Public Accounts Committee

Gagan serves on the Public Accounts Committee which examines the value for money of Government projects, programmes and service delivery. Drawing on the work of the National Audit Office the Committee holds government officials to account for the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public spending.

This Committee scrutinises the value for money—the economy, efficiency and effectiveness—of public spending and generally holds the government and its civil servants to account for the delivery of public services.

As delivery models for public services have changed, so the reach of the Committee, in following the taxpayer's pound, has spread beyond government departments to also examine public bodies and private companies providing public services.

Below are press releases and relevant information relating to the PAC.

 

Press Releases

28/06/20

Name and shame betting companies for poor behaviour, says PAC

“Complacent” DCMS and “slow, weak” regulator it oversees lagging behind industry moves and public attitudes to gambling harm; both have “failed to adequately protect consumers”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the Gambling Commission it oversees have an “unacceptably weak understanding” of the impact of gambling harms and lack measurable targets for reducing them. The Gambling Commission has “no key performance indicators” and the departmental leadership lacks urgency to address this.

In a report published Sunday 28 June 2020, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee says the Gambling Commission is not proactively influencing gambling operators to improve protections, and consistently lags behind moves in the gambling industry. Where gambling operators fail to act responsibly, consumers do not have the same rights to redress as in other sectors.

There are an estimated 395,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with a further 1.8 million people ‘at risk’. The effects can be devastating, life-changing for people and whole families, including financial and home loss, relationship breakdowns, criminality and suicide.

The Gambling Commission is a non-departmental public body funded by licence fees from gambling operators. In 2018-19 it took £19 million in these licence fees: less than 0.2% of the £11.3 billion gambling yield that year. In contrast to the Commission’s £19m fees a year, the gambling industry has agreed to spend £60m to treat problem gamblers.

The government has approached other public health issues on the basis that prevention is better than cure. However, the Department was unwilling to accept the premise that increasing the Commission’s budget to prevent harm would be preferable to spending on treating problem gamblers. The Commission increased the value of the financial penalties it enforced from £1.4 million in 2014-15 to £19.6 million in 2018-19, but it doesn’t know whether this has strengthened the deterrent to breaking rules for operators.

The Commission also has little understanding of the impact of its other regulatory action, including its ban on the use of credit cards for online gambling.

The Committee finds the pace of change to ensure effective regulation has been slow and the penalties on companies which don’t effectively tackle problem gambling are weak.

It says the Department and Commission together have “failed to adequately protect consumers” at a time of considerable change in the sector, as gambling increasingly moves online and new games become popular. The collection of evidence has been patchy and behind the curve as the nature of gambling has changed, and the Commission has failed to develop responses even where it has identified potential problems, such as during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The temporary ban on gambling ads during lockdown has now been lifted – in its response to the report the Commission should provide an update on gambling patterns and industry behaviour during Covid-19, and any regulatory action it has taken to tackle the industry.

The Committee calls for a new, published league table of gambling operators’ behaviour towards their customers, naming and shaming poor performers. It says the Department must urgently begin its long-planned review of the Gambling Act, setting out a timetable within three months of this report.

The Committee concludes:

- The Commission should develop a plan for how it will be more proactive in influencing the industry to treat consumers better, including using reputational tools such as league tables indicating how well each operator treats its customers

- The Commission should urgently investigate the impact of fixed odds betting that falls under “lottery” legislation and is accessible by 16 and 17-year-olds

- The Commission and the Department should urgently look at online fixed odds betting and report back to the Committee with how they intend to increase effectiveness of online harm reduction within three months.

- The Commission needs to “radically improve” the data and insight it collects to know what is going wrong for consumers and develop better information on its own performance: Within three months the Department and Commission should set out to the Committee what actions they will take to ensure they have the research and evidence base needed to better understand gambling problems, and to design an effective regulatory response.

- The Department and Commission should work together to strengthen consumer rights assess the impact on consumers of gaps in redress arrangements and examine options for increasing statutory protections with an individual right of redress for breaches of the Social Responsibility Code of Practice

 

10/06/2020

Taxpayer is paying over the odds for UTCs says Public Accounts Committee  

In a report published today, Wednesday 13 June 2020, the Public Accounts Committee calls on the Department for Education to set out a new clear roadmap, with financial targets and new measures of success for students, for University Technical Colleges.  

