how the world works for them.

It was this disconnect between the elite and the poor  in the USA that led to the rise of Donald Trump and I suspect this huge gulf between the Metropolitan elite – whom top Whitehall civil servants are part – and the provincial poor is in the end going to propel Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

 

The train driver who averted a major disaster on a London commuter line in nine seconds

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The two collided trains in the Watford Tunnel.Pic credit: British Transport Police

An accident  report out today on the landslip at Watford that derailed an early morning  London Midland commuter train last September reveals the importance of having properly  trained staff  on our railways.

It reveals that without prompt action by the driver there would have been large number of casualties and possibly fatalities when another commuter train running in the opposite direction collided with the derailed train.

It also shows having a guard on the train meant that passengers on the service who had not been injured got immediate reassurance and help after the driver was trapped in the cab following the accident.

The report praises both the driver and the guard for the way they handled the accident – caused by heavy rain leading to a landslip on the line just inside the entrance to a tunnel at Watford.

Simon French, Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents said:

 ” The collision of a passenger train with a derailed train in Watford tunnel on the morning of 16 September last year serves as a reminder of why everyone in the railway industry continues to work so hard to manage risk – the collision of two trains in a tunnel is a scenario we all hoped never to witness.

The derailment of the 06:19 service from Milton Keynes could so easily have led to a catastrophic sequence of events were it not for two notable factors. The first was the sheer professionalism of the driver who, within moments of becoming derailed, had the presence of mind to apply the brake and then transmit an emergency message using the train’s ‘GSM-R’ radio. His actions alerted the driver of a train approaching in the opposite direction who immediately applied the brake. As a consequence, the northbound train had reduced speed from 79 to 34 mph before striking the derailed train a glancing blow. This reduction in speed may well have made a big difference to the eventual outcome.

The second mitigating factor was the slotting of one rail of the track in the gap between a gearbox and a traction motor on three of the axles, so preventing the derailed train deviating any further into the path of the approaching train. This unintended consequence of the train’s design probably made the difference between a glancing blow and something closer to a head-on collision.

The report reveals that the driver had just nine seconds to alert the oncoming train after his train had been derailed – but as a result it certainly saved lives.

The circumstances of the crash are also a grim warning in the age of climate change given that very heavy rain caused the landslip at exactly the same spot  as another landslip in 1940.

The rail accident investigators found details of the earlier landslip in Network Rail’s archives but unfortunately the  management of Network Rail had not alerted people  who had  been working on removing vegetation and trees in the cutting on the need to  revamp an old drainage system.

The report also reveals that had there been a serious accident access by the emergency services to the scene would have been difficult and there did not appear to be any plan for organising a major rescue should an accident happen in the Watford tunnels.

All this suggests to me is that ministers and privatised railway companies – such as Southern railways – who want to save money by continually cutting staff should be wary of doing so. It could cost lives and passengers need help and reassurance should the unexpected happen on their daily commute.

 

 

The £5 billion pay out to people who shouldn’t have received it

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Department for Work and Pensions – £3.5 billion of overpayments detected by auditors

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Here is a strange paradox. The government has imposed a tough and to many people unfair benefits and  tax credits regime which has squeezed the poorest – both the unemployed and those in work.

Yet this summer accountants have revealed that HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions has paid out £5 billion to people on benefits and low incomes who should not have received it. And they predict that even more will receive these payments next year. I have written about this in Tribune magazine this week.

The disclosure comes in the annual audit of both departments by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, who have qualified the accounts of both departments – as not being a true and accurate description of public spending.

According to the NAO report: “HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud that resulted in overpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 increased to 5.5% of Tax Credits expenditure (from 4.8% in 2014-15)

“HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud resulting in underpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 remained at 0.7% of Tax Credits expenditure (0.7% in 2014-15). This equates to overpayments of £1.57 billion and underpayments of £210 million.

“HMRC has told us that it believes the level of error and fraud in Tax Credits will increase further when measured for 2016-17. Two main factors have been identified that will lead to this increase: the introduction of the ‘Commercial with a view to a profit’ self-employment test for those who are self-employed and the impact of the Concentrix contract. The impact of these factors on error and fraud levels will not be measured until June 2018, and so the estimate of error and fraud in 2015-16 remains the most up-to-date indication available of error and fraud in Tax Credits expenditure for 2016-17.”

Concentrix were sacked by the department after a privatisation programme went wrong – and they were not up to the job.

Worse are the figures for DWP.

