The most potent slogan of the Vote Leave campaign was the promise that Brexit meant that the country could ” take back control” and Parliament would be sovereign and we will be governed by our own laws.
Today Parliament abdicated its role to take back control of scrutinising the Brexit deal by kowtowing to a manipulative government which left little time to examine the Treaty before it had to come into effect.
A huge bill which will change Britain’s relationship with our nearest neighbours, end the freedom of British people to work and study in Europe, and introduce a raft of bureaucratic red tape to do business with Europe while avoiding tariffs and quotas, will be debated in just half a day. The bill will have no clause by clause examination because there will be no time in the Commons to do this. It will be just rubber stamped. And MPs will have just four minutes – later reduced to three – each to comment.
Similarly the House of Lords will not have time to scrutinise the bill either and though 145 peers have said they want to comment the new bill – they have precisely three minutes each to do so. The House of Lords Constitution Committee will scrutinise the detail of the bill after it has become law – even though the government does not want this to happen. The government in its explanatory memorandum says the bill is not suitable for pre legislation scrutiny. But Baroness Taylor, who chairs the Lords Constitution Committee, points out that the means the government uses to implement the treaty are subject to scrutiny – and she indicated that many of the Commission powers had been transferred to ministers not Parliament.
By midnight tonight the Royal Assent will be given. As the Hansard Society says: “Parliament’s role around the end of the Brexit transition and conclusion of the EU future relationship treaty is a constitutional failure to properly scrutinise the executive and the law.”
It rightly says the proceedings amount to a farce. Compare it with the European Parliament – which Brexiteers say amount to bureaucratic dictators. They declined to rush through a debate approving the deal until they could properly consider it. Instead they rely on a temporary agreement to allow trade to continue and will set aside much more time to debate it than the UK Parliament. They have two months to do this.
The reason why this is important is if there are defects in the legislation that will show up later and end up discrediting the issue even for Brexiteers. Much better to get the legislation right – and Parliamentary scrutiny is the best way to do this. Particularly as the deal runs to 1200 pages and you have to check the bill with the Treaty and refer to other legislation. We have now thrown away that chance.
In a way this is a microcosm of the way Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues want to govern this country. They do not want scrutiny and want “to take back control” for themselves and not for Parliament or the people. They want to use Parliament and the people for their own agenda. Today was a bad day for Parliament and democracy.
We are now getting used to Boris Johnson’s blustering empty slogans on current problems – whether it’s Covid 19 or Brexit. What I hadn’t realised until today it is obviously standard Cabinet speak for this government – as Liz Truss, the international trade secretary and women and equalities minister, has just done the same.
Her much trailed speech at the Centre for Policy Studies was full of crowd pleasing right wing jibes bashing the Left and talking of so called unrepresentative groups campaigning for black and ethnic minorities, gays and women but getting nowhere.
But when it came to what she wanted to offer it was pretty thin gruel. She is moving the Equalities Hub from London to the North and asking the Social Mobility Commission to research the geographical disparities across the country. Wow!
motherhood and apple pie
And some of the speech read – forgive me for being sexist – like ” motherhood and apple pie”.
“Now is the time to root the equality debate in the real concerns people face, delivering quality housing, cutting commute times, improving public transport, ending discrimination in our offices, factories and shop floors, and improving our schools so every child has the same chances in life,” she opined.
Politicians have been spouting these platitudes for decades. No one is going to stand on a platform of let’s build a new generation of slums, slash public transport and cut school budgets – even if the result of some policies -under Tory governments- has been to do this.
The truth is we already know what has happened to the North and the South West without any more research. I know having looked at life expectancy figures that people in posh Kensington live much longer than those in Blackpool. I have been to Sunderland and Skelmersdale and seen the narrow life chances of people who live there. And by the way if the Tories are so worried about the North- why did both places miss out on Robert Jenrick’s largesse in his town fund scheme- in favour of Cheadle and Southport ( both Tory marginal seats unlike the former two).
It is what she going to do about this that matters. Her solution seems to be that rugged individualism will solve the lot and miraculously lift the masses out of years of deprivation. Yet to have a big impact it has to be a big partnership involving local councils, communities and diverse interest groups. She seems to suggest that one compartmentalises equality -looking at social and economic class – and ignoring whether they are black, gay, women or white working class males. In a bizarre sort of way her analysis is almost Marxist – though she would be a million miles away from his solution.
She also doesn’t seem to know that she already possesses the power to do this under the Equality Act.