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) were established in 2010 as an innovative model of secondary education focused on providing practical, technical education and qualifications for young people aged 14 to 19. However, the Committee’s report finds that UTCs have struggled to provide a distinctive, financially sustainable education offer.  

At January 2019, the 48 open UTCs were operating at 45% capacity on average, and ten of the original UTCs had already closed. Over half of UTCs were rated as less than good by Ofsted in October 2019, and 14 UTCs accounted for nearly 10% of the total cumulative revenue deficits of all academy trusts in 2017/18.  

The Department has put nearly £750 million into opening UTCs and keep them going, including £680 million in capital funding and nearly £37 million in extra revenue funding. The lack of students means the Department has been propping up the finances of UTCs for several years, and most of the extra funding will not be paid back.  

The Department for Education is nearing the end of a three-year programme to improve the financial and educational performance of UTCs. However, the Committee finds that the Department does not have a clear vision for UTCs in the future, and is a long way from achieving its aim of improving the financial performance of UTCs by summer 2020. 

Designed to provide an education and qualifications outside the standard exam-based measures, the Department has still not defined what success looks like for UTCs, as distinct from other secondary schools. It regards student destinations as a better metric but has not adjusted its performance framework to reflect this, or to indicate how the success of UTCs should be judged. While the limited available data shows that a higher proportion of UTC students go into apprenticeships compared with other secondary schools, most of these apprenticeships are at a level equivalent to secondary school qualifications rather than any higher.  

The Baker Dearing Educational Trust - owner of the UTC “brand”, in an unusual setup - receives money from the Department to support the opening of UTCs but also charges each school an annual licence fee. The Committee expressed concern about the Department’s apparent lack of interest in what UTCs are getting from paying out taxpayer’s money to the Trust in this way.  

The Committee says the Department for Education should now:  

·                  Work with those UTCs that have higher occupancy levels to help UTCs that are struggling to attract students.  

·                  Set clear three-year financial targets for each UTC and be prepared to close UTCs that are not meeting those targets at the end of that period.  

·                  Within three months, explain in writing to the Committee how it uses data on student destinations to track the performance of UTCs, and what steps it will take to help parents assess the benefits of a UTC education.  

·                  Work with UTCs to gain assurance about the value schools are getting from payments to the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, and submit its findings to the Committee within three months 

 

03/06/2020

Government, businesses and the public will struggle with simultaneous Covid-19 and Brexit messaging, says PAC

In a report published today, Wednesday 3rd of June 2020, the Commons Public Accounts Committee says it is concerned that the Cabinet Office will not have the capability to successfully deliver campaign messages on preparations for the end of the Brexit transition period at the same time as delivering the major public health campaign on Covid-19, with it “likely that the Covid-19 campaign will crowd out the Brexit transition campaign.”

 

The Committee is also concerned businesses - badly hit by Covid-19 restrictions - and the public will not have the capacity to act on both sets of crucial messages.

 

The Government has faced criticism from the public and media for the lack of clarity in its attempts to communicate the easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, including the intended return of some groups of pupils to school this week. At a time of a national public health crisis clear communication is vitally important.

 

The “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign was devised and delivered in extreme haste in summer 2019, as it became apparent that the UK might leave the EU on October 31st without a “deal”, an economic and political agreement, in place. The campaign, with a budget of £100 million, was launched on 1 September 2019 with the aim ensure that everyone was prepared for a potential “no-deal” outcome.

 

But despite spending £46 million of taxpayers’ money before aborting the campaign on October 28th, when an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU to 31 January 2020 was agreed, the Cabinet Office was unable to demonstrate that the campaign led to people being better prepared for the UK leaving the EU.

 

Planning started too late with insufficient attention paid at the outset to understanding what businesses needed, or how to monitor and evaluate the campaign’s success. Too much was spent on the “air” mass advertising elements of the campaign designed to raise awareness and not enough on the “ground” targeted activity which would get people to take action, to change their behaviour.

 

The Committee calls on Government to set out, within the month in response to this report, a clear, cost-justified plan for an “effective and timely communication campaign for the end of the Brexit transition period” on December 31st this year, including the lessons it has learned from the failures of last year’s campaign.

