Exclusive: Southern Railway contract to be investigated by National Audit Office

southern-railway-train-pic-credit-bbc

A Southern Railway train: often overcrowded even if it runs. Pic Credit:BBC

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The badly managed and strike prone Southern Railway contract is to be investigated by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office.

After months if not a years of misery for commuters caused by failing services and strike action over safety  the NAO has quietly decided to investigate the Department of Transport’s  handling of the contract alongside another investigation into the modernisation of Thameslink services. Both are major commuter services  into the capital and both are owner by Govia, the country’s biggest privatised train operator.

The decision by the NAO has been quietly slipped out on its website as an update to the Thameslink investigation without an official announcement. Such a move is bound to cause some consternation for transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and his officials.

Publication of the report due this summer will trigger an investigation by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee where officials will be called to account depending on the NAO’s findings.

Southern is one a series of franchises owned by Govia, a consortium set up by the British  Go Ahead bus company and the French state owned railways, SNCF, whose international arm trades as Keolis.

The NAO investigation comes after the disclosure that Peter Wilkinson , a senior civil servant who is paid £265,000 a year, as director of rail passenger services at the Department for Transport, has been exposed by an investigation in The Guardian for an apparent conflict of interest.

He awarded Govia both contracts but it was revealed that he was, at the time, a
director and the main shareholder of First Class Partnerships, a consultancy which had Govia as a longstanding client.  He has declined to comment about the internal inquiry which is said to have decided that this was a conflict of interest.

Since then Govia’s Southern Railway has been involved in a long dispute with unions over plans to abolish guards on trains. The company has been backed by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, and unions fear safety is at risk and the plan will be extended to other franchises they run like London Midland.

Southern also decline to provide a comprehensive service to disabled passengers.

The NAO statement on its site announcing the extension said :

“The Department for Transport is sponsoring a £7 billion programme to increase passenger capacity on the Thameslink route through central London. The programme involves the improvement of tracks, signalling and stations, a new fleet of trains and new franchise arrangements for running the passenger service on the Thameslink route.

“Since 2015, train services on the Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) franchise have been subject to significant disruption, particularly on the Southern services. Alongside our work on the Thameslink Programme, we also plan to report on the Department’s management of the TSGN franchise.”

Rail unions are welcoming the investigation with ASLEF, the train drivers union, keen that such an inquiry will bring transparency to how the contract was monitored by the ministry and also how it was awarded.

Meanwhile  government spin operators have indicated that perhaps the line might be taken back into public ownership if it continues to fail. While this story is officially denied ministers do not like being wrong footed by a detailed National Audit Office investigation and often plan some diversionary tactics when a report is about to be published.

It is question of watch this space. I have also written about this in Tribune.

 

How Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling’s failed commercial venture cost us the taxpayer over £1m

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An extraordinary report published by the National Audit Office today on ” Just Solutions” – the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice set up by former Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke – reveals that taxpayers have lost over £1m on the failed venture.

Remember this was promoted by Chris Grayling so the Ministry of Justice could make money by selling prison expertise to regimes with appalling judicial systems like Saudi Arabia and Oman. It was closed down by Michael Gove when he became justice secretary after the election.

Now the NAO reveals that not only was this unethical but it actually cost the taxpayer money. Indeed one can see how desperate the government might have been to sign a  £5.9 m contract with Saudi Arabia and further contracts with Oman – as this would have been the only way it could have made a profit out it.

Instead over four years  from 2012 to this year  it lost £302,000, £390,000 £317,000  and £141,000 respectively. leading to a £ 1,150,000 cumulative loss for the taxpayer.

And its scope was much wider than people realised with projects in Nigeria, the Seychelles, Libya, Estonia, Mauritius, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands as well as private study visits to drum up business in China, Bangla Desh, Turkmenistan and India.

As the NAO found: ” The cost of setting up JSi exceeded the income generated by completed contracts. We estimate that JSi’s costs were approximately £2.1 million from 2012 until its closure, including £239,000 on consultancy services. Therefore JSi made a net loss of approximately £1.1 million in this period. This is due, in part, to the decision to withdraw from prospective arrangements with Saudi Arabia and Oman.”

