Tag: Outsourcing

Labour party plans to end privatisation of public services

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Carillion was a British multinational facilities management and construction services company which liquidated in January 2018 | Daniel Sorabji/AFP via Getty Images

The current government has consistently failed to fix the serious problems created by its’ privatisation of public services, which has directly impacted on the lives of many citizens. Those needing the support of services have found them less accessible, conditional and often, rather than alleviating hardship and socioeconomic exclusion, the private sector, contracted in tandem with government policies, has contributed to actually increasing the vulnerability of marginalised social groups, exploiting them for profit.

Poorly conceived contracts have created cost increases that surpass the costs of in-house services, and the oversight of the contracts is poor, the government is vulnerable to corruption and profiteering. The scandal of G4S and Serco charging the Ministry of Justice for tagging offenders who were dead shows just the visible surface of how bad things can get.

G4S, for example, has left a wake of human rights abuses on a global scale, and we have to question how on earth such highly controversial companies manage to secure successive government contracts involving working with vulnerable populations. The Ministry of Justice is still spending millions on tagging offenders with G4S and Capita despite the tagging scandal because, despite all of the chatter about ‘market competition’, it has not actively welcomed in or competently procured new entrants in the market.

In the wake of the collapse of Carillion, a succession of scandals involving large British companies like G4S, Serco and others, and the zig-zagging share price of outsourcing giant Capita, now is the right time to rethink the UK government’s approach to the private provision of public services. 

Any government that claims it wants to ‘take on vested interests’ wherever they may be must look first at how it itself has created – and become dependent -on a select number of vested, incumbent private suppliers. In practice, when the government claim ‘efficiency’, that generally means lower wages and substantially reduced services. When they mention ‘economies of scale’, that generally translates as constructing the contracts in such a way as to leave only the largest companies eligible to bid for them.

When the government use the word ‘incentives’, for the profiteering companies, those are perverse incentives. And when they say ‘competition’,  the government is refering to a handful of companies barely compete with one another at all but instead operate as an unelected oligarchy – a shadow state.

A Labour government would end the outsourcing of public service contracts that involve close contact with vulnerable groups, because of ongoing, grave concerns that people are being put at risk by private contractors such as Atos and Capita. The party has drawn up the plan in response to what is described as a series of outsourcing disasters. 

This would mean addressing the controversial assessments for disability and illness related social security, NHS care, the treatment of people in detention centres and prisons, and failures over recruitment and substandard housing for Armed Forces personnel, bringing those services back ‘in house’. 

Under the Labour’s party’s plans, when an outsourced contract expires or is terminated, central or local government will be required to assess whether a service involves significant contact with ‘at risk’ groups, poses a threat to people’s human rights, or entails the use of ‘coercive powers’. People ‘at risk’ are defined as those who rely on state protection, be they prisoners, hospital patients or social security recipients. 

If the answer to these criteria is “yes”, then new statutory guidance would be used,  which will lessen the grip of the private sector over our public services. After years of privatisation, it’s become clear that perverse incentives – the profit motive and ‘efficiency’in particular – have led to very poor service delivery and caused distress and harm to many citizens who have needed to access support, such as social security or healthcare. Private firms have performed notoriously badly, most often prioritising private profit over meeting human needs, while costing the British public billions of pounds.

However, there may be exemptions to the Labour party’s new rule, where:

  • The contract does not fall under a statutory definition of ‘relevant contract’.
  • The value of the contract is below a certain threshold.
  • The contract is between local authorities (or between a local authority and another public authority).
  • The public authority can demonstrate that it has ‘good reason’ to override statutory guidance.

The Labour party has repeatedly criticised the outsourcing of assessments for Personal Independent Payments and for Employment and Support Allowance, saying that this has led to a complete breakdown in trust between disabled people, the assessors and DWP decision-makers. The Ministry of Justice was forced to take control of Birmingham prison from the contractor G4S, after inspections found that prisoners were regularly using drink, drugs and violence, and corridors were littered with cockroaches, blood and vomit last year. The plan comes after a series of high-profile outsourcing controversies.

Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, said: “For too long the British public have paid the price for outsourcing.