The  NAO’s findings are: “Excluding State Pension, overpayments are at the highest levels since 2009-10, while underpayments are at the highest recorded levels.”

Overpayments amount to £3.4bn, excluding the state pension, an increase of £400 million while underpayments are £1.5bn In percentage terms this amount to an increase to 4.1 per cent of all overpayments and 1.9 per cent of all underpayments.

The report says: “Amongst benefits measured annually for fraud and error, Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit overpayments are at the highest recorded levels, and Jobseeker’s Allowance overpayments have returned to the highest levels since 2010-11.

The NAO questions some of the techniques used by the DWP to calculate fraud – saying it assumes that when people don’t get back to the department for a re-assessment that they have been fraudulently claiming. This may not be the case. Also, information is out of date.

“The absence of up-to-date information on error rates in large benefit streams creates a risk that the department is not targeting its fraud and error interventions effectively,” the report says. “For example, Disability Living Allowance, which accounted for £11.5 billion of expenditure in 2016-17, has not been measured for fraud and error since 2004-05.”

All this points to some serious mismanagement by the ministries – which have been squeezed by successive coalition and Tory governments. But it doesn’t mean that those at the top have suffered. I shall return to some interesting findings in their annual reports.

Revealed: The man who sacked a woman on maternity leave is now head campaigner for women’s equality in Scotland

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John Wilkes, now chief executive of the Scottish Equality and Human Rights Commission Pic credit:Third Force News

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Meet John  Wilkes. He is now chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland. The ECHR’s top campaign at the moment is fighting against  the discrimination  of women who take maternity leave from their jobs.

As the ECHR’s own research says on its latest campaigns website says:

  • Around one in nine mothers (11%) reported that they were either dismissed; made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not; or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job; if scaled up to the general population this could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year.”

Great words. But they didn’t seem to reach John Wilkes before he took up his highly paid post at the ECHR in Glasgow.

Then he held the job of chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, a respected body. Now after the findings of a tribunal hearing in Glasgow ot appears to do more for refugees than its own employees.

And one of those was Petra Kasparek,who was employed as a refugee integration adviser, who became pregnant and took maternity leave. When she decided to come back to work she faced a gruelling interview which included responding to some questions she would have been unable to answer properly, and then declared redundant.

The man who stood in for her Stephen McGuire was also sacked.

But a ruling on 6 July by a Glasgow employment tribunal has ruled that both were unfairly dismissed and that Ms Kasparek suffered indirect sexual discrimination under the Equality Act.  Both are to get compensation amounting to thousands of pounds and the tribunal ordered Mr McGuire to be reinstated. The case was championed by their union, Unite, which even proposed ways to solve the dispute without sacking either of them.

But the most severe criticism comes in the tribunal’s view of John Wilkes whose knowledge of the law and procedures as a chief executive seems remarkably lacking for such an experienced official whose Linked In profile portrays him as a top notch executive.

The tribunal said that Mr Wilkes had “a surprisingly poor understanding of the SRC’s ( Scottish Refugee Council’s) policies and procedures.”He  had “a poor grasp of how some of the SRC’s actions were at variance with its formal policies.”

He  and the head of finance there also had”  a striking lack of insight and appreciation of the criticisms levelled at their decisions.”

One of the points raised at the hearing from Mr Wilkes was that Ms Kasparek had not tried hard enough after leaving to get a similarly better paid job so she wasn’t entitled to compensation. In my view the man shows surprisingly little empathy or understanding of women who are looking after a baby.

The damaging point is  he is now in charge of Scotland’s Equality and Human Rights Commission policies including a campaign to help women being unfairly treated at work. One wonders how sympathetic he will be.

I put this to the Scottish EHRC and got a stock reply saying:

“John has brought to the Commission a wealth of experience, knowledge and dedication to our role in creating a fairer society and is making a valuable contribution to our work.”

I did ask whether Mr Wilkes had been sent on a retraining programme since his knowledge of  indirect discrimination under the Equality Act and other laws seemed to be rather minimal. But they told me they had nothing more to say.

Given the recent history of the EHRC in sacking disabled and black staff  I might have been asking the wrong questions. He will probably fit in well with the ethos there.

He is also not the only recent appointment to the EHRC from organisations that had discriminated against women on maternity leave.

 

 

Exclusive: How the Boundary Commission could smash the Tory DUP love in

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson ” These proposals are not welcome” Pic credit: BBC

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While everyone has been concentrating on  the wrangling between  Cabinet ministers over Brexit another crisis is looming for Theresa May which could cause enormous bad blood between the Tories and its newly found friends, the Democratic Unionist Party.