The report discloses that it had big plans for Oman.

“The initial proposal, Phase 1, was for a small piece of work to critique the plans of an
existing prison and was valued at £98,000. This was expected to be followed by work
to develop a new prison in Oman, Phase 2, valued initially at approximately £4 million
but later negotiations increased this to £7.8 million. In addition, preliminary discussions
were held in 2014 with the Omani government around a national training programme.”

Grayling also spent £6500 fighting off a judicial review  of its activities before the organisation was closed by Michael Gove.

This is all a far cry from the boasts in the Ministry of Justice six monthly report saying it was all contributing to the ministry’s budget and supposed to be saving the taxpayer money. Instead it was racking up debts.

This a sorry tale for anybody who has a shred of ethics and thought Britain should not be helping regimes that flog and behead offenders. Bur the fact that it lost money doing it is  a  further damning indictment of the government and Chris Grayling.

As Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said yesterday:  “When Just Solutions International was closed down it had made an overall loss of £1.1 million despite a commitment that it would be self-funding by April 2013.

“Despite being a commercial venture, it generated less than £1 million income over three years.

“I am concerned by the loss of taxpayers’ money on this failed venture, and the Ministry of Justice’s ongoing work with countries with questionable human rights records.”

 

 

The blog in 2015: Driven by Aaronovitch and Amy Winehouse

The unlikely combination of combative Times columnist  David Aaronovitch and the tragic pop star Amy Winehouse drove traffic to my blog last year.

I doubt either have met each other but in different ways it reflects the present obsession with controversial names and celebrity culture.

The Amy Winehouse blog is three years old and is a travelogue based on the fact that I found myself and my wife staying at the same tourist complex in St Lucia that acted as a retreat for Amy when she was chilling out from drugs. I suspect the film about her has driven the traffic but the blog got over 1500 hits last year – 50 per cent more than the combined total of the two previous years taking it to nearly 2700 hits.

David Aaronovitch’s critique of my journalism in The Times led to 3537 hits when I decided to respond – though it was eclipsed by my critique of Dominic Lawson’s take on the Leon Brittan alleged child sex abuse scandal which attracted 6447 views.

Interest in the case of child sex abuse survivor Esther Baker was reflected in two high scoring blogs- at 2674 for an analysis of the challenge facing Staffs Police in investigating her case and 2096 when the first arrest was announced.

The scandal over former justice secretary Chris Grayling seeking contracts from the despicable Saudi Arabian justice system – which this blog  and Tribune broke- was a big highlight – with 4250 hits when his successor Michael Gove faced court action and 2795 when the story originally broke.

Otherwise the biggest hits were reserved for the attempt to get rid of the Speaker, John Bercow, on the last day of Parliament – with 3933 on a piece criticising William  Hague’s botched action  in changing the election rules and 2497 on the midnight email to MPs from Julian Lewis MP which alerted everyone to the dodgy deal.

The most controversial blog has been my reporting of a Northern Ireland judge’s decision to compensate a paedophile for a campaign against him by one of his victims -comments were both virulent in their hatred and support for the judge.

Altogether the number of hits  recorded by WordPress on my blog – 127,725 were down from 182,000 the previous year. I also wrote fewer blogs as I was away some of the time. But this is not the full story as the blog is getting increasing additional traffic from Linked In, Facebook and is now run on Byline.com so I am not longer sure how many hits I am getting any more.

WordPress also records I have had hits from 155 countries. Over 80 per cent (107,000) is from the UK but there were over 7,700 from the United States and over 1000 each from Australia, Ireland and France. I have had just one hit from Iran, Syria, Armenia and the Turks and Caicos Islands to name but a few.

The blog’s rating on http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.co.uk/ has gone up from number 62 to number 50 on the top independent bloggers This partly reflects my twitter following increasing to 8085.