“The Tories’ dogmatic commitment to markets at all costs has delivered sub-standard services at inflated prices. And when they fail, as they often do, it’s the taxpayer that picks up the bill.

“Labour is proposing a radical new settlement that gives people the power to end outsourcing and decide for themselves how best to deliver the services they need.

“For too long this county has been run by and in the interests of a small few who are all in it together.

“It’s time to shift the scales and bring democracy and accountability back to government, and put power in the hands of the many”.

The plan is most likely to be backed by unions, but may cause concern for some councils  under severe financial pressure after years of cuts to their funding.

The pledge is also part of a wider Labour strategy to return public services to public ownership. It reflects that Labour is serious about implementing major democratic changes to the economy, to make it more inclusive.

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The threats to public health care in the UK.

Outsourcing in the NHS is officially said to be about cutting costs and improving efficiency, but such reforms, have really helped create healthcare markets that simply promote inequality among patients and healthcare workers and erode the public nature of healthcare provision.

There is also a very obvious limiting factor to a ‘market’ in healthcare: those in most need of healthcare are least able to pay the ‘market price’ for it – the elderly, very young, people with mental illness and those who are chronicically il , many of whom are poor. So, for private healthcare to be profitable for more than just the wealthiest minority, it still requires public funding.  The government, however, have systematically refused to accept this, despite the empirical evidence that verifies the damage being done to the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

 


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Barnet Capita contractor on fraud charge

Unison members working for Barnet Council protest over outsourcing

Unison members working for Barnet Council protest over outsourcing.

The Times Series reports that a former member of staff on a council contract with outsourcing firm Capita has been charged in a £2 million fraud case.

The former Barnet Council employee, on a Regional Enterprise contract with the outsourcer, appeared at Willesden Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday, July 3, to face two separate charges of fraud by abuse of position. 

The Conservative Barnet council has become something of a “commissioning council”, which means outsourcing pretty much everything it can. Capita has already come under fire for ‘serious failings’ in pension management and has been fined by the council over accounting failures.

In May, the council was called on to take financial reporting back from Capita’s control after a report revealed a £9.5 million black hole had opened up in the local authority’s budget for the coming financial year.

The council’s policy and resources committee discussed the Capita contract review and considered a range of options for service delivery at a meeting on July 19. The review of the contract with the private provider could see seven services brought back under the council’s control after a report admitted there were areas of ‘persistent poor performance’ in the outsourcing model.

If it decides to go ahead with the review report’s recommendations, finance, strategic HR, management of the council’s land and property, highways, regeneration, strategic planning and cemeteries and crematoriums will be brought back in-house. The council’s Labour group, which opposed the outsourcing plans before the contracts were signed, said it would support plans to bring them back in-house. 

Labour Cllr Barry Rawlings said: “The Conservatives clearly decided not to admit the failure of their central ideology of mass-outsourcing during the local elections, which raises the question as to how honest they were with voters in the run-up to the local elections. 

“Mass outsourcing was a gamble made by the Conservatives. It, and they, have failed the people of Barnet. It is time to take back control.”

Barnet Council claims the partnership with the company has led to significant financial savings, as well as efficiencies and improvements across a range of services.

The Regional Enterprise (Re) deal with Capita was signed in 2013 and covers a range of services, including environmental health, regeneration and highways.

A Barnet Council spokesperson said: “The council has recovered the money from Re as a result of this alleged fraud, and we took immediate action to increase financial controls and monitoring of the outsourced finance service.

“We have also commissioned an independent review of financial controls, the results of which will be presented to the Council’s Audit Committee on Tuesday, 17 July.”

The council have confirmed that the total value of money obtained fraudulently was over £2 million.

The case has been referred to Harrow Crown Court, where the next hearing will take place on Tuesday, July 31.

 

Related

Neoliberalism and corruption: hidden in plain sight

 


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Rationing and resource gatekeeping in the NHS is the consequence of privatisation

People march through London to mark 70 years of the NHS

People march through London yesterday to mark 70 years of the NHS.

Gatekeeping has become a watchword within our public services over the past seven years. It’s being driven by the government’s deep affection for neoliberal dogma, the drive for never-ending ‘efficiency savings’ and the Conservatives’ lean, mean austerity machine. Perish the thought that the public may actually need to use the public services that they have funded through their contributions to the Treasury, in good faith. 