Theresa May has inherited  from David Cameron a  controversial revamp of all Parliamentary boundaries with the aim of slashing the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

The review is being undertaken by the Boundary Commission- independent of government – but set to strict guidelines on the size of each constituency. A move to reform Parliamentary boundaries collapsed during the coalition government when the Lib Dems voted it down and Cameron and Theresa May backed its revival when the Tories won a majority. The change is expected to benefit the Tories at the expense of Labour because many of the smaller constituencies are inner city seats.

In Northern Ireland the Boundary Commission has made its recommendations are they are extremely bad news for the DUP. The number of seats in Northern Ireland are cut from 18 to 17 – with the loss of one Belfast constituency – but the real controversy is the complete redrawing of all the other seats to meet the new standard size constituency.

As I have written in Tribune  this radical revamp means the  DUP are set to lose three of its ten seats and Sinn Fein is expected to gain two – making it the largest party from Northern Ireland. The DUP have reacted with fury and complained to the Commission asking them to change the proposals.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, which will disappear to become part of a new constituency under the changes, said: “The proposals are not welcome. We have made representations to the Boundary Commission to get them changed and expect them to publish their final proposals in September”.

More seriously for the government, the proposals are not part of the deal agreed with the DUP on “confidence and supply”. This was confirmed by Sir Jeffery, meaning that the government could face a defeat in the Commons next year if the DUP decide to vote them down – denting the government’s position still further and possibly triggering a general election before Brexit negotiations are completed.

Such a defeat would cause enormous damage for ministers because it would mean that the next full term general election, originally scheduled for 2020 and but now 2022, will have to be fought on the present boundaries. These are now years out of date.

And the embarrassment will not be confined to N Ireland.There is no provision under the Act which set up the boundary review to allow any special concessions to N Ireland. So not a single Parliamentary boundary will change if it is voted down in the Commons.

The damage by this debacle will only add to the frailty and weakness of this government – if it can survive as long as next year.

 

 

 

 

You are paying £2.5m to keep this tram train in a depot

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The Rotherham train tram – staying in the depot until next year

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This is the new Sheffield to Rotherham tram train. It should have been in service over a year ago. Instead it is going nowhere. It is one of seven train trams  confined to a depot and won’t go into service until next May at the earliest.

As a taxpayer you are paying the private rail and bus company  Stagecoach £2.5m compensation for a service it can’t run because Network Rail haven’t completed the job on time.

But the £2.5m is small beer to another much bigger bill you are paying Network Rail to adapt a route both extending tram tracks and using a disused railway track to create the new service from Sheffield to Rotherham.

That bill is now nearly five times what was originally estimated -it has gone from £18.7 m to £75.1m – a staggering increase on the original projected cost.

Details of this scandal are published in a report by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office and will no doubt be examined by MPs on the Commons public accounts committee later this year. I have written about it in Tribune magazine today.

The project is important because it is a pilot scheme and if it is successful lead to other tram train projects in Glasgow to the airport and in the South Wales valleys outside Cardiff.

The bungling of the project – originally approved by two Liberal Democrat ministers, Norman Baker and Danny Alexander – as  a worthy new public transport scheme has infuriated Sheffield Labour MP Clive Betts who has put the whole blame on bad management by Network Rail.

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A Karlsruhe tram train : In operation since the 1980s on streets and mainline railways. Pic credit : random streets blogspot

The scheme which was nearly cancelled twice however should not have been rocket science. Tram trains have existed in Germany – Karlsruhe was the first city to have one – since 1980 yet according to the MP Network Rail couldn’t be bothered to consult them to get advice  before they started.

Another big failing was not to appreciate that the tram trains might require two different electrification systems and a failure to appreciate how much work was needed on the railway lines to bring them back into public service – including the need to alter a junction.

Rob McIntosh, Network Rail’s London North Eastern and East Midlands Route Managing Director, said: “Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train is an ambitious pilot, a UK first, that will bring new travel choices to people of South Yorkshire when services begin in 2018. The project continues to be complex and challenging but will deliver real benefits for thousands of daily commuters.

…”the project has been extended to include additional work to future-proof the tram-train electrification system for later conversion to the national rail standard system that was  not part of the original scope. Such factors have added time and cost to the pilot which is under significant pressure  to deliver.”

However this is still another sorry saga and could impact on future projects. Plans are now going ahead for a £144m tram train link from Glasgow’s Queen Street station to Glasgow Airport using the same technology. Whether this will also overrun remains to be seen.