For a small one man blog however it is gratifying that so many people are interested – given I do no promotion.

 

 

A4e: Six jailed in £300,000 fake job fraud scam

A4e: Improving People's lives -and defrauding the government

A4e: Improving People’s lives -and defrauding the government

The scandal that rocked A4e, the private contractor condemned by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, for fiddling the books, hit home this week.

Six people were given jail sentences and another four were given suspended sentences by a judge at  Reading Crown Court.

The BBC reported here yesterday the sentencing by the judge. The scheme as reported earlier on this blog involved mentoring single parents – some of the most vulnerable in society so they could get work. But the £1.3m Aspire programme turned out to be a vehicle for fraud by the staff.

The court was told  staff made up files, forged signatures and falsely claimed they had helped people find jobs, enabling them to hit targets and gain government bonuses.

Judge Angela Morris said there had been a “systematic practice” of compiling bogus files over a “considerable period of time”, behaviour which she described as “appallingly cavalier”.

She said: “No amount of pressure justifies the wholesale fabrication of information in files or the forgery of other people’s signatures on documents, all of which is designed to extract money from the Department of Work and Pensions.”

The roll call of fraudsters are:

  • Charles McDonald, 44, of Derwent Road, Egham, Surrey, pleaded guilty to six counts of forgery and one of conspiracy to commit forgery. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison.
  • Julie Grimes, 52, of Monks Way, Staines, Surrey, pleaded guilty to nine counts of forgery. She was sentenced to 26 months in prison.
  • Nikki Foster, 31, of High Tree Drive, Reading, pleaded guilty to nine counts of forgery, and was jailed for 22 months.
  • Ines Cano-Uribe, 39, of Madrid, Spain, was found guilty of one count of forgery and one of conspiracy to commit forgery. She was jailed for 18 months.
  • Dean Lloyd, 38, of Rochfords, Coffee Hall, Milton Keynes, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of forgery. He was given a 15-month jail sentence.
  • Bindiya Dholiwar, 29, of Reddington Drive, Slough, pleaded guilty to seven counts of forgery, and was jailed for 15 months.
  • Zabar Khalil, 35, of Dolphin Road, Slough, was found guilty of one count of forgery. He was given a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
  • Matthew Hannigan-Train, 31, of Westacre Close, Bristol, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit forgery. He received a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
  • Hayley Wilson, 27, of Middlesex Drive, Milton Keynes, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit forgery. She was given a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years.
  • Aditi Singh, 32, of Albert Street, Slough, pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and one count of possessing items to commit fraud, and received a 10-month sentence, suspended for two years.

However less we forget the Department for Work and Pensions was severely criticised in a Commons public accounts committee report for failing to conduct checks on what was going on with A4e at the time – and the company was only investigated because whistleblowers came forward about what was going on.

Chris Grayling, then the minister responsible for employment, took no action to investigate further either. As the PAC said at the time in a report  on A4e and other programmes the DWP never looked at whether A4e was ” a fit and proper contractor” to run other programmes.

A4e chief executive Andrew Dutton said  yesterday the company has a “zero-tolerance policy” towards fraud and money had been set aside so “the taxpayer will have lost nothing” from the scam.

Mr Dutton said: “Their claims do not reflect the way this company operates, or the values of our 2,100 staff, whose honesty and integrity are much-valued.”

I remain to be convinced whether the company has truly reformed.

The shameful silence of the Ministry of Justice about its commercial dealings with Saudi Arabia

Chris Grayling last yearsigning the memorandum of understanding with the Saudis; Pic Credit: UsSembassy

Chris Grayling last year signing the memorandum of understanding with the Saudis; Pic Credit: US embassy

Last week I put up a blog revealing a proposal by the commercial wing of the Ministry of Justice (yes there is one, it’s not satire!) to sell  a £5.9m contract  to the Saudi prison service to provide training and better management for their repressive judicial regime.