One reaction from Nell Andrew, GMB National Equality and Inclusion Officer ( no doubt one of those Lefties she doesn’t like) was:
“If Liz Truss is serious in her ‘new fight for fairness’, she could start by enacting Section 1 of the Equality Act that was passed in Parliament 10 years ago and which successive Tory administrations have refused to act on. This would force public institutions to adopt effective polices to reduce the inequalities that result from class or socio-economic barriers.
“A drastic move away from recognising peoples lived experience, ignoring qualitive evidence, is a dangerous use of smoke and mirrors to attack equality and human rights legislation.
“All major equality and employment laws came about because of workers and communities organising around issues like racism, sexism and homophobia; fighting for more equal rights for everyone. “
Dr Meghan Campbell, Deputy-Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub, and an expert on the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,(CEDAW) put it this way:
“Today’s statement appears to fracture equality between identity characteristics (race, gender etc) and socio-economic equality. The water-tight division between different types of equality is both misleading and highly strained. There are complex interactions between race, gender, disability, migration status, geography, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and poverty. Historically marginalised groups have higher rates of poverty and political and social exclusion. “
“While there are some encouraging aspects focusing in on geographic equality and poverty, but these should not be pitted against race or gender equality as equality is not a zero-sum game.
” Poverty cannot be fully addressed without transforming the institutions and norms that perpetuate poverty against women and people of colour. The statement seems to be moving back to a very individualised vision of equality that ignores how larger structures, norms and institutions can trap people into disadvantage. “
So I am not impressed. If I am very cynical just a week ago she as equalities minister got advance warning that the UN CEDAW committee in Geneva has decided to seek the UK’s response on discrimination in relation to women as the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the Back To 60 pension discrimination case. I wonder if this among other matters prompted her rushed public response.
Full report on the scandal still not published as top officials try to avoid blame for the fiasco
Just over two years ago this site carried a blog post with Byline Times on one of the biggest and most incompetent contracts ever made in Whitehall by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.(NDA) The £6.2 billion contract to the Texas company Cavendish Fluor Partnerships ended up in the courts where it was successfully challenged by rivals Energy Solutions including Bechtel who won £97m compensation on the grounds that the contract had been awarded illegally.
The contract was to clean up and make safe 10 ageing Magnox nuclear power stations and two research facilities at enormous cost to the taxpayer. It is part of a long term decommissioning programme which will eventually cost the taxpayer a staggering £132 billion and not be finally completed until 2140 long after anybody reading this ( and me) will have died.
At the time Sir Amyas Morse, then comptroller and auditor general , said “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.”
Not a pretty picture
Now two years on the National Audit Office and MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have looked at what has happened. And the saga is continuing with not altogether a pretty picture. And the final report was held up by legal action from the NDA’s former senior management team.
The result of the first court case meant that the NDA shortened the contract and it finished last year.
The cost of doing this was to ratchet up another £20 million bill for the taxpayer to avoid yet more litigation this time from the contractor. This took the extra cost to the taxpayer to £140m.
Then the cost of the whole project of decommissioning the power stations has gone up yet again. From an estimated £6.2 billion to anything from £6.9 billion to £8.7 billion. The reason is that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority don’t know the real state of all the sites. And it is obvious that there is a huge amount asbestos on the sites are a major problems.
And they haven’t been very good at making sure the contractor did a good good job. One defective performance notice on Bradwell nuclear power station had to be issued three times before it was correct- and then it was too late as it came during the month the contract finished. In the end the contractor agreed a post contract payment cutting £2.98 million from its bill. Bradwell was the first to move to a ” care and maintenance ” contract in 2018.
Management has been strengthened since the fiasco with new people brought in. New state companies have been set up to deal with decommissioning. But we won’t know the complete story of the debacle until the final report from Steve Holliday, the former head of the national grid, reveals what happened and who is to blame.
He has issued a bland interim report but publication of the final report was hit by yet more legal action.
Inquiry chief insists he will investigate top management and ministers
Mr Holliday concludes in his interim report: “
“I will further investigate whether the actions of individuals within the NDA , and those of government officials and ministers, were consistent with the standards expected of them, including relevant codes of conduct. “I will continue to investigate whether decision makers (individuals, including government officials and ministers or boards) had the necessary information to make those decisions and, if not, why not. This will cover decision making at all stages of the matters covered by the terms of reference, including the procurement, the litigation and the matters leading to the termination for convenience.”
This led to five officials – John Clarke. the former NDA chief executive; Stephen Henwood, the former chairman; Robert Higgins, the former head of legal services; Mr Graeme Rankin, former head of competition and Mr Sean Balmer, former commercial director, to go to court to seek a judicial review into Mr Holliday’s inquiry.
