Will David Cameron’s National Citizen Service deliver results for poor disaffected ” hard to reach ” youth?

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David Cameron with some National Citizen Service students on a Teach First partnership. Pic Credit: Teach First

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One of David Cameron’s  legacies from his  ” Big Society ” initiative is the creation of a National Citizen Service for 15 to 17 year olds where they could go to summer camps.take part in adventurous sports like rock climbing and kayaking  and undertake community work and local projects for four weeks.

He bequeathed Theresa May with a bill setting up a national trust with a Royal Charter so it could be implemented nationwide. So enamoured was David Cameron with the idea  he has agreed to be chair of the patrons of the new trust.

But since Theresa May took office it has suffered two body blows. She has limited the money and dropped a commitment to a statutory requirement for schools and colleges to publicise it. None of this has had much publicity because of Trump and Brexit.

As a result it will have less money and less publicity.

Her action coincided with a damning National Audit Office report which questioned its ability to deliver and control the money it has already received.

The NAO warned : “The Trust has spent little time understanding costs and where savings could be made. The Trust has four strategic objectives: growth; quality; cost and sustainability. Its business plan includes a number of cost control initiatives at the early stages of implementation. “

“Based on a full unit cost, NCS risks being financially unsustainable in the future. Our analysis shows that in 2016, the estimated full unit cost exceeded the expected unit cost by 19%

“On this basis, it will cost government £560 million to provide 300,000 places in 2019-20, 32% more than the £424 million funding currently allocated. The unit cost will need to fall 29% from £1,863 in 2016 to £1,314 in 2019 to provide these places within the available spending envelope. “

Worse the report found that the trust had little ability to control costs.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO added: “NCS is now at a critical stage…. The OCS (Office for Civil Society) and the Trust have shown that NCS can attract large numbers of participants, and participation has a positive effect on young people. These are no small achievements, but it remains unclear whether these effects are enduring and whether NCS can grow to become ‘a rite of passage’ available to all 16- to 17-year-olds.The OCS and the Trust now need to think radically about the aspects of the current programme that work and how best to achieve NCS’s aims at a more affordable cost to the taxpayer.”

The question is what is the NCS for? Will it just be another project high jacked by pushy parents who want their sons and daughters to have an attractive CV when they apply for a university place? Or will it serve as a genuine catalyst to give ” hard to reach ” young people an idea of community involvement.

One  working class area  where it is working is Barnsley.

The local MP,Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, is strongly behind it  and has promoted the scheme in his constituency.

“It obviously needs to be value for money but it is vitally important it gets to “ hard to reach “ kids as it can change lives.

“People sometimes think I am keen to promote it because of my army background and want to introduce it as a return to conscription. This is not the case – it is more than one needs the scheme to be put on a national basis.”

He says the success in Barnsley is helped by projects run by the town’s football club and also a recent exchange with the London borough of Newham which helped kids broaden their horizons.

At the moment the jury is out. Will it expand to benefit the working classes or just be another middle class ” rite of passage”. Who will win out- Barnsley or Eton?

I have also written about this for Tribune magazine.

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

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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.

 

Bumped by Trump: How Whitehall used the US elections as cover for £1 billion military spending blunders

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Donald Trump Pic credit: CNN

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One of the oldest tricks in the Whitehall playbook is to use a major event as cover to publish unpalatable or embarrassing news.

It means the media are diverted by the event and don’t notice the announcement or report.

It worked an absolute treat for the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury over the US elections to hide two very bad news stories for them. They couldn’t believe their luck when Trump unexpectedly won.

The Ministry of Defence took advantage on polling day to slip a very embarrassing announcement about money for war veterans pensions and disability payments. Evidently the previous July the Treasury, believe it or not, forgot to include in its spending statement the proper  money to pay them this year. As a result they will have to raid the contingency reserve for emergency payments to make sure these veterans have the money.

Mark Lancaster, parliamentary secretary to the ministry, admitted the error in a written statement to the Commons just as Parliament rose on November 8  describing the failure to disclose it as an “inadvertent publishing error”.  It involved a staggering £438,193,000 in the Armed Forces Pensions and Compensation scheme which is available to serving and former personnel who are injured in military service including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The second cover up by the Ministry of Defence came on results day. This was an embarrassment to the image of the Ministry of Defence. For years they have endured criticisms on cost overruns on equipment, bad spending decisions and lack of control.