 

17/05/2020

High-Speed 2 “badly off course”: DfT must demonstrate with regular, open accounts how it is bringing it under control, says PAC 

 

In a report published today, Sunday 17th May 2020, the Public Accounts Committee says the High Speed 2 rail project has gone “badly off course”, and demands that Government gives regular, accurate and open updates on the problems the project is facing and progress on developing the appropriate skills and capabilities.

The Committee finds that the Department for Transport (DfT) Permanent Secretary and HS2 Ltd executives’ appearance before the Committee in March 2020 raised questions about the previous picture, provided by the witnesses, of the project’s health.  

The Department and HS2 Ltd were aware of the scale of the project’s cost and schedule overruns as early as October 2018. In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally notified the Department that it could not deliver Phase One to budget and schedule (see notes to eds).  However, the Permanent Secretary did not make this clear when she appeared before the previous Committee in October 2018 and May 2019, even when asked specific questions about the programme’s delivery timeline and budget.  

HS2 Ltd’s annual report and accounts for the year ending 31 March 2019 similarly failed to give an accurate account of the programme’s problems. In evidence to the Committee, the Department and HS2 pleaded commercial sensitivity and ongoing efforts to address the problems, but the Committee says this was not an adequate excuse for not disclosing the risk and uncertainty the programme was facing. 

The Committee has previously raised concerns about the Department’s capacity to deliver High Speed Two, as well as its wider programme portfolio, and is not convinced that the Department and HS2 Ltd have the skills and capability they need, now or in the future.  A lack of capability continues to be an issue: by its own recent assessment HS2 Ltd still has gaps in key areas such as risk management and assurance, project management and project control.  

For example, as the legislation for Phase One project passed through Parliament the forecast costs of undertakings and assurances to the communities affected along the route have more than quadrupled: from an allowance of £245 million in HS2 Ltd’s early estimate, to a current indicative estimate of £1.2 billion. 

In oral evidence the Committee questioned the basis for the £46,000 bonus paid in 2019 to Mark Thurston, HS2 Ltd’s chief executive, on top of his £605,350 salary - the highest of any Government official. The bonus was linked to a set of measures including control of the project’s finances, though its estimated cost has almost doubled to more than £100 billion (in current prices - see notes to Eds).

The Committee is not convinced that the Department is learning from problems across its major infrastructure projects to make sufficient and meaningful changes to its management of infrastructure programmes. In its recommendations to Government, the Committee is seeking new, formal assurances that DfT and HS2 Ltd have the capability to manage the programme and its supply chain, into construction and through to completion.  

 

13/05/2020

Poor contracting at MoD leaves taxpayer shouldering ballooning costs of defence nuclear infrastructure projects

In a report published today, Wednesday 13 May 2020, the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee says the Ministry of Defence has left the taxpayer to shoulder huge cost increases due to the MoD’s poor contract design and management.  

The MoD said it “immensely regretted” the huge waste of taxpayers’ money, which was caused by poor management of three nuclear infrastructure projects, and resulted in a combined cost increase of £1.35 billion, with delays of between 1.7 and 6.3 years.

The department also admits that costs could keep rising, as its poor contract design has left the taxpayer to assume financial risk, while doing little to incentivise contractors to improve their performance.  

The report finds, as the department itself admitted, that the risks associated with nuclear programmes, civil or military, are too large for private companies, and must be managed by the department, regardless of whether it owns the relevant sites or not. 

The MoD was unable to explain why it has repeated past mistakes - many of which have been repeatedly commEnted on by the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee for more than 30 years – and has failed to learn lessons from comparable projects in the civil nuclear sector and in the United States. The MoD accepted that it must not operate in the same way in the future.

The Committee heard evidence on  three of the most significant projects under construction: 

 - the AWE plc project MENSA at Burghfield (forecast cost £1.8 billion, completion 2023), where the Department is building a new nuclear warhead assembly and disassembly facility 

 - the Rolls Royce owned and operated Core Production Capability facilities at Raynesway (forecast cost £474 million, completion 2026), where the Department is replacing facilities so it can produce the latest nuclear reactor core designs

  - the BAE Systems-owned Barrow shipyard facility (forecast cost £240 million, