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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gag, cover up and secret privatisation: What is the real story behind the NHS clinical correspondence scandal

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NHS archives. Pic credit: Health IT Central

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A week ago the media was full of the huge scandal of over 700,000 clinical correspondence documents – including details of sensitive patient conditions – going missing and  instead of being delivered to GPs being dumped in rooms.

The story was originally broken by the  Guardian in February this year which revealed that NHS England was secretly working on how to sort out it  without disclosing the scandal to the public. Jeremy Hunt had made a perfunctory statement to Parliament in 2016 not disclosing the full state of affairs in July 2016.

Last week the National Audit Office published a very thorough investigation into the scandal – including discovering that somehow the NHS also lost  highly confidential reports dating back to 2005 which identified children subject to child protection orders which must never be disclosed to the public without the individual’s consent. And in 1788 cases it look possible that patient treatment could have been harmed as a  result.

The mislaid and unprocessed correspondence covers GPs and now abolished Primary Care Trusts in the East Midlands, North East London and South West England .

The NHS has paid GPs £2.6m up front  to examine the mislaid documents but they have yet to complete the work so a proper picture can still not be obtained.

In one bizarre incident some 205,000 documents were kept in a room marked “ clinical notes”. The report says: “A subsequent review found that the label had been removed by an SBS general manager because “you don’t want to advertise what’s in that room”.

“ NHS SBS told us that it was important that documents were held securely and therefore not having a label on the door was appropriate as part of this.”

Now this scandal is bad enough but in the small print of the National Audit Office report there lurked another extraordinary scandal – SBS  and its auditors, BDO, decided to frustrate the National Audit Office finding out what had gone wrong.

Both the company and the auditor refused to hand over the files unless the National Audit Office signed an indemnity letter – which  could get them off the hook should enraged patients decide to sue them for their negligence.

The NAO to its credit refused to do so and in its own report says, if it had, Parliament would not have been told the full story. As the report says:

“NHS SBS and BDO felt unable to share with us their reports into the incident unless we also signed a letter (which would indemnify them). This is common practice among audit organisations.

“We declined to sign any letter that would limit our ability to report on the incident.”

Instead the NAO used its statutory powers to force NHS England, which had copies of the documents after signing the indemnity letters, to hand them over.

Now NHS Shared Business Services was set up as a joint venture with the private sector  under the Blair administration in 2004 when John ( now Lord ) Reid was health secretary. It was an equal partnership between the  Department of Health and Xansa Ltd,a British outsourcing technology company 50 per cent owned by the staff. In 2007 it was taken over by Steria, a French  rival, with British staff pocketing millions of pounds as the French paid a 70 per cent premium on the share price.

In 2014 Steria merged with another French rival Sopra creating a French owned global conglomerate. They are now planning to take over a Swedish firm

But two years before Andrew Lansley, then secretary of state for health, quietly and without any public announcement, transfered a single share to the French company, so it became the majority owner and could dictate policy. Just to make sure the Department of Health, which had civil servants on the board, declined to take up the directorships on the grounds of ” conflict of interest”.

I asked BDO and NHS Shared Business Services why they had sought to frustrate the NAO.

BDO replied putting the onus on the privatised company  saying :

“BDO was in no way obstructive or concerned about making its reports accessible to the relevant third parties.” BDO has a contractual duty of confidentiality to clients as well as an ethical duty of confidentiality under the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW). Therefore, unless required by law or regulation, we cannot disclose information to third parties (such as the NAO) without the express permission of our client. 

The letters dealing with obtaining the necessary consents and agreeing the basis for access are drafted in accordance with professional guidance issued by the ICAEW. As the NAO report acknowledges in its report (paragraph 3.19), this is “common practice among audit organisations”.

 Patients of the NHS are not a party to such letters and therefore their legal rights are completely unaffected.”

NHS Business Shared Services said :

“The recent NAO report highlights a number of failings in the mail redirection service provided to NHS England. We regret this situation and have co-operated fully with the National Audit Office in its investigation. All of the correspondence backlog has now been delivered to GP surgeries for filing and NHS England has so far found no evidence of patient harm. NHS SBS no longer provides this mail redirection service.”

