Covid-19: How the year of the bus became the year of bust

Pic Credit: Wes Hicks – Unsplash

2020 was supposed to be the Year of the Bus. A newly elected Tory government promised £220m to improve services which had been in decline since 2010 when another newly elected Tory led government created the cuts.

The initiative ticked every election promise box. It was going to reverse service cuts – mainly in the shires as part of levelling up. It was going to produce a brilliant new demonstration package of co-ordinated bus and train services in Cornwall – one of the poorest areas of England. It was going to be green -promising the first total electric powered bus service in an English city. It was going to be faster with more dedicated bus lanes and expressways and it was going to be easily accessible by introducing a national data system for services and fares available on the internet.

Then came Covid 19. And as a new National Audit Office report revealed on Friday the bus plan crashed off the road.

unglamourous buses

Buses have never been a glamourous subject. As the NAO report shows they are mainly used by the poor, over 70s, the 17-21 age group before they get their own wheels and single women seeking a safe way home.

It also suffered huge service cuts and big fare rises for many of its passengers outside London. A useful map in the NAO report shows how passenger traffic has declined by an average of 10 per cent between 2010 and 2019 – falling highest in places like Tyne and Wear, Lancashire, Teesside, East Sussex and Lincolnshire but rising in Bristol and Brighton and Hove.

Pic credit: Suzy Hazelwood Pexels

Some 3000 routes have disappeared with bus mileage down from 243 million to 112 million and the average local authority support for services dropping 38 per cent with 42 authorities slashing expenditure by over 50 per cent. Some of the worst examples are West Yorkshire, Surrey and Northamptonshire. Average fares went up 18 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

free bus pass

The biggest cost to local authorities has been the free bus pass – now estimated at £650m a year – a national service – but funded by the local authority where you live. Funding from central government to bus operators has dropped from 31 per cent to 24 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

One of the problems is that since the de-regulation of services the government has had little control – so it can make a lot of noise about improving services – but it can’t force private operators to do it. The plan for a national data system for bus timetables and fares – depends on whether individual operators want to spend the money.

When Covid 19 hit the government was faced with a dilemma – only key workers were encouraged to use public transport – slashing revenue. The government did provide extra cash in tranches to bus companies to keep them going. But it also raided its shiny new support budget to improve services.

The plan for a co-ordinated Cornwall transport service from Plymouth to Penzance was dumped.

So was the money put aside to restore cut services. And it looks like – despite interest from 50 different towns and cities – to be the first to run an all electric bus service – is being delayed by Whitehall inertia.

And other promises to improve express bus services = especially in the West Midlands – have been undermined by the operators themselves.

First Worcester cut service

One check I did on Google First Worcester company had created a furore by halving the number of express buses between Worcester and Birmingham north of Bromsgrove – forcing people to use more expensive services elsewhere. Yet this is an area given priority in the government’s new bus plan and it happened before the Covid 19 crisis hit.

There are some bright spots. Bristol has improved passenger use by 36 per cent. Nottingham has increased bus use and invested in clean bio gas buses and new trams by imposing a work car parking levy. And London, which was not examined in this report, has seen bus use up 89 per cent.

The lesson is clear to all. Grandiose plans to ” level up ” the poorest parts of the country are going to be very expensive if they are to work. And if they don’t deliver there will be a political price to pay for falsely raising people’s hopes. You have been warned.

Revealed: 32 years of benefit payment failure by the Department of Work and Pensions

DWP celebrating 32 years of inaccurate accounting

Yesterday while all eyes were on Boris Johnson’s ” Build,Build, Build ” speech the Department for Work and Pensions slipped out their annual accounts for the last financial year.

In what looks like a classic “cover up ” job to bury bad news, the ministry probably did not want the world to know that their accounts had been censured for material inaccuracy for the 32nd year in a row.

The reason is the failure of the ministry to be able to account for unacceptable levels of fraud and error in the huge number of benefit payments. Billions of pounds have been overpaid to claimants through fraud and mistakes by claimants and errors by officials. And billions of pounds have been underpaid by officials to claimants because they have made mistakes in calculating people’s benefits.

The latest figures are a record for every year since John Moore, was social security secretary under Lady Thatcher in 1988.

It shows that ” Excluding State Pension, the estimated rate of overpayments has increased again to 4.8% (£4.5 billion) of estimated benefit expenditure, from a restated rate of 4.4% (£3.8 billion).

