Byline Times :National Audit Office to probe the taxpayers’ £6.6 billion ( yes it is really that!) Boris Johnson is spending on a No Deal Brexit

The National Audit Office has a useful hub on its site bringing all its Brexit investigations together.

I have a full story on Byline Times here.

As a taster:

Parliament’s financial watchdog announced the “super investigation” a week after Parliament rose. It now includes the extra £2 billion Johnson earmarked this month for “turbo charging” the No deal process.

 It follows a total of 24 reports by the NAO on Brexit since 2016 which highlighted scandals and public waste. This included the exposure of former transport secretary Chris Grayling’s mishandling of No Deal Brexit freight contracts which cost the country over £50m including paying Eurotunnel £33m in an out of court settlement.

Revealed on Byline Times: How Brexit planning boosted tax credit fraud

Whitehall Brexit redeployment boosts tax credit fraud at revenue and Customs. Pic credit: gov.uk

The Revenue and Customs agency has sacrificed the monitoring of fraud and error in paying out £22.9 billion a year in tax credits to millions of people so it can meet deadlines for Brexit.

The switching of 270 civil servants to prepare for Brexit from checking error and fraud among people claiming tax credits has cost Revenue and Customs up to £1.46 billion in overpayments, the National Audit Office has revealed.

The losses are the highest since 2011 and has led to the NAO qualifying the accounts of Revenue and Customs as inaccurate for the 15th year running since former Labour chancellor Gordon Brown first introduced tax credits in 2003.

The losses come on top of figures from the Department for Work and Pensions which disclosed that in the last financial year benefit error and fraud is running at record levels. Altogether the level of known error and fraud in both departments has now been revealed to total a record £7.5 billion.

The full report is on Byline Times here.

Bonuses for Universal Credit bosses as record benefit errors and fraud revealed at the Department for Work and Pensions

The annual report that reveals the damning failures of the ministry to keep a grip on benefit and error fraud and the high pay and pensions of the people running the Universal Credit programme

Benefit error and fraud has reached record levels at the Department for Work and Pensions and it is going to get worse, according to its own figures released in its annual report for the last financial year.

 For the 30th year running the National Audit Office has qualified the ministry’s £86.6 billion benefit accounts because it considers them to be inaccurate

The most damning section of the report is on Universal Credit – whose current and previous directors – have just received bonus payments up to £15,000 each for their work.

The full story is on byline here.

Revealed: The £200,000 food bank warehouse in Amber Rudd’s Hastings constituency caused by the Universal Credit debacle

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Amber Rudd- former home secretary and MP for Hastings as the Universal Credit debacle rolls out in her constituency

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The  billion pound plus failure of the implementation of Universal Credit is rightly condemned by the National Audit Office in a report published today.

Aimed to save money, get everybody back to work, simplify a complex benefit system and to be easily implemented.  Instead it is going to cost more, is years behind schedule, discriminates against disabled and poorly educated people, and the government has plans to force the elderly not entitled to a pension to have to use it when it  changes entitlement to pension credit ( see my earlier blog here)

But it is also having appalling consequences for food banks, landlords, council and housing association tenants – as the example in Amber Rudd’s constituency ( details down below show).

In the meantime ministers today were patting themselves on the back today how successful it is while senior civil servants behind  it were awarded  bonuses worth up to £20,000 each for its botched introduction ( see an earlier blog  here and  an article in the Sunday Mirror).

The statistics are appalling. According to the NAO :

“In 2017, around one quarter (113,000) of new claims were not paid in full on time. Late payments were delayed on average by four weeks, but from January to October 2017, 40% of those affected by late payments waited in total around 11 weeks or more, and 20% waited almost five months. Despite improvements in payment timeliness, in March 2018 21% of new claimants did not receive their full entitlement on time with 13% receiving no payment on time.

The Department does not anticipate payment timeliness to improve significantly in 2018. On this basis, the NAO estimates that between 270,000 and 338,000 new claimants will not be paid in full at the end of their first assessment period throughout 2018. Those with more complex cases are more likely to be paid late.

The Department expected most claimants would have enough money to cope over the initial waiting period after their claim is submitted (previously six weeks, now five). In reality, nearly 60% of new claimants (around 56,000 a month) receive a Universal Credit advance to help them manage before receiving their first payment.But they have to pay it back which means deducting an average £43 a month from their benefit. 

But while the statistics are bad, the examples are worse.

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Hastings Foodbank

Appendix 5 of the report  reveals In  Amber Rudd’s Hastings  constituency for example, according to the NAO Hastings foodbank has increased its opening hours, needs around two tonnes of stock each week to meet demand, and is considering building more storage space, costing £200,000.”

Hastings Citizens Advice pays staff to deliver Universal Support delivered locally. It therefore needs to pay providers regardless of the number of people
that are referred for support. But its income from the Department is not guaranteed so it can’t plan

Hastings Citizens Advice is considering scaling back on what it does in order to cope with increased demand.

Similarly NHS Hastings and Rother Clinical Commissioning Group funds its local advisory services. But this takes time to identify and secure. This hampers the ability of organisations to employ high-quality advocates because of the uncertainty of future funding.

.Hastings and Rother Credit Union no longer accepts Universal Credit claimant because of the complications in dealing with the new benefit and the long time waiting for people to be paid it.

Other areas have also got problems.Landlords are carrying extra debt – Croydon’s rent
collection rate has fallen from 92% to 58%, and its bad debt provision has doubled to £8 million.
Sedgemoor Council  in County Durham reported an increasing unwillingness, even with social landlords, to take on low-income tenants or those claiming Universal Credit.

So the government has piled on misery upon misery for the claimants,. voluntary organisations, food banks, landlords, credit unions, local authorities and health services. Meanwhile ministers on excess of £100,000 a year go home to expensive houses, enjoy fine wines, expensive meals out and luxury holidays while boasting how they are helping the poor. Some sick joke. As Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today:

“The Department has pushed ahead with Universal Credit in the face of a number of problems, but has shown a lack of regard in failing to understand the hardship faced by some claimants.

“The benefits that it set out to achieve through Universal Credit, such as increased employment and lower administration costs, are unlikely to be achieved, yet the Department has little realistic alternative but to continue with the programme and hopefully learn from past mistakes.”

 

The Great £300m Probation Bail Out: You Pay, They Prey

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Richard Heaton, permanent secretary Ministry of Justice. Pic Credit: wikipedia

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On Wednesday two very highly paid civil servants £185,000 a year Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice and £190,000 a year Michael Spurr, Chief Executive, HM Prison and Probation Service will appear before MPs to explain their latest botch  up  – the privatisation failure of parts of the probation service.

I hope MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee will not only be briefed by the excellent National Audit Office report  and investigation into the failure of Community Rehabilitation Companies – the fancy name for profit making companies like Sodexo and Seetec.

They should also read the coruscating report by Dame Glenys Stacey HM Chief Inspector of Probation and Peter Clarke  HM Chief Inspector of Prisons last June on the performance of these companies and their failure to either help ex offenders go straight or protect the public from child abusers and  perpetrators of domestic violence.

This sorry tale goes back to 2015 when Chris Grayling ( he of the  current Virgin rail privatisation botch ups)  was Justice Secretary and thought it a brilliant idea to privatise swathes of the probation service for prisoners serving 12 months or more who were at low risk of self harm.

Michael Spurr

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of the Prisons and Probation Service. Image credit: Channel4

From the very beginning they bungled it. They planned to give the 21 companies £3.7 billion until 2022 to handle and help large numbers of prisoners. The companies planned for this but Whitehall  had overestimated the number of low risk ex offenders leaving prison and underestimated the number of high risk ex offenders who are still being helped by the publicly run probation service. As a result the companies would only get £2.1 billion.

So of course now the companies are in deep trouble facing losses of  £443m by 2022. So what do these top civil servants do. They give them more  of your cash to help them with their profit margins.

They have had a £42m bail out for dealing with fewer offenders in 2016 and another £22m to keep the companies going while the ministry kindly re-negotiates their contracts  to deal with fewer ex prisoners.

It has now agreed to pay another £278m up to 2022 but has changed the terms of contract so the private firms will get even less money if any of the released prisoners re-offend.

Now if you read the inspectors’ report on the performance of these companies, this is a sick joke. The inspectors think their provision is so bad and useless that they might as well not exist.

They said: “Clearly there is more time for resettlement work with these prisoners, but CRCs are making little difference to their prospects on release. We found them no better served than their more transient fellow prisoners were some eight months ago. The overall picture was bleak. If Through the Gate services were removed tomorrow, in our view the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible. ”

But not only are they useless but they could be a menace to society. They were so bad at rehabilitating prisoners – they spent their time sitting at desks  writing up reports on the computers – rather than helping them face to face. Some prisoners left to become homeless with little chance of getting a job.

But more seriously they let out child abusers, violent individuals who had beaten up their partners and drug addicts putting their victims at risk by having no proper supervision or rehabilitation plans.

In my view this £300m would be better spent funding refuges for victims of domestic  violence ( in desperate short supply) or linking it back to the publicly run service.

You are paying for these companies to prey  on the taxpayer without  delivering any decent result and also allow  released criminals to prey on  their victims by their failure to rehabilitate them. No doubt the two highly paid civil servants will distance themselves from their failed policy  when they appear before MPs on Wednesday

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: Are whistleblowers now too frit to reveal when NHS patients and care home residents are in danger?

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Dr Henrietta Hughes, 4 day a week National Guardian Pic Credit: CQC

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Tucked away in a recent National Audit Office report on the NHS and social care regulator, the Care Quality Commission, is the extraordinary statistic that the number of whistleblowers who tipped off the regulator fell by a staggering 16 per cent to 7452 in 2016-17. That is one in six fewer whistleblowers than the previous year. See paragraph 2.19 of the report.