There appear to be contradictions in both statements.  I gather the safe delivery of clinical correspondence  is now in the hands of Capita.

 

How the Tories have fixed the road programme to maximise the motorist vote

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M62 motorway £161m of improvements planned before voters next go to the polls. pic credit: BBC

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The government is fiddling its £11.4 billion road  building and improvement programme  so that  new road schemes will be timed to have their maximum impact to gain votes from motorists when they go the polls.

The Department of Transport already fiddled its present plans  by fixing the time for new road schemes to coincide with voters going to the polls in 2015.

Now they are planning to have the largest number of schemes  going ahead in 2019 to 2020  just when people go to the polls for the next general election.

This disclosure does not come from the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats – who were party to the first part of the plan – but from an impeccably detailed analysis by Whitehall’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office – with a reputation for independence and political neutrality.

Their investigation into the highways agency programme  for motorways and A roads reveals that ministers cut short the planning period for new road schemes to just 17 months- instead of a normal 30 month period – so it could be timed to come out for the 2015 general election.

And their analysis  of present plans show the busiest period for new schemes to start will be in 2019-20 just as people are preparing to cast their votes. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

The manipulation of the road scheme plans has however meant the ministry has  had one embarrassing drawback. Ministers over committed the number of schemes that can be built within its present budget and at least 16 may have to be scrapped because they are not value for money.  But this embarrassing decision will be taken soon – mid term – so it should not affect campaigning in the run up to the election. So in fact the promises made by the Tories in 2015 will in part be fake news.

The  NAO report says the rush to produce a plan before the 2015 election “meant that the Department and the Highways Agency could not carry out sufficient analysis and planning to ensure that the Road Investment Strategy was affordable and deliverable, and that the projects would produce high benefits relative to costs.

“In particular, the need to develop so many new projects more or less from scratch meant that the portfolio of enhancement projects contained a high level of uncertainty from the outset.”

The report says: “The Department chose to set a capital programme which was forecast to exceed funding by £652 million. 

This ‘over-programming’ had been standard practice in the Highways Agency, as it was expected that some schemes would be delayed or drop out of the portfolio as it was refined. By August 2016, the amount by which forecast capital costs exceeded available funding had increased to £841 million.”

Among the projects that have generated extra money include £234m for Project Stack – to allow lorries to be parked on the M20 while waiting to go abroad – which will be essential if border controls are introduced as a result of Brexit. Another £161m is needed to bring forward two projects on the M62 which the government wants to turn into a smart motorway  for 60 miles between Manchester and Leeds.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department and Highways England need to agree a more realistic and affordable plan if they are to provide optimal value from the Road Investment Strategy”.

…Decisive action needs to be taken before the updated delivery plan is published in the summer if shortcomings in the current strategy are not to be carried over into future road investment periods.”

But the truth is the government know motorists’ votes play a part in any election. and they will do their damnest to fix schemes – from a local by pass to improved motorways – to make sure they can be used to maximum electoral advantage.

Why does this man keep secret the pay and perks for people running David Cameron’s taxpayer funded National Citizen Service scheme?

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Michael Lynas Chief Executive of the National Citizen’s Trust. Pic credit: Twitter

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This is Michael Lynas. So far he has spent £475m of taxpayer’s money as chief executive of the National Citizens Trust – a legacy project of David Cameron’s government aimed at providing community projects to aid character building  for 15 to 17 year olds across the nation.

His Linked In profile reveals that his sole qualifications  to do the job are a four year spell as a consultant for Bain and Company and just under three years in Downing Street as a policy adviser to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. He is obviously conventionally bright having studied at  Harvard and Cambridge.