Last year this was all meant to change. A new agency the Defence Equipment and Support, was supposed to take control  and rein in all these errors. It describes itself as a bespoke agency in charge of equipment and projects for the armed forces.

Well it seems to have deliberately chosen  the US election day to publish its first report. The reason I suspect is that the National Audit Office has qualified its accounts and made a stinging attack on its performance. The NAO can only release this when the report is published and the agency chose election day to do it.

The report by Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and auditor General is damning.Some £499 million of public expenditure cannot be properly accounted for.

“I have qualified my opinion on the financial statements due to a limitation on the scope of my audit because DE&S has been unable to provide me with adequate evidence to enable me to confirm whether or not the private sector support costs, other programme costs and the related trade and other payables balance shown in the financial statements are free from material misstatement.

“I believe this situation has arisen because the Agency’s financial management systems, processes and controls for these transactions and balances are not yet sufficiently well developed to meet the Agency’s needs.”

Examples include having to manually insert some 100,000 changes into the computer programme because it had not  been drawn up properly. And reporting money for the wrong year.

Luckily in both cases MPs are not going to let the matter rest- and come back to the issues

Nia Griffith, the shadow Defence  Secretary has attacked the government for putting at risk funding to help military veterans warning that they must be given an urgent reassurance that they will not lose money.

Anne Marie Trevelyan, Conservative MP for Berwick on Tweed and a member of the  Public Accounts Committtee, said :“At a time when we are seeing a lot of change in the Ministry of Defence, causing a great deal of anxiety for those who are serving, it is very disappointing to see Defence Equipment & Support has not got to grips with financial management.

“At the same time there are serious issues with service family accommodation, highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee which would benefit from a much smaller investment.

“This points to a lack of joined-up financial planning in the Ministry and raises concerns about whether the department is delivering value for money across the board.”

Quite right. Whitehall must not get away with playing games with how it discloses it is spending our money. I have written a news article for Tribune magazine on this.

 

Will the BBC get all its cash from its new freedom to raise millions from video on iPlayer?

BBC Broadcasting House

BBC Broadcasting House

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The BBC has taken a hammering from this government. It has had to impose cuts, agree to fund free TV licences from the over 75s, lose staff and transfer BBC3 to the internet. Further cuts could affect its 24 hour news service and its ability  to mount news investigations.

Yet is the BBC really taking advantage of the one lifeline thrown to it by the government – to be able to raise money from people who don’t watch it on TV  but via video on demand on iPlayer?

A completely unreported assessment by the National Audit Office – soon to be given powers by the government to directly audit the BBC – has called into question whether the BBC is really up to the job. I covered the report in Tribune.

The NAO after looking at the figures came to some startling conclusions. It found before the BBC had got new powers on September 1 that it was  already losing tens of millions of pounds by not chasing up people it should.

The audit office examined the BBC’s licence evasion strategy and concluded that it needed to update it and get accurate figures on how many people were watching TV on their computers, Ipads and mobile phones and no longer had a TV set. Others used game consules.

Figures in the report estimated that the BBC may lose £34m a year by not monitoring the rapidly growing group which has seen people watching iPlayer on their computers jump from 1.6m a day in 2009 to 8m now.

The findings also questioned whether the BBC was losing money by not  collecting  enough licence fees from students, military personnel, lodgers and second home owners.

The audit office estimated that while most students did not need a licence for watching TV because they went home during the vacations the BBC still only collected licence fees from half the number of students who should pay – some 22,000 out of 43,000.

The BBC, while acknowledging the shortfall, defended their decision not to concentrate on these evaders. The BBC was also found by the NAO to use forms that had not been changed for 15 years when they visited licence evaders referring only to TV sets. These have now been changed.

The BBC argued: “Students in halls of residence make up fewer than 1 per cent of addresses needing a licence, and fewer than 10 per cent of them need a licence. Students who normally live with their parents in the holidays will be covered by their parents’ licence at university if they watch live TV on a device which is not plugged into the mains e.g. a laptop or mobile phone.”