The figure compares with 153,000 members of the public – an increase of one per cent – expressing concerns about services during the same period.

I have written about this in Tribune this week.

And the latest figures come after  a report by Robert Francis QC to Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary,which was highly critical of the way some had been treated after they made a complaint.

In 2015, Francis reported widespread severe victimisation of staff by senior management when they spoke up for patients. Francis recognised that sacked whistleblowers are blacklisted and recommended a re-employment scheme but nothing seems to have come of it.

His most substantial recommendation was for a National Guardian to protect staff. This led the CQC to create a part time post with no powers. The first appointee, Dame Eileen Sills, quit before starting.

Since then Dr Henrietta Hughes . a GP has been appointed  as National Guardian, on a four day week. And according  to the CQC  yesterday marked her first year as the National Guardian for the NHS with the publication of her first case review report and her annual report highlighting the work of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians.

The one case review she published covered Southport and Ormskirk Health Trust which  has the unenviable reputation for bullying and discriminating against black and ethnic minority staff , a dodgy appointments system favouring some people against others and an attitude of not bothering when staff raise concerns about patients. This might sound familiar incidently for those who have followed my articles on staff practices at the Equality and Human Rights Commission but we should wait for the employment tribunals to see what happened there.

Dr Hughes has recommended a series of recommendations to put matters right – 22 in all – and there is promise from the interim chief executive of the trust, Karen Jackson, to act  with a new senior management team. We shall see. Also this was a trial – how many reports are we going to get from her in future?

The National Guardian has also produced a series of high flown documents which sound terribly good in theory – but again I think we should wait to see what happens.

What has happened so far is that the appointment of a national guardian has coincided with a drop in whistleblowers telling the CQC when things are going wrong.

What we do know is that staff do lose jobs are blacklisted and get the reputation of being troublemakers. There is a  website which covers 11 such cases here. All designed I suspect to cover up an NHS and care system creaking at the seams and not being adequately financed. I hope Dr Hughes does not turn out to be a convenient fig leaf for a service in trouble.

 

Nuclear decommissioning: How Whitehall turned toxic waste into a dirty mess

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Decommissioned power station at Wylfa in Anglesey

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It is possibly Whitehall’s biggest blunder. it certainly involves one of the biggest contracts ever let by government. And you will have shelled out hundreds of millions of pounds for very little in return.

The subject is the decommissioning of 10 nuclear power stations and two research centres – now all past their sell by date – and all leaving the taxpayer with an almighty bill to detoxify them and make them safe.

The total bill to do this was meant to be £3.8 billion but it turned out to do it properly would cost £6.2 billion- making it possibly one of the biggest contracts ever let by Whitehall.

And what a mess Whitehall civil servants and their ministers made of it. The whole sorry story was revealed in a report by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, this month.

. The  £6.2 billion contract was approved by the Treasury because it promised to save taxpayers £904m by loading risks on the contractors. Instead it has only saved £255m and this has been partly wiped out by a botched tendering procurement which ended up with a rival consortia being able to sue the government for damages.

The company that won – an American led consortium Cavendish Fluor Partnership (CFP) based in Texas- was awarded the contract illegally.

We know this because its rivals Energy Solutions which includes Bechtel successfully sued  the government in the High Court last year and the High Court ruled that Fluor should have been disqualified because the final contract was nothing like the one put out to tender.The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministry has just settled the bill with Energy Solutions by agreeing to pay then £97.3m in compensation.

But the real bill was even more. The NAO found that the full cost amounted to £122m.  It spent £13.8 million on legal and external advisers. Of this, £3.2 million was spent on the competition and £8.6 million was spent on legal fees in the ensuing litigation. The NDA estimates that in-house staff time has cost £10.8 million. This excludes the cost of staff time of senior central government officials who were heavily involved in decisions, particularly about the National Decommissioning  Authority’s settlement and its decision to terminate the contract.

One reason for this debacle is believe or not is that officials  did  not know the state of some of the decommissioned  power stations so had to revise its estimates as more problems came to light- changing the terms of the winning bidder’s contract.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office: “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.

In light of these issues, the Department must consider whether its governance and oversight arrangements surrounding the NDA are sufficiently clear and effective in providing the scrutiny and assurance it requires to meet the standards expected in managing public money.”

There is now an inquiry going on under Steve Holliday, former chief executive of the National Grid. Its terms of reference include whether disciplinary action should be taken against the civil servants who made such a botched job and cost us even more money. It could mean heads should roll.

And it leaves the government another big problem because the contract with the present consortium has had to be terminated in 2019 – nine years before it is due to end.

And the axe is due to fall just as Brexit comes in – leaving more unfinished business just when Britain may well leave Euratom. What a mess.

I have written about this in Tribune. The full NAO report is here.