Parliamentary Ombudsman’s plea to MPs to summon the DWP and the Environment Agency for failing to compensate people

Amanda Amroliwala chief executive of the PHSO

Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, has asked the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) to intervene on his behalf and summon the heads of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Environment Agency to appear before them to explain why they are ignoring his findings and refusing to compensate people.

The plea came during a hearing of the committee last week to examine the organisation’s progress and future plans to handle complaints. The committee also heard how the Ombudsman was hamstrung by the failure of the Cabinet Office to pass new legislation to give him greater powers and the latest progress in the 50swomen maladministration claim. More about this below. All these issues highlight weaknesses I have raised in previous blogs.

The DWP case involves 118,000 disabled people who suffered from years of benefit maladminstration . I wrote about this in August- see here. The complaint came from Ms U – via the London borough of Greenwich welfare rights office- who was put in the wrong lower category of the employment support allowance despite being in very poor physical and mental health with little or no savings The Ombudsman ordered the Department to pay her £7500 compensation and five years of arrears totalling £19,832.55 plus interest.

A National Audit Office investigation found that 118,000 people were in the same boat and should have been compensated alongside her following the Ombudsman’s ruling. But the DWP decided only to pay her and ignored everyone else. The pay out would have run to millions of pounds and the DWP decided it would ignore the Ombudsman because legally they can.

The second case involves one family but it is one of the most egregious cases I have heard in Whitehall. The case has been going on for 12 years and involves admitted maladministration by the Environment Agency over the issue of a water licence for a micro hydro project in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. The Earl family who renovated a tumbledown watermill to use for the scheme was supposed to receive substantial compensation decided by an independent assessor appointed by the Environment Agency. who bungled their case. The money owing could amount to £3m as interest has piled up and the EA has refused to follow through the Ombudsman’s finding for years.

John McDonnell MP

MPs also raised the issue of the Ombudsman’s lack of powers. John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor and a Labour member of the committee, has tabled a question to the Cabinet Office asking why they have not introduced legislation to do this. The issue is raised in an earlier blog here.

Mr McDonnell asked Robert Behrens:”Can you explain the practical implications of the Government’s lack of support for legislative reform? How does that hold you back from adhering to the Venice principles, which the Government have signed up to ?”

He told him: “Two of my counterparts have the power of own-initiative investigation. In cases like Windrush, the maternity scandal in hospitals or the issues with mental health, we could go out and look at an issue without it being complained about. We could resolve that issue before it went to a long-standing independent or public inquiry. The peer review panel said that other ombudsman schemes in Europe use that and have used it in Covid to good effect.”

He went on: “If you have 16 public service ombudsmen in the United Kingdom, it means that people do not know where to go. It means the profile of my office and other offices is lower than it would otherwise be. That is not satisfactory in terms of being the only organisation in the public service that provides redress free of charge to citizens. That is very important.”

He added that he saw no reason why a government could not introduce a bill to do all this straight after the next general election.

MPs Question chief executive on 50swomen pension investigation

Amanda Amroliwala, chief executive of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, was closely questioned by three MPs, Ronnie Cowan, SNP, John McDonnell and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, both Labour, on the maladministration complaints over the delay in paying 3.6 million 1950s born women.

On Stage 2 of the report, which has already been leaked on this website see here, she said: “We have not
finalised that stage of the report yet. We are in the process of receiving and analysing the very extensive comments that we have had from the Department and from the complainants who have brought the complaints to us”

RONNIE Cowan, SNP MP for Inverclyde

Under further questioning she added: “We are looking at how those will need to change the
provisional views that are not yet public but that some individuals have had sight of. We will do that as soon as possible.” She would not commit a date for this report and the proposed remedy will be published except ” hopefully” between January and March next year. She was also quizzed on the level of compensation. Ronnie Cowan pointed out it could be anything from nothing to £10,000 but if it was maladministration only the top level was much less than £10,000 .She would not be drawn on how much this is likely to be.

John McDonnell reflected the frustration among MPs about the long delay in the Ombudsman producing a final report. “You can understand the scale of interest and concern there is amongst Members of Parliament. You will have seen that from the early-day motions. There is not an MP without a constituent who has been affected. The concern that people have is because of the age of many of our constituents. Some of them have already passed away. Others may not be here to receive any form of redress, if we delay beyond the next quarter of next year.”

There is another elephant in the room that was not discussed. If the DWP is refusing to pay 118,000 benefit claimants their compensation, why should they pay any of the 3.6 million 50swomen a penny beyond the six test cases who complained?

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Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Whitehall doesn’t rule OK: How Wendover canal trust tragically missed out on a £1 million payout from river polluters

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution of the Wendover Arm led to the £1m fine

Over a year ago I raged about the injustice of the very wealthy Thames Water private utility being fined £1m for polluting the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal  with sewage because they ignored a simple £30,000 repair to the outfall of Tring sewage works. The article is here.

I thought it was particularly unfair on the volunteers who are restoring the canal  and decided to write to our local MP, David Gauke, who is now chief secretary to the Treasury, suggesting that the government might reimburse the fine to help the trust. which desperately needs the money.I also lobbied David Lidington, now leader of the House, to see, as Wendover is in his constituency, whether he would back the idea.

Conservative Party Portraits

David Gauke MP, the Treasury minister said No

David Gauke took a long time to reply ( he admitted that his office had mislaid my letter) but finally at the end of January he replied from the Treasury.

His answer was a resounding NO. He wrote: ” Fines are considered a tax-type revenue and government departments and their agencies, in this case the Environment Agency, are legally obliged to surrender these receipts to the Treasury. revenue surrendered to this account is not ring fenced for any specific area of government funding..”

environment agency letter

Full Text of Letter saying NO from David Gauke

Imagine my surprise then to see this press release  on the same day from the Environment Agency.

Environmental charities receive over £1.5 million from businesses which broke environmental laws

This revealed :

“There are 26 Enforcement Undertakings on the new list with payments ranging from £1,500 – £375,000, including 6 companies that have agreed to make 6 figure payments: ( among these were)

  • Northumbrian Water Limited (£375,000) for pumping raw sewage into a tributary of the River Tyne.
  • Filippo Berio UK Limited (£253,906.91) for failing to recover or recycle packaging waste.
  • Anglian Water Services Limited have made two separate payments (£100,000 and £100,000) both for causing pollution incidents which killed fish.

Among the beneficiaries were the Nene Country Park in Northamptonshire and river trusts  on the Tyne. The list of enforcement undertakings is published here:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/enforcement-undertakings-accepted-by-the-environment-agency

It shows a much wider group of people have benefited.

So I wrote back to the minister which led to this reply last week from Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.

Yes they had been able to do this since 2015 – by accepting Enforcement Undertakings to cover river pollution rather than taking companies to court.

The court case involving Thames Water was in 2016. But here’s the rub -because the pollution took place in 2012 and 2013 it was not covered by the change in the law.

david gauke letterTwo points from this tragic state of affairs. First I am surprised by the ignorance of David Gauke that as a Cabinet minister he didn’t know his own government had changed the law.

Second it seems very unfair the Wendover Arm Trust has lost out. Perhaps pressure should be put on Thames Water – who has just been fined for polluting the River Thames – to give a donation to the trust. And certainly  if they repeat this pollution immediate representation should be made to the Environment Agency for an Enforcement Undertaking so money can be handed out to the trust in future.

 

Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution started all of this with a £1m fine

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Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.

Armchair Audit: Sir Philip Dilley, the dilatory flood maestro

sir philip dilley

Sir Philip Dilley Pic credit: gov.uk

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UPDATE JANUARY 11: Sir Philip resigned as chair of the environment agency today and will leave at the end of January. He will now have time to concentrate on his other directorships, play more golf and tennis, and spend more time in Barbados.

His resignation statement said: “I want to be clear that I have not made any untrue or misleading statements, apart from approving the statement about my location over Christmas that in hindsight could have been clearer.”

He also attacked the media for pursuing him but as Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said:“Many staff gave up their Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Their boss should have joined them. It seemed to many that this organisation was bereft of its formal leadership when it was most needed.” 

Conservative MP for Ribble Valley Nigel Evans said Sir Philip had now made the “right judgement call”.

 

So  Sir Philip Dilley, David Cameron’s appointment to replace Lord Smith as chair of the Environment Agency, couldn’t tear himself away from sunny Barbados to turn up to see first hand the failure of his agency to cope with Storm Desmond and Frank.

Today the man who attacked former Labour Cabinet minister Chris Smith for not turning up soon enough to see the disastrous floods on the Somerset levels is rightly being pilloried in the press for deciding to spend time with his family than see any of those unfortunate flood victims.

What was disingenuous as the Telegraph reported is that his press office hid the fact that home – at the age of 60 – is a luxury villa in Barbados and not in the UK. He has a flat in Marylebone, London.

He of course says “Everyone be everywhere all the time ” but then that is not surprising given the man has ten directorships, including his own company to run, as well as posts on the board of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Imperial College, London.

And the money – £100,000 a year for a three day week – is of course chicken feed compared to the sums of money he was getting at his last big job as executive chairman of the Arup Group Ltd – the £1 billion international civil engineering business – says he and his fellow 12 directors shared £5.75 million between. the highest paid director – presumably Sir Philip – got a magnificent £864,000 a year – including a very useful sum paid into his pension – which at the age of 60 he can start drawing down.

His Who’s Who entry declares his married his wife, June. late in 2003 and has three sons, and spends time playing golf and tennis in sunny Barbados. He also is a wine buff and opera lover.

To give him credit the Portsmouth born man  made his way up in Arup from a graduate engineer to chairman.

He is also one of David Cameron’s favourite businessman sitting on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group from 2011 to 2013. He accompanied the Prime Minister on trade missions to India, China and Russia and was a guest at a state banquet given by The Queen for the Indian President.

So perhaps it is not surprising that he can’t devote too much time to this nuisance issue of flooding -but the salary must be a very useful sum to supplement his pension.