In the NHS, even the resource gatekeepers have gatekeepers, those receptionists standing sentry at the end of the telephone, and in general practices, who ration access to the GPs so assiduously we patients often get better before we’ve managed to arrange an appointment. Or ended up at an Accident and Emergency Department.

Only a service dedicated to keeping the public and service providers apart could have devised a system so utterly demeaning. It turns patients into supplicants and receptionists into bouncers who make decisions they are unlikely to be qualified to make, neither being roles to which any of us aspired.

Now, it has been decided that the NHS needs to scrap more medical procedures, including injections for back pain, surgery to help snorers and knee arthroscopies for arthritis, which form part of an initial list of 17 operations that will be discontinued completely or highly restricted by NHS England as many of these problems “get better without treatment.”

I can assure you that arthritis of the knee, or anywhere else for that matter, doesn’t tend to get better. Medical interventions can help patients with ‘managing’ the condition, however. 

Varicose vein surgery and tonsil removal also feature on the list of routine operations to be axed as part of NHS England’s drive to cease “outdated” and “ineffective” treatments.

The latest round of rationing is hoped to save £200m a year by reducing “risky” or “unnecessary” procedures. Patients are to be told they have a responsibility to the NHS not to request “useless treatment.”

However, complications from varicose veins, for example, include leg ulcers which require more costly specialist treatment to help them heal. 

Steve Powis, the medical director of NHS England, said: I’m confident there is more to be done”, adding that the list of 17 operations formed “the first stage” of rooting out futile treatments that are believed to cost taxpayers £2bn a year.

“We are also going to ask ‘Are there other procedures and treatments we should add to the list?’. Additions could include general anaesthetics for hip and shoulder dislocations and brain scans for patients with migraines.

Hip and shoulder dislocations are notoriously excruciating, as is the process of having the joint relocated, though the latter is short-lived. It’s particularly brutal to leave patients without pain relief, and especially children.

The reason why brain scans are often very important when people develop migraine symptoms is that they can determine whether the severe headaches are caused by something more serious, such as a subarachnoid haemorrhage (which happened to me) or a tumour (which happened to my mother). Sometimes ‘migraines’ are something else.
Powis added: “We have to spend taxpayers’ money wisely. Therefore, if we are spending money on procedures that are not effective, that is money we could spend on new treatments that are clinically effective and would provide benefits to patients. It’s absolutely correct that, in getting more efficient, one component of that is to make sure we are not undertaking unnecessary procedures.”

The rationing comes as the government prepares to raise taxes and ditch an increase to the personal income tax allowance to pay for NHS funding plans. According to proposals, £20.5bn of extra funding would be set aside for the health service by 2023. In a speech at the Royal Free hospital in London a fortnight ago, Theresa May said tax rises were inevitable.

However, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this additional measure will ensure the public has value and adequate health care for their money. 

The prime minister said: “As a country, taxpayers will need to contribute a bit more.But we will do that in a fair and balanced way. And we want to listen to people about how we do that, and the chancellor will bring forward the full set of proposals before the spending review.”

Here are the 17 treatments NHS England may axe

Four procedures will only be offered at the request of a patient:

  • Snoring surgery
  • Dilation and curettage for heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Knee arthroscopies for osteoarthritis
  • Injections for non-specific back pain

A further 13 treatments will only be offered when certain conditions are met:

  • Breast reduction
  • Removal of benign skin lesions
  • Grommets for glue ear
  • Tonsillectomy
  • Haemorrhoid surgery
  • Hysterectomy for heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Removal of lesions on eyelids
  • Removal of bone spurs for shoulder pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome release
  • Dupuytren’s contracture release
  • Excision of small, non cancerous lumps on the wrist called ganglia
  • Trigger finger release
  • Varicose vein surgery

Some of these procedures do improve the quality of people’s lives. I’m wondering how this sits with the government’s drive to push people with disabilities and medical conditions into work.

Although it was announced recently that the NHS is to hire 300 employment coaches to find patients jobs to “keep them out of hospital.” It’s what the government probably calls the ‘two birds and one bullet’ approach.