Each had been notified they could be subject to criticism by Mr Holliday and were alarmed it could affect their reputations and livelihoods.
They claimed they had all had their human rights breached by Mr Holliday unlawfully delegating work and criticisms of them to his staff; hadn’t disclosed all the material to them and prevented them from sharing information while making representations to him.
Judicial review dismissed
On Christmas Eve last year the judge Mr Justice Murray dismissed the ” arguable” case over the delegation of work and all the other grounds. It was pointed out that there are 2.5 million documents in the case and Mr Holliday could hardly be expected to read every one.
The result is that we still have no final report nearly a year after the court decision suggesting that wrangling is still continuing. As MPs on the public accounts committee point out :”Implementing the recommendations of the Holliday inquiry into the Magnox contract and the Department’s ‘Tailored Review’ of the role of the NDA will be critical and the publication of these reports cannot come soon enough.”
Inside story of how the government can’t even organise a Covid- 19 survey let alone sort out the pandemic
Much has been said of the government’s expensive muddle and mishandling of the Covid -19 pandemic where millions if not billions of taxpayer’s cash has gone down the drain. Contracts have gone to the Vote Leave chumocracy, apps have failed, people have unnecessarily died in care homes and it has been bonanza time for private firms.
What has been missed is that while all this is happening the Department for Health through the Office for National Statistics and Oxford University have undertaken a randomised survey of 220,000 people to find out about the spread of Covid -19.
This is not just a once off questionnaire but those taking part in each household can opt to participate for a year. For the first month they are swabbed once a week and then monthly. The aim is to provide the government with a detailed picture of the pandemic’s progress and once approved the effectiveness of any new vaccines.
The scheme has been branded with trustworthy names – who would object to helping researchers at Oxford University or the Office for National Statistics.
Private company bonanza
But in fact the work is yet another bonanza for private companies and labs just like test and trace. What could possibly go wrong?
Well it did and this blog is my personal experience and my wife Margaret’s experience.
It started with a package being posted through our front door.
We were invited to ring a free number to sign up. Then within a week you would have an appointment. A pleasant socially distanced study worker would turn up, take your details, show you how to administer your own swab and send it off to a lab. You would get the result – if positive – within 24 to 72 hours from Public Health England. If it was negative you wouldn’t hear. You would also be eventually paid £50 in vouchers for the first visit and £25 for subsequent visits.
Sounds a doddle. It wasn’t.
First try and ring up and get an answer. I got through on the sixth attempt. And it is not to Oxford University but to IQVIA, an American multinational based in Durham, North Carolina, not Durham, England, with an income of $11.11 billion – effectively a health care data mining company. They have set up offices in the UK and guess what they are under staffed – hence the difficulty in getting through.
I was told to expect a call from NatCen, a private social research company, based in London that were in charge of appointments.
A week went by, two, three, then a month and nothing. Finally there was a knock on the door and a genial man called Kirk asked me who I was.
” We have been trying to ring you for weeks and couldn’t get you. We got someone else who was already on the programme”, he told me
The reason was simple. The mobile number they had for me was not remotely like mine – they had put in someone else’s in their records
The came the swab – straightforward. We were told if we heard nothing after 48 hours we would be in the clear.
Then SIX days later we took a call from Hertfordshire County Council. It was for my wife – we are both in our 70s – she was Covid 19 positive . She had to self isolate for another four days. I was negative but had to self isolate for another seven.
The woman didn’t seem to know why we had been tested together, didn’t know about the national survey, and then told my wife not to have another swab in case it was a false positive.
This was scary because my wife did not have ONE SYMPTOM, no temperature, no cough, nothing. But we had to quickly cancel a hospital outpatient appointment for that day and cancel a visit due the next day from a physiotherapist.
The advice from Herts County Council was contradicted the next day by another study worker pointed out that the survey required people who were positive to take another test. He was puzzled that she – given we are part of the vulnerable group susceptible to Covid 19 – had no symptoms. He could not explain why we had been contacted by Herts County Council and not Public Health England.
After scary days of waiting to see if anything developed we had another call from IQVIA. It was to tell us that Lighthouse Laboratories – the privatised mega lab consortium – set up by Medicines Discovery Catapult Ltd and UK Biocentre Ltd- who tested the swab had got it wrong. She was not positive and the test had been invalidated because the lab had used the wrong compounds to test it.
Nor were we the only ones – an entire batch – was wrong. Imagine the distress this would cause.It wasn’t the first time either. The Independent reported in September that tens of thousands of people had been cleared of Covid- 19 by the same labs when they were positive.