“The BBC will seek independent assurance where there are substantive changes to the model. In addition, we will assess how we deal with those likely to evade as a result of changing technology and audience behaviour… but to put this in context, these groups make up 1.15 % of the licensable base.”

Yet the same report also disclosed the scale of people who do not watch TV on TV.

The BBC’s own survey shows that 79 per cent of 16-24 year olds are now more likely to watch TV on other devices than a TV set. The figure for 25 to 34 year olds is 53 per cent.

Surely some mismatch here? And my suspicion is that the BBC is being a tad complacent about it.

Also even if the BBC is right and they have got 99 per cent of people paying a licence fee that extra £34m could make  a few more TV programmes and prevent staff being sacked.

It may be a drop compared to the £3bn raised from the licence fee but for the BBC at the moment every penny counts.

 

 

 

How government cuts led to blunders in complex criminal compensation awards

carole oatway chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

Carole Oatway, chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority

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The government’s obsession with cutting Whitehall  staff is always portrayed by ministers as getting more ” value for money” and greater efficiency. No doubt it will be said again when the remorseless reduction continues over the next two years.

Yet this year’s  crop of annual reports has produced  a vignette from one Whitehall body that nobody knows much about which rather disproves this case.

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is not well known but for those who suffer serious injury it is vital to ensure they receive some compensation for an injury that is no fault of their own. They include British victims of terrorist attacks including recently those injured in Paris and Tunisia and the families of those killed.

Most of its payouts are routine based on a tariff which was already reduced to save public money by Chris Grayling when he was justice secretary.

But for 10 per cent of claimants their cases are complex and they need a detailed assessment by Whitehall staff. It is these that have gone wrong.

As I wrote in Tribune this month the situation through staff cuts and people quitting the agency because of stress caused by their workload. The agency admits it itself.

It’s annual report for the last financial year says: “This issue … is the consequence of an exceptional level of staff turnover in 2015-16, that has resulted in a reduced level of resources  across increasing workloads. This situation is now being rectified with a major recruitment exercise underway.”
The errors were originally found when the National Audit Office, Parlia­ment’s financial watchdog, ran a spot check on payments made to victims in complex cases.
The worst case involved a significant overpayment of £69,023 on an award of £356,964 due to a maths mistake by a caseworker.
Another case revealed a potential underpayment of £15,118 on an award of £69,976 on a case involving two linked claims for dependency.
Other mistakes included under­pay­ments of £80 on a £395,727 award, £1,463 on a £113,071 award, and over­payment of £42 on a £445,355 award.
The NAO investigation triggered an internal inquiry by the agency which found even more errors. The CICA has now ordered a review into its practices.

The report says : “CICA tested a further 98 complex cases, based on a random sample selected by the NAO, and found 17 errors; 8 overpayments and 9 underpayments. These included three errors over £10,000 and four errors of under £80 on sample of cases with a combined value of over £5 million.”

The CICA took its time to reply to me and had to be pressed to admit that while it was refunding those who had been shortchanged it had no power to claim back money it had overpaid. Good news for those who got more cash but hardly an efficient way to run a service.It also stressed that it was only a relatively small number of people and not a huge part of its budget.

But this is not the point. For the individual suffering some damaging injury an underpayment of £15,000 is not a sum of money they won’t miss.

There is also a much wider point. Civil service cuts have also led to people being underpaid benefits, short changed on taxes and the bad handling of cases by public bodies. Cuts being imposed next include the Equality and Human Rights Commission losing lower paid case workers – meaning it will either cut the number of cases it handles or open the risk of stressed staff making mistakes. None of this seems to affect the higher paid.

The government should realise that it can’t magic savings in public services without any consequences for the general public. Something I suspect they won’t want to know as it damages their belief  that austerity doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

How the NHS wasted £16m of your money on a botched privatisation that collapsed within months

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Meg Hillier MP:,chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, condemned the failings in the scheme

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New ways of  helping the elderly and mentally ill survive in the community and not continually end up in hospital is a cornerstone of government policy.

So when a limited liability partnership offered a cash strapped  NHS commissioning group an initiative which promised better services for these people and could save them £178m over five years it sounded too good to be true.

The trouble is it was. As a devastating report from the National Audit Office reveals today the £800m scheme  ran into trouble just four weeks after it was launched and collapsed seven months later. You can read the full story on the Exaro website.