A man with a birthday placard as thousands of people march to mark 70 years of the NHS

Yesterday, tens of thousands of people marched through London to mark the NHS’s 70th anniversary and demand an end to government cuts and further privatisation of the health service. Bearing placards reading “Cuts leave scars”, “For people not profit” and “Democracy or corporate power” demonstrators moved down Whitehall on Saturday afternoon to the chant of “Whose NHS? Our NHS”.

The protesters stopped outside Downing Street to demand Theresa May’s resignation en route to the stage where they were greeted by a choir singing “the NHS needs saving, don’t let them break it”. Shortly after, Jeremy Corbyn addressed the crowd – organisers said there were about 40,000 people present – demanding an end to privatisation, the closure of the internal market, for staff to no longer be subcontracted to private companies and for social care to be properly funded.

Corbyn said: “There have been huge attacks on our NHS over many years,” he said. “The Tories voted against the original legislation and have always sought to privatise it and continue an internal market.

“Paying money out to private health contractors, the profits of which could and sometimes do, end up in tax havens around the world.

“Think it through, you and I pay our taxes because we want a health service for everybody, I don’t pay my taxes for someone to rip off the public and squirrel the profits away.”

I absolutely agree. 

A brief history of the travailing NHS under Conservative governments

The government has failed to adequately fund the NHS since taking office as part of the coalition in 2010, and has overseen a decline in the once widely admired public health service, as a way to privatise it by stealth. 

The Tories have utilised a spin technique that carry Thatcher’s fingerprints – it’s called ‘don’t show your hand.’

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Jeremy Hunt and the Conservatives insist the NHS is ‘safe in our hands’

Chris Riddell 16.08.09

The direction of travel was set 25 years ago by the NHS review announced by Margaret Thatcher on the BBC Panorama programme in January 1988. The Conservatives have a poor track record with the NHS. Thatcher ushered in the NHS internal market, the mechanism that introduced what many in the health service still revile: competition.

Health authorities ceased to run hospitals but instead “purchased” care from hospitals who had to compete with others to provide it and became independent, self-governing trusts. The stated aim was to ‘increase efficiency’ and ‘eliminate waste’ through competition. Yet by the time John Major was prime minister, we saw the crisis deepen, with the postcode lottery and patients parked on hospital trolleys in hospital corridors for hours on end, waiting to see a worn out, overworked doctor.  

In order to assess the impact of Thatcher’s legacy on healthcare, it’s essential to appreciate that NHS market reforms began on her watch. Even the apparently relatively minor step of outsourcing hospital cleaning services was to cast a dark shadow over hospital care decades later. Putting cleaning services out to competitive tender meant that the job of cleaning wards went to the lowest bidder – often to companies that used casual, untrained staff, supplied by job centres. The contrast between the high quality of surgical treatment and the dirtiness of wards became notorious. The level of hospital-acquired infections grew steadily, including those caused by  ‘superbugs’  including MRSA. 

A study published by the Health Service Journal laid the blame for the rise of antibiotic resistant infections on poor hygiene standards; finding hospitals full of rubbish, uncollected left-over food in canteens and dirty linen strewn over bedroom floors. The impact outsourcing has had on cleaning services has been a constant source of tension since those early reforms. While trade unions and medical professionals have consistently argued against it, business leaders have always rejected any connection between outsourcing, infection rates, and declining standards.

Public sector outsourcing is central to the present government’s ideological strategy, despite the evidence that is now stacked against it being genuinely ‘competitive’. Since 2010, the number of large contracts awarded has increased by over 47% with tens of thousands of workers in various sectors – health, defence and IT – being transferred to corporate employers like Serco, Capita and G4S. The UK’s public sector has become the largest outsourcing market in the world, accounting for around 80% of all public sector contracting in Europe. These multinationals are not particularly interested in competition; they’re interested in profit and being in a monopoly position where they can dominate the market. Despite the wake of scandals that follows these companies, growth in the public sector outsourcing market shows no signs of slowing and the government shows no signs of learning from these events. 