We now await our promised vouchers. I see they are provided by Sodexo – a private company which I remember was responsible for the hopeless failed privatisation of the probation service. They also provide child care vouchers. I wonder what they can to do to muck things up. I can’t wait.
Tax revenue down £70 billion while tens of billions spent saving jobs and the economy
Just before the first phase of Covid 19 peaked HM Revenue and Customs had a very good year. Tax revenues had peaked at £636.7 billion from more national insurance contributions, a record target of 95.3 per cent of tax due had been paid and £36.9 billion had been recovered from tax fraud and evasion. Then Covid hit.
Now as the Chancellor prepares his latest spending statement the latest annual report and accounts of HMRC and a National Audit Office report qualifying the accounts a very different picture is emerging. To give you an idea the Revenue lost £70 billion in tax revenue in five months.
The Covid-19 pandemic turned HMRC upside down and at least three planned targets will be missed this year. Just like the Department for Work and Pensions thousands of staff were moved to help handle the pandemic. But the pandemic also means a big loss of revenue , the cancellation of plans to combat firms who avoid tax by using the black market and an expected increase in money lost through fraud and error on working tax credit.|
On working tax credit it says: “As we no longer accept new claims to tax credits (with limited minor exceptions), our work to restrict error and fraud now focuses on existing awards.. ..The continuing need to divert compliance staff to support other departmental pressures means we expect not to meet the 5% maximum target for 2019 to 2020.”
On collecting tax it says:” Due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the end of year HMRC debt balance for March 2020 is £2.5 billion higher than forecast, coming in at £22.4 billion, significantly over the forecast of £19.9 billion… It is anticipated that the economic impact of COVID-19 will continue into financial year 2020 to 2021 as customers find it increasingly difficult to fulfil their tax obligations.”
black market tax avoidance
And on tackling black market tax avoidance – called conditionality in tax office jargon – it says:” Budget 2018 said that the government would consider legislating to introduce conditionality at Finance Bill 2019-20. However Budget 2020, which was delayed from autumn 2019, announced that the legislation would be included in Finance Bill 2020-21. Internal milestones were adjusted to work towards that revised timetable.”
You have to turn to the report by the NAO to find out the real impact of Covid-19 on the tax offices. For a start offices were deserted. 80 per cent of the 50,000 staff worked from home and as a result the public faced long delays in getting through to HMRC because only 7000 had secure phones to handle queries.
People kept waiting on the phone
From March 2020 there was an increase in the time HMRC took to answer telephone calls, peaking at 14:59 minutes in May and improving to 9:15 minutes in June 2020.
Like DWP large numbers were switched to working on Covid-19 work.
“At the peak, in May 2020, of 58,592 full-time equivalent staff, 9,097 (16%) were reallocated to COVID-19-related roles. Of the two largest groups of staff, 25.2% of staff in the customer services group were allocated to COVID-19-related work in April 2020 and 17.3% of staff from customer compliance group were allocated to COVID-19 in May 2020.”
Numbers have since fallen but will probably have gone up again with the second wave. The key schemes were the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Self Employed scheme and “Eat to Help Out”. The Job Retention Scheme is thought to have been targeted by organised crime and billions of pounds may have been defrauded. See my article in Byline Times.
As a result “yield from its tax compliance activities is likely to reduce in 2020-21. For comparison purposes, HMRC achieved a compliance yield of some £7.5 billion in the period April to June 2020, 51% less than the yield of £15.4 billion achieved in the same period in 2019-20.”
The detail over tax losses is daunting. Some £70 billion between April and August this year -£38 billion alone from VAT. Some £13.5 billion from tax and national insurance; Another £10 billion from Corporation tax and over £4 billion from fuel duties as people stopped travelling.
Receipts recovered at the end of the first lockdown in July and August, particularly VAT by £10 billion.
However a tables in both report also reveal how much HMRC is paying out and how much they don’t how much it will cost. The furlough scheme was £39bn up to September; Eat Out to Help Out cost them £522m for August, Payments to the self employed cost £13bn but they don’t yet know the real cost of a host of projects. Some £1.5m was set aside for putting up basic working tax credit by £1045 for the tax year but figures for the claims are not available. Another £200m was put aside for repaying employers contributions to statutory sick pay but we don’t know how much was spent.
At least eight other measures spending figures are not available – these include the concessions on stamp duty for homer buyers, deferring tax payments for the self employed, VAT reductions on food and accommodation, exempting personal protective clothing from VAT, and cutting import duties on essential medical equipment.
We do know that as of June £28 billion of VAT was deferred.
Finally the Department’s bad record of recovering payments on working tax credits led its annual accounts to be qualified by the auditor general.