The scandal of the £800m scheme run by UnitingCare Partnership for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough clinical commissioning group may not be an isolated instance.That is why sources at the National Audit Office have highlighted it in their report – because it exposes an alarming lack of financial expertise inside the NHS and a flawed system to monitor whether projects like this are financially feasible  andcan  be properly checked.

The promised aim of the project was to establish  tapering payments to the partnership – with £152m up front and less money later, ¬ so that the financially challenged commissioning group could put money to better use.

But within four weeks of starting the contract the partnership was asking for an extra £34m, blaming a delay by the commissioning authority in starting the work. When the money was not forthcoming the scheme collapsed after eight months and the NHS was forced to provide services directly.

The NAO report reveals that despite employing reputable financial companies and lawyers, basic errors were made – including a failure to realise that sub-contractors could not recover the VAT from the partnership – a cost that had not been factored into the contract.

Auditors also report that nobody had overall oversight of the contract.

No wonder both Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, and Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee have been withering in their criticism.

Amyas Morse said: “This contract was innovative and ambitious but ultimately an unsuccessful venture, which failed for financial reasons which could, and should, have been foreseen.”

Meg Hillier said: “The result is damning: a contract terminated before the ink had even dried out, at an unnecessary cost of £16m.”

What is disturbing is that the NAO point out that Monitor, the body which checks health bodies, had no locus to check whether the scheme was viable and NHS England were too remote to act.”

The report says: ““No organisation was responsible for taking a holistic view of the risks and benefits of this approach, or considering whether the anticipated longer‐term benefits were sufficient to justify additional short‐term support.“

What is really disturbing  is that £16m was wasted -plus £8.9m  on setting up a complex tendering operation and start up costs.

Far better to have spent this extra money on patient and community care – instead of throwing our money down the drain on a scheme that anyone would have thought to be too good to be true.

 

Where’s St Helena? It’s off Jersey isn’t it?

St Helena Pic Credit St Helena government

St Helena: in the South Atlantic not off Jersey. Pic Credit: St Helena Government

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A rather amusing aside was missed by the national press and the BBC when they reported on the scandal last week of  St Helena’s  spanking new £285m airport which can’t be used by jets because it is too windy to land.

True they had fun with the video of a British Airways  jet having to abort a landing because of the wind. So no chance yet of a new tourist boom because the only way there is by a six week journey on an ageing mail boat.

But they missed an extraordinary table hidden in a report commissioned by the St Helena government about where the island was located.

The National  Audit Office reports  that a marketing company- Acorn Tourist Consulting – asked lots of savvy long haul tourists where  is St Helena.

Extraordinarily 19 per cent put the island in the Mediterranean – perhaps near Malta or Cyprus.

Another 15 per cent put the island in the English Channel – perhaps confusing Jersey’s St Helier with St  Helena.

Another 8 per cent thought it was a tropical paradise in the South Pacific – perhaps near Fiji!

And another 5 per cent thought it was in the Indian Ocean – somewhere near Sri Lanka perhaps.

And 15 per cent admitted  honestly they hadn’t a clue.

This left just 38 per cent who correctly identified it as a rocky island in the South Atlantic.

Mind you it might be as well that the Department of International Development has mucked up the project. Not only will it give it time for the island to find a jet that could land safely there but it will give isolated  St Helena a bit longer to prepare for the tourist hordes.

For the same company which discovered the ignorance of British tourists has issued another health warning about going there.

It warns: “There will be new expectations of St. Helena as a destination. In just over 4 hours the tourist will have flown from South Africa to the Island. No time to adjust, reflect, read, and prepare for arrival as they do at the moment. This is likely to make visitors more demanding and less forgiving. They will start to lose sight of the remoteness and challenges an island 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa and 1,800 miles from Brazil faces.

Today, very few tourists leave St. Helena disappointed, but this may change once tourists start arriving by air. St. Helena then runs the risk of over-promising and under-delivering, and this will lead to some tourists returning home and not passing on in a positive way that most effective form of marketing – word of mouth.”

 Perhaps it might be better to look for St Helena off Jersey after all.
St Helena

The report’s findings in the National Audit Office report