Thatcher wanted to introduce even more radical changes – such as a shift to an insurance based healthcare model, with ‘health stamps’ for the poor – but in a busy decade, it seems that her battles with trade unions and left-wing Labour councils took priority.

It was under Thatcher’s administration that the climate of austerity began within the NHS. 

Then there was the Black Report into health inequalities, published in 1980 after a failed attempt by the  Conservatives to block its publication, noted that health inequalities in the UK were linked to socio-economic factors such as income, housing and conditions of work. The government rejected the report’s findings and recommendations.

Conservatives published a policy book called Direct Democracy in 2005. It claimed that the NHS was “no longer relevant”, and a system was proposed whereby patients were funded “either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice” – with the poor having their contributions “supplemented or paid for by the state”. The authors included the current health secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

Against a backdrop of austerity and public cuts, healthcare facilities are continuing to contract out their facilities management and clinical services. But, the practice remains deeply controversial and the consequences are becoming more visible. 

Thatcher’s competitive tendering was introduced for cleaning, catering and other ancillary non-medical services, and were extended by the Tories in the ’90s under the NHS and Community Care Act – the first piece of legislation to introduce an internal market into the provision of healthcare. This was followed by the Private Finance Initiative (PFIs) in 1992 under the Major government.  Lansley’s reforms – premised on ‘increasing the diversity of providers in the management of the NHS’ – represent only the culmination of this legacy.

A centrally funded health service has demonstrated its a major contribution to reducing health inequality, by permitting healthcare practitioners and policy makers to design services and deliver care based on need, not the profit incentive. An increasingly privatised NHS has simply led to rationing and inadequate healthcare.

The biggest single contribution to health inequality is social inequality, a problem that has deteriorated significantly in the wake of the Conservative agenda of combined economic austerity and welfare reform.

Image result for hands up NHS
Image courtesy of Robert Livingstone 

 

Related

The Coalition has deliberately financially trashed the NHS to justify its privatisation

Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

Private bill to introduce further charges to patients for healthcare services is due for second reading today

Labour challenge government about ‘shocking’ rise in coroner warnings over NHS patient deaths

 


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled and don’t have any paid employment. But you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Government criticised for lack of diversity, lack of transparency and poor fiscal management

Image result for scrutiny of government

The Institute For Government (IFG) published their annual Whitehall Monitor Report on Thursday, presenting an insight and analysis of the size, shape and performance of government and the civil service.

In the opening paragraph, the IFG say: “The Prime Minister Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap general election. Revelations about ministers’ inappropriate conduct resulted in three Cabinet resignations. Preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by the snap election, by turnover in personnel and by difficulties in parliamentary management. The Government faces challenges in key public services, notably hospitals, prisons and adult social care.

It was noted in the report that preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by “difficulties in parliamentary management”. The Government has introduced only five of the nine new bills it says are needed for Brexit, and a third of the Government’s major projects worth over £1bn are at risk of not being delivered on time and on budget.

This Whitehall Monitor annual report – which is the fifth – summarises:

  • The political situation following the early election constrained the Prime Minister’s political authority and created challenges for the Government’s legislative programme and management of public services, major projects and Brexit.
  • The civil service is growing, in terms of size, but should be more diverse.
  • Government is less open than it was after 2010, and is not using data as effectively as it should.

I’ve used the summary to shape my analysis.

Fiscal management

The forecasts for tax revenues have been downgraded, the Government also forgoes billions of pounds through tax expenditures that are not subject to rigorous value-for-money assessments.

Since 2010, the value of liabilities on the government’s balance sheet has grown more quickly than the value of assets, increasing net liabilities. Furthermore, “revenue is not likely to overtake spending, in the foreseeable future”. 

Despite the promises from George Osborne of a budget surplus by 2020, and his fiscal straitjacket – the imposed, rigid programme of spending cuts and austerity for the majority of citizens, and tax cuts to the wealthiest ones. 

In real terms, revenues from taxes have grown 7% since 2010/11. This is largely the result of:

  • VAT receipts increasing by 22% (partly due to the standard VAT rate increasing from 17.5% to 20% in 2011)
  • National Insurance contributions increasing by 11%
  • Some increases in income tax collected following a stabilisation following the global crash

Council tax is also included in Treasury revenue, and that will have risen, since many low paid or out of work people now pay a contribution, whereas previously, they were exempt. Despite the increases in VAT, revenue from the sale of goods and services has fallen 34% since 2010/11. 