Recently he appeared before MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee following a highly critical report from the National Audit Office questioning whether  National Citizen Service was value for money. The NAO pointed out that it was almost entirely funded by the state and the cost providing places on its schemes was very high. Also it has paid out money up front to organisations for places that were not taken up and was now trying to get the money back. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

Indeed he was challenged by MPs about his ( lack of ) experience.This is the extract from the minutes:

Michael Lynas :”I have been involved in this now for eight years. I helped
to set up the first pilot. That is my ultimate experience. I have worked in
Government covering everything from the London 2012 Olympics to the same-sex marriage proposals when I was a senior policy adviser at No.10.
Chair ( Meg Hillier MP) : The same-sex marriage proposals, important as they were, are not quite the same things as running a contract with a big budget.
Michael Lynas: The Olympics had a large budget, obviously. When I was a management consultant for five years I looked at a whole range of projects, some of which were very large, but as I said, I have not managed something with this budget before.”

But the MPs were also concerned about the complete lack of transparency in declaring the salaries of directors -including himself- and senior staff  who are funded by the taxpayer. This is because  the trust was set up as a community interest company by David Cameron – so it did not have to disclose any details of the pay or perks  of directors or senior staff. Even though it was funded by you and me  –  the taxpayer.

MPs challenged him to publish the information and he agreed he could – but avoided pledging to do so. A flavour of the exchange can be seen here at the hearing.

Kevin Forster MP :”I have asked you if there is a legal bar to sharing that information and you have not said that there is.. .But you have said several times that you are waiting for the new Bill to go through. I accept that would be a new transition and structure but, if you want to sharei nformation and there is no legal bar to do doing so, and it relates to an
organisation that is taxpayer-funded, why don’t you do it?
Michael Lynas: I absolutely agree. I just thought it was a question about whether we did it under the auspices of the new arrangements or whether  we did it before then. We can do it before then.
Mr  Richard Bacon MP: This question of whether we do it under the old auspices or
the new arrangements: how profound is that question and how difficult to solve? Why does it matter? Why can’t you just do it, if it doesn’t make any difference? Are you familiar with the maxim, “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness”? Why don’t you just get on with it?”

An examination of the accounts and the original advertisement for the job of chief executive does reveal some information. Mr Lynas’s original job was advertised at £120,000 a year. The accounts reveal that in 2015 the highest paid director ( and he is also a director) received £117,688 a year and £5775 towards his pension. This increased by nearly £20,000 to £137,253 in 2016 and to £6343 towards his pension. We don’t know if that is him but it is very likely it is.

Total payments for directors increased by £45,000 in the same period from £466,608 to £511,182 whole pension contributions rose slightly from £23,025 ro £23,480.

Now there are 12 directors – eight are non-executive and four are executive – so you  might assume they share this between them. But you would be wrong because one of them, Lord David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, has had to declare what he gets in the House of Lords register of interests – even if the trust wants to keep it secret. And guess what, he is doing it pro bono – not claiming a penny salary for sitting on the board.

And I would be willing to bet the other seven- Dame Julia Cleverdon former chief executive of Business in the Community ; Pippa Dunn, Nick Farnhill, John Hartley, Sue Gray.,( Director of Propriety and Ethics at the Cabinet Office) Martina Milburn, ( head of the Prince’s Trust)  and Shaun Watling- may be in the same position. The Prince’s Trust confirmed that Martina Milburn also gives her time on a voluntary basis.

These leaves another four executive directors to share the spoils ,Will Gallagher ( resigned last December);Doug Fraley ( resigned June 2015); Simon Jones ( resigned January 2016) and Natasha Kizzie in the previous financial year. Indeed the disappearance of so many executive directors seems to suggest another hidden story. Particularly since Will Gallagher was NCT’s chief operating officer and Simon Jones was NCT’s finance director. Natasha who is still in post is director of communications and marketing.

The accounts also reveal that in 2015 50 staff shared a £3 million wage bill. They are now over 100 staff.

The Trust will be forced to release information once  a bill  turning it into a public body goes through Parliament under Theresa May’s government.

I asked for the trust to release these figures now  and explain how much of the millions they lost on ” ghost places” they had recovered. I got no reply – no doubt Mr Lynas was too busy to be bothered by pesky journalists.

But I might say when the public sector ( especially education) is being squeezed by cuts and wage freezes – the largesse shown  to a few here is out of proportion. Unless of  course the former PM arranged ” mates rates” for the privileged few so they could help the underprivileged masses understand their role in society.

 

 

 

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.