The British government under the guise of Chris Grayling the Lord Chancellor, seemed to be falling over itself to get a deal to provide a profit for the ministry from a regime that beheads dozens of citizens a year and flogs many more – including Rafi Badawi, a liberal blogger  facing 1000 lashes and ten years in jail for running a liberal political  website.

The scandal was taken up by lawyer David Allen Green who blogs as Jack of Kent  on his site and  as David Allen Green at the Financial Times.

What has been extraordinary is the way the Ministry of Justice have behaved since the disclosure to both me and the distinguished lawyer.

After telling me it was ridiculous to equate the scheme with selling to a country that routinely flogs  and beheads people they refused to answer some basic questions from him.

He pointed out in a very detailed and useful blog which is well worth a read – link here– that Grayling also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi government – for legal co-operation  at a time when the ministry – through Just Solutions International, its commercial wing,- wanted to start commercial contracts with the Saudi state.

He then asked them for some information – such as a copy of the memorandum of understanding, details of the £5.9m contract, details about Just Solutions International, and what it was going to do in Saudi Arabia.

Such as “For example, is JSi going to be challenging and seeking to prevent abuses when it comes across malpractice, and indeed what human rights safeguards and training are going to be built into any programme? “

The Ministry of Justice refused point-blank to provide any more information, release any details about the memorandum or the contract and when pressed added : ” “Sorry, we’re not going to give a running commentary on this.”

One wonders what the Ministry of Justice has got to hide. As Prince Charles and David Cameron dropped everything to pay their respects at  Saudi King Abdullah’s funeral last week,, it might suggest rather a lot and not just at the ministry of justice

Britain also has enormous defence and foreign affairs interests. Remember the  Serious Fraud Office dropping  the BAe Systems Saudi fraud investigation six years ago? And what about BAe speaking at Chris Grayling’s law summit as   tweeted: “To celebrate Magna Carta, Grayling is hosting with BAe speaking on “business and rule of law” . Given the Saudis put pressure on the British judicial  system to drop the rule of law, this is rather ironic Will Just Solutions International play a part?

The government and ministry of justice have a lot to answer – and they shouldn’t get away with it.

Last night The Guardian and the Independent became the first mainstream media to cover the story. See here and here.

Ministry of Justice:Flogging prison expertise to Saudi beheaders and floggers

Chris Grayling: Selling British prison expertise to Saudi beheaders and floggers

Chris Grayling: Selling British prison expertise to Saudi beheaders and floggers

The nasty and brutal punishment (1000 lashes) being meted out to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is rightly being condemned by human rights groups across the world.

What may not be so well-known  is that the British government is currently negotiating to sell prison expertise to the  repressive Saudi judicial regime to make money in order to cut the deficit for the taxpayer.

The man championing this move is none other than Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, well-known for wanting to deny prisoners books and an enthusiastic backer of longer prison sentences and tough prison regimes.

Quietly he has set up a commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice called Just Solutions International. You can download a glossy brochure here.

Mr Grayling is passionate about this. At the launch of the social enterprise he said:

“We are leading the world in our management of offenders and the reforms we are introducing will push us even further ahead of the pack. I’m proud that countries look to us when they want to improve and develop their own systems.”

“This social enterprise will build on our global reputation for innovation while getting best value, as any profits made will be put directly back into improving our own justice system, making it a win-win for hardworking taxpayers.”

What we didn’t know then was where Britain was selling this expertise. However just before Christmas the Ministry of Justice released an interim report on its progress.

It revealed as I report in Tribune :

” JSi submitted a £5.9 million proposal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Finance to conduct a training needs analysis across all the learning and development programmes within the Saudi Arabian Prison Service.

Also in August, JSi submitted a large-scale bid to the Royal Oman Police (ROP) proposing assistance for the design of a new prison. Discussions are currently taking place with ROP about further learning and development training programmes.”

The document states that Chris Grayling visited Saudi Arabia last September to sign a memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation with the regime and promote British legal services and Doha in Qatar to promote co-operation. A junior justice minister, Lord Faulks, visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during October, both also seen to be repressive regimes, and signed a memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation in Kazakhstan.”