For the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) downgraded its forecasts for productivity growth. This, in turn, has resulted in the outlook for Government revenue being revised downwards.

Tax expenditures cost £135bn per year. Tax expenditures are tax discounts or exemptions that “further the policy aims of government”. The total sum of all forgone revenue from tax expenditures across income tax, National Insurance contributions, VAT, corporation tax, excise duties, capital gains tax and inheritance tax was £135bn in 2015/16. This is equal to a quarter of the total central government tax revenue in that year, and is larger than the total budgets of all but two departments (Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health).

For capital gains tax, the cost of tax expenditures was more than four times the amount of revenue collected

This certainly provides a strong indication of the government’s policy and budget priorities, making a mockery of trite sloganised claims of “a country that works for everyone”. Some social groups clearly raise rather more hidden political costs than others, but it is only disadvantaged and marginalised groups that tend to be negatively ideologically portrayed as a “burden” on the state by Conservatives and the media. 

In the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced new stamp duty reliefs for first time buyers purchasing properties worth under £500,000. Due to the policy being specifically targeted at first time buyers, this policy resembles a tax expenditure, and in 2018/19 (its first full year) is expected to cost £560m.

Furthermore, the National Audit Office has reported that the Treasury does not monitor tax expenditures and assess the value for money they offer with the same rigour as it does general expenditure. The Institute for Government, along with the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has called for the tax reliefs that most closely resemble spending measures to be treated as spending for accountability and scrutiny purposes.

Net government liabilities are now over £2 trillion. The Whitehall Monitor report says: “The Government’s net liability has implications for future generations of taxpayers, who will bear the costs of meeting these obligations, but the long-term nature of such obligations can make discussions around the government balance sheet seem more remote than the immediate choices about how much departments should spend each year.

“Nonetheless, policy choices have important implications for the Government’s liabilities – for example, the decisions taken by the Coalition Government to increase the state pension age, and to set a triple lock that guarantees annual increases of at least 2.5% in the state pension, are likely to have contrasting effects on the size of the state pension liability.”

The report goes on to say: “But the Government has made commitments to voters on public services, productivity, social mobility and major projects. If it fails to meet their expectations, it risks further undermining confidence in government.”

The government is still not transparent about its spending plans. The report says that “Better data is needed to understand the benefits – and risks – of outsourced public services”. 

“Wider government contracting includes back-office outsourcing by departments and the purchase of goods they use in the delivery of public services (e.g. paper, energy), as well as privately run public services. In 2015/16, £192bn was spent by government on goods and services, of which £70bn was spent by local government, £65bn by the NHS and £9bn by public corporations, with central government departments and other public bodies accounting for the remaining £49bn. 

“While some contract data is published, the Institute for Government and Spend Network have previously highlighted gaps in transparency – including on contractual terms, performance and the supply chains of third-party service providers.

“The Information Commissioner has said that the public should have the same right to know about public services whether the service is provided directly by government or by an outsourced provider”. [My emphasis]

The IFG also say in their report: “In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the outsourcing of health disability assessments at DWP had resulted in claimants ‘not receiving an acceptable level of service from contractors’, while costs per assessment had increased significantly. [My emphasis. Some 10% of the budget for the Department for Work and Pensions goes to private contractors.]

“Similarly, in 2013 MoJ [Ministry of Justice] found that it had been overbilled in relation to contracts worth £722m.”

There have been numerous high-profile failings in government outsourcing. The recent collapse of Carillion highlights many of the longstanding and existing issues, and should encourage a political focus on solving them.

The report continues: “There is no centrally collected data outlining the scope, cost and quality of contracted public services across government. Nonetheless, we know that Whitehall departments account for only a portion of outsourced service delivery, which can also happen further downstream after departments have provided funds to public bodies (for example, the purchasing of services from GPs by the NHS) or local authorities.”