Some £1.11 billion was overpaid or almost 5 per cent of all payments and it will get worse this year. But because staff disruption over Covid 19 we won’t know this year’s figure until next June. Covid-19 could currently slow the transfer of people from working tax credit beyond the current delayed deadline of 2024.
Only 10 people switched to universal credit
Just TEN people instead of an expected 2000 transferred to Universal Credit last year under a new pilot project. The project has now been halted. Covid 19 did encourage a number of people to voluntarily transfer after the rates were temporarily raised.
Meanwhile the huge expense of preparing for Brexit – temporarily stalled by Covid 19 for part of the year – is now estimated to have cost £516m in the last tax year and there are now 6,100 staff working on it. Altogether since the referendum it has cost not far short of £800m because they have to prepare for so many scenarios.
A damning new report has come from Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, on what to expect at the ports on January 2 whether the country leaves the EU with a deal or no deal.
Despite spending a humungous £1.41 billion for new infrastructure and IT systems – which wouldn’t be required if we had stayed in the EU – it looks like we are heading for chaos because we are still not properly prepared.
Instead of having to process some 55 million customs declarations a year Customs and Excise will have to handle 270 million.
And some 219.5 million tonnes of freight crossed the border between the UK and EU in 2019 and only between 30 and 60 per cent of lorries are prepared for the change.
And guess what? With eight weeks to go the government doesn’t know how much trade there is between the UK and Northern Ireland which is subject to the new Northern Ireland protocol that Boris Johnson signed last year. This will require new documentation and registering with a new import control service. And again the government doesn’t know how many firms have to sign up pointing to potential chaos on sea routes across the Irish sea between Wales, Scotland and England.
worst case scenario
And in the worst case scenario there could also be queues of up to 7000 lorries trying to access the Channel ports.
The scale of the exercise in Whitehall is shown by the number of departments involved As the report says:
“This includes HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Home Office, the Department for Transport, and the Border and Protocol Delivery Group (BPDG) and Transition Task Force (TTF), which are both situated within the Cabinet Office. BPDG is responsible for coordinating government’s preparations in relation to the border and TTF has oversight of overall EU Exit preparations, following the closure of the Department for Exiting the European Union in January 2020.”
Auditors have also engaged with departments within the Northern Ireland civil service which have the most significant roles in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The picture is not pretty. The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic led to a three month pause in ministerial meetings to organise the new border regulations and as a result many of the new customs declarations will be delayed until July 2021 rather than January. Yet for political reasons the Cabinet would not extend the transition period,
Then there is a good chance of computer glitches in the operating of the new system at all ports. The report says:
“Integrating the processes, IT systems, infrastructure and resources to operate together for the first time from 1 January 2021 is inherently complex and high-risk. In addition third parties, such as ports and community software providers, who need to develop new software which integrates with new or changed government systems, have been given very little time in which to prepare and are unlikely to be able to do so in time for 1 January 2021. “
Can you imagine the mess there will be on the first day and it won’t just be teething problems.
The government is hoping to get round it by appointing customs intermediaries – at a cost of £84 m – to help firms negotiate the new system. But it has started slowly, not all the money to appoint them has been used and Whitehall has given the plan a red light because they fear it would not be ready in time.
Also the present second wave of Covid-19 could make matters worse as firms will have to cope with that and a new system. The report says:
“The emergency response to COVID-19 has placed strain on local authorities, industry and supply chains’ ability to plan and put in place contingency arrangements. Disruption at the border maybe harder to manage if it also happens alongside further COVID-19 outbreaks and a background of economic uncertainty.”
Details of the Northern Ireland arrangements are partly in the hands of the Northern Ireland government. But report says: “Its ability to take forward this work has been severely hampered by the ongoing negotiations and, in the case of infrastructure, the lack of clarity about the level of checking that will be required.”
Boris the Bodger
The final picture is dire. The report says:
“It is very unlikely that all traders, industry and third parties will be ready for the end of the transition period, particularly if the EU implements its stated intention of introducing full controls at its border from 1 January 2021.” If the EU keep to its word and the government is as unprepared as this report suggests – the chaos with lorries stranded in new overflow car parks, delays and confusion in operating the system and computer systems failing all on the same day will be very bad news. Boris the Builder will become Boris the Bodger and no one will thank him for the mess.
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 AccessWeb Saver 0.6 per centwith 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 0.6/0.55per cent and allow sui withdrawals a year
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.
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 ithere.
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.
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.
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.
Today the National Audit Office produces a timely reporton 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.
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.
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 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”
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.
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.