I put this to the Ministry of Justice. This was their reply: ” “It is ridiculous to suggest that providing overseas governments with assistance in the development of their criminal justice systems demonstrates support for such atrocious acts. It has been government policy for many years to work with overseas governments and help them develop their criminal justice systems.”

Really! Some people might think the Saudis will be taking comfort from such British support and personal visits from Chris Grayling while continuing these barbaric acts. Also is there not an ethical matter whether the British taxpayer wants the deficit reduced by making profits from a regime that tortures,  publicly beheads ( some 59 in first nine months of last year) and flogs people? It could be said to amount to blood money.

Frankly it suggests that Mr Grayling’s main aim is making money and he couldn’t care about the regimes who pay us and how they treat their own citizens. It also hypocritical. we are condemning ISIS for the same practices. Would Mr Grayling – if ISIS win – be happy to flog them the same British help for running their justice system in the Islamic state?

Also just how wonderful is the British prison system that we are selling. If you look at reports from the Howard League for Penal Reform we have huge problems with overcrowding, suicides and a repressive attitude by Grayling himself. Do we want to export that?

I am wondering how ridiculous the blogger Raif will think it is that the  system that incarcerates and flogs him benefits from British expertise to make money. I also wonder whether Mr Grayling – a  cold hard right Tory – was or is  a supporter of hanging and flogging himself.

Since this blog was published The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, defended to the BBC the sale of British prisons expertise to Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to Andrew Neil one the Sunday Politics Mr Grayling said: “It is right and proper that we as a nation try to work with other nations to improve their systems.”

 Saudi Arabia has been widely criticised, including by the British Government, for sentencing the blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail.  Mr Grayling said he “completely condemns” the punishment.

He added: “This is something I am looking at very carefully.”

Amnesty International campaign poster for rasif Badawi

Amnesty International campaign poster for Raif Badawi

Is Whitehall still letting profit hungry contractors off the hook to rip off the state?

Chris Grayling: His £400m gift to contractor's profits sparked a pathetic clampdown pic courtesy: BBC

Chris Grayling: His £400m gift to contractor’s profits
sparked a pathetic clampdown pic courtesy: BBC

Remember the major row over  justice secretary Chris Grayling’s “poison pill ” contract to privatise the probation service. This allowed  the successful bidders to walk away with up to £400m profit on a ten year contract should an incoming Labour government have the temerity to cancel it if they won the next election.

Grayling  not so innocently said that this was just normal Whitehall practice. Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee said it was “It is not value for money. It is unacceptable and must be challenged before the event.”

She demanded something be done and now the Treasury have responded. They have written to every accounting officer of every ministry and every government agency laying down new guidelines. You can read the letter here and see my news article in Tribune this week.

In my view the response is particularly pathetic and certainly not nearly hard-hitting enough to protect taxpayer’s money.

Of  course accounting officers are reminded that they must consider value for money and must be able to justify such decisions but it does include some  remarkably helpful  “get out “clauses that allow such deals to continue.

One  says they should consider: “whether it is likely that, if the public body terminates the contract for policy reasons, the supplier would have a legal case to claim even without the clause being in the contract.” Well it might but I would be amazed if a judge allowed them to keep all projected profits.

They are also expected just to ask rather than instruct companies “whether the market be willing to bid without such clauses, particularly when outsourcing for the first time, or establishing a new market.” And they should ask whether such a deal is “normal practice in this area of business.”

To me this seems an open invitation for private contractors to say, of course it is, where if they had a private contact with another private firm, they would lucky to get all the money back if the other company just collapsed.

It is only that the Government cannot go bankrupt that they are in a position to negotiate such terms.

Now of course accounting officers could refuse to sign such one-sided contracts in the first place and demand the minister in charge directed them to do so. But in fact remarkably few permanent secretaries and chief executives  ever do this. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand in any financial year.

Once again this coalition government is running the country for the benefit of private companies not for the taxpayer or even to the benefit of the ordinary public.