The next section of the report outlines the 2016–17 parliamentary session, in which 24 government bills were passed – fewer than in any session under the 2010–15 Coalition Government. In part, this reflects the curtailed session, which ended with the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May ahead of the election in early June. The report goes on to say that 1,097 pages of legislation – 38% of all pages passed in the session – were dealt with at speed, raising questions about the adequacy of the scrutiny these bills received.

There were also concerns raised about the scope of the powers the government has sought regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill, which has proven controversial. In particular, the inclusion of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers, allowing the Government to amend or repeal existing primary legislation without the scrutiny normally afforded to bills. This has quite properly provoked concern among parliamentarians.

Curiously, the report says that the use of statutory instruments (SIs) – previously used only to pass non-controversial policies and amendments – has dropped. However, this flies in the face of existing evidence, which is sourced from the government’s own site. If there has been a drop since 2014, it certainly contradicts the trend set since 2010. Furthermore, the Government has been criticised for using SIs to pass controversial policies, such as welfare cuts.

It seems that IFG counted the number of SIs by parliamentary session (the parliamentary year which tends to run from Spring to Spring) rather than by calendar year.

Scrutiny of SIs is rather less intensive than scrutiny of primary legislation. They are subject to two main procedures, neither of which allows Parliament to make any amendments:

  • negative procedure, in which an SI is laid before Parliament and incorporated into law unless either House objects within 40 days
  • affirmative procedure, in which both Houses must approve a draft SI when it is laid before them.

It’s also worth reading: Conservative Government accused of ‘waging war’ on Parliament by forcing through key law changes without debate.

The lack of progress on inclusion and diversity

The IFG says there has been “little recent progress” in numbers of senior civil servants with disabilities or ethnic minority backgrounds, while the percentage of women  also decreases proportionally with ascending Whitehall pay scales. .

They report: “The civil service needs to fulfil the promise of its diversity and inclusion strategy, especially in improving the representation of ethnic minority and disabled staff at senior levels.”  

Of those appointed to the highest departmental rank of permanent secretary in 2017, “as many were men with the surname Rycroft as were women – two in each case”. The report notes also “there has never been a female cabinet secretary for the UK”.

Despite the much-trumpeted launch of the Disability Confident employment scheme, aimed at “helping to positively change attitudes, behaviours and cultures,” and “making the most of the talents that disabled people can bring to the workplace”, sadly there is no evidence that the Government intends role-modeling positive behaviours or putting into practice what it preaches.

The representation of disabled civil servants at senior level has improved only very slightly: 5.3%, up from 4.7% in 2016. Across the UK population as a whole, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 21% of people are estimated to have a disability (some 18% of the working-age population). 

Lack of openness, transparency and accountability

In the UK, the idea that government should be open to public scrutiny and policies congruent with public opinion is central to our notion of democracy. Government openness and transparency also tends to be linked with citizen inclusion, democratic participation and a higher degree of collaboration between citizens and government on public policy decisions. It also ensures that corruption and the misuse of political  t power for other purposes, such as forms repression of political opponents is less likely.

Information and data deficits are more likely to lead to political corruption and a reduction in democratic accountability.

The IFG report says that in 2016–17, more ministerial correspondence was answered in time, which were thanks to more generous targets, while fewer parliamentary questions were answered on time and information was withheld in response to more Freedom of Information requests.

Parliament has other mechanisms to hold government to account, including urgent questions (which have most tellingly increased significantly in recent years) or select committee inquiries (which have also increased in number, with the election delaying government responses). The Government has established a track record of withholding details of planned legislation from the opposition. (See for example: PIP and the Tory Monologue).

According to Democracy Audit UK  an independent research organisation, established as a not-for-profit company, and based at the Public Policy Group in the LSE’s Government Department – the lack of transparency has been fuelled by the coalition period, and now, the Conservative’s’ narrow majority,  as the amount of secondary legislation is growing, and primary legislation is drafted in ways that increasingly leave its consequences obscure, to be filled in later via statutory instruments or regulation. Commons scrutiny of such “delegated legislation” is subsequently reduced, and likely to be very weak and ineffective.

Meanwhile, departments’ publication of mandated data releases, including spending over £25,000, organograms and ministerial hospitality, is patchy. Departments also proactively publish on GOV.UK, though supply and demand differs by department

The IFG says that many departments are not publishing their data as frequently as they should and this, coupled with the difficulty of measuring government performance, suggests that the government is becoming less transparent and accountable.