“The estimated rate of underpayments, excluding State Pension, has decreased to 2.0% (£1.9 billion), from its estimated rate of 2.2% (£1.9 billion) in 2018-19. The rate of overpayments in 2019-20 is the
highest estimate to date.”

The worst benefit is the new hated Universal Credit which has suffered from both overpayments and underpayments and claimants have to wait five weeks before they can get it. Since the payment depends on claimants’ monthly varying income the scope for inaccurate reporting of the money is large.

The report says: “For Universal Credit, the estimated rate of overpayments increased from 8.7% to 9.4%. This is the highest recorded overpayment rate for any benefit other than Tax Credits (administered by HMRC), which peaked at 9.7% in 2003-04.”

“Underpayments rates have fallen for Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Pension Credit, and the estimated rate for Housing Benefit has increased. Personal Independence Payment has the highest rate of underpayments at 3.8% of expenditure in 2019-20. This rate has not changed from 2018-19.”

But the small print of the report also reveals how the Department calculates this. It takes samples of benefit payments to arrive at these figures but the National Audit Office reveals that 61 per cent of the benefits paid out to claimants are based on recalculated estimates for the previous year.

Some other omissions are staggering. The Department has never checked whether payments are accurate for claimants on Disability Living Allowance for 16 years – last done in 2004-05.

More extraordinary the Department has never checked whether money paid out to 12 million pensioners is accurate or not since 2005 – that is 15 years ago.

Instead the department maintains there is no serious fraud or underpayments in pensions – calculating it as just £300 million out of an annual payment of £98.6 billion.

Given this year we had a case this year of a 94 year old pensioner being owed a staggering £117,000 because of 34 years of underpayments, I find this complacency mind blowing.

I also think the National Audit Office, as their auditors, is remiss in not asking for an update.

Next year’s estimate of benefit fraud and error is likely to even more out of kilter thanks to Covid 19 as the ministry have got rid of staff monitoring fraud to be able to pay out the 2.6 million claims for universal credit.

And although the department is said to be investigating 143,000 suspicious claims under Covid 19, it can’t follow them up because it can’t visit them at home.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said :

“I am concerned that fraud and error in benefit payments have risen again. Fraud and error have a real cost, both for those who face deductions from their income due to overpayments and because it reduces the public funds available for other purposes.

“As the Department takes on a set of unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19 it is more important than ever that my qualification is not seen as business as usual and the Department responds in a cost-effective way to minimise risks of fraud and error.”

Next year I am certain will be the 33rd year the ministry accounts are questioned and found wanting.

On Byline Times: Refurbishment of the iconic Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben mismanaged by Parliament at huge cost to taxpayers

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have today put out a story on Byline Times some damning findings by the National Audit Office on the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower and the Big Ben bell and clock face. You can read it in full here.

The report is important because the government is committed to spending billions of pounds – a £4 billion estimate will go nowhere near the real cost – -refurbishing the Palace of Westminster over a decade.

This project was a tiddler compared to that – originally thought to cost £29 million -now 80 million. And if Parliament’s managers can’t properly manage that – what great mess awaits us over the next decade.

The report also reveals one extraordinary fact which shows that the Victorians were as bad at controlling taxpayer’s money and managing big projects as we are today.

The present building built after fire destroyed most of the old Parliament in 1834 was completed 18 years behind schedule and at three times the original cost.

Effectively the governments of Robert Peel and Lord Palmerson were no better at controlling budgets than those of David Cameron and Boris Johnson today. Plus ca change etc.

On Byline Times: Gove’s failed university technical colleges cost taxpayers £800m

Michael Gove’s legacy:The now closed Black Country University Technical College in Walsall.Pic credit: BBC

Another day. Another taxpayer disaster for the Conservatives. This time it is the National Audit Office reporting on the full cost of Michael Gove’s failed vocational education initiative which cost taxpayers £800m and left a trail of brand new closed colleges. Read the horrendous details of this latest scandal on Byline Times here.

Michael Gove who admits his scheme has been a failure. pic credit:BBC

On Byline Times: Protesters and objectors frustrate growth of fracking – National Audit Office report

One of the few fracking sites in the UK in Lancashire. Pic credit: BBC Lancashire

Very informative report from the National Audit Office out today on the state of fracking and how it is being held back by unprecedented numbers of protestors and objectors. Read the story here.

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

amber rudd

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

Richard_Heaton

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