A rise in the numbers of Freedom of Information requests that are being refused

Since 2010, government departments have become rather less open in response to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. In 2010, 39% of requests were fully or partially withheld; this had increased to 52% by 2017. 

Departments are able to refuse requests on a number of grounds: if the request falls under one of the 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (such as national security or personal information) or those in the Environmental Information Regulations; if it breaches the limit for the cost involved in responding (£600 for central departments and Parliament); if the request is repeated; or if the request is ‘vexatious’ (meaning it is likely ‘to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation’). 

Of the 2,342 requests withheld in full in 2017, 50% were held to be due to FoI Act exemptions, 47% to cost, 2% to repetition and 1% to vexatiousness.

Of course exemptions may also be used as “good reasons” – excuses – to withhold inconveniently controversial information that is likely to bring valid criticism and cause scandal.

Mike Sivier‘s request for information about how many people have died after going through the Work Capability Assessment, which had resulted in a decision that they were fit for work, was originally refused. The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics being made public, through Mike’s Freedom of Information request.

After the request, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent authority set up to uphold public information rights, agreed that there was no reason not to publish the figures, despite the Department for Work and Pensions variously claiming the request was “vexatious”, and that it “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”.

However, clearly the real reason for the original refusal of this request is that the information was highly controversial and contradicted political claims regarding the completely unacceptable level of harm that has been caused to citizens by the damaging impact of the Conservative’s draconian welfare policies. 

The ICO said: “Given the passage of time and level of interest in the information, it is difficult to understand how the DWP could reasonably withhold the requested information.”

More recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has continued to try to block John Slater’s FoI request which is likely to expose the widespread failings of two of its Personal Independent Payment (PIP) disability assessment contractors, initially claiming that it did not hold the information he had requested, before arguing that releasing the monthly reports would prejudice the “commercial interests” of Atos and Capita.

The DWP later told the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that releasing the information “will give rise to items being taken out of context… [and] will be misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers”, and would “prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs” by DWP.

It also warned the ICO that the information could be “maliciously misinterpreted to feed the narrative that the Department imposes ‘targets’ for the outcomes of assessments”.

However, that comment alone indicates the highly controversial nature of the information being withheld, and thus also betrays the real motive. Information is being restricted to stifle legitimate criticism of Government policy and to hide from public view the empirical evidence of its consequences.

The ICO has nonetheless ordered the release of the information requested. A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have received the ICO judgement and we are currently considering our position.” 

If the DWP disagree with the decision and wish to appeal, it must lodge an appeal with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) within 28 calendar days. The requester also has a right of appeal.

The ICO say: Failure to comply with a decision notice is contempt of court, punishable by a fine.

It’s also worth noting that the DWP are obliged to inform any contractors of how the Freedom of Information Act may affect them, making it clear that no guarantee of complete confidentiality of information may be made and that, as a public body, it must consider for release any information it holds if it is requested. 

The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) overtakes the DWP to become the most opaque department. This is one example of a wider lack of transparency around Brexit and reflects the wider reluctance of the Government to share assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy. Publication of spending and organisational data remains patchy, suggesting departments are not using the data themselves. 

The Scotland Office, Wales Office and Department for Transport tend to grant more requests in full, and in a timely manner. Among the more opaque are several departments regularly granting fewer than 30% of requests, particularly since 2015, including the Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Minstry of Justice (MoJ).

None of the departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – has ever granted even half of its total requests in full. In the three-quarters leading up to Q3 2017, DExEU was the least likely of all departments to comply with FoI requests, respectively answering 18%, 10% and 15% in full. It also refused a higher percentage because they were considered “vexatious” than any other department in 2017; 14% of requests.

The IFG report says “DExEU’s lack of transparency here, and its tardy responses to other requests for information (though not on FoI, where it is the sixth most responsive department), are consistent with its wider reluctance to release information, including the Government’s assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy.”

Chart percentage of Freedom of Information requests withheld by government departments

You can read the full IFG Whitehall Monitor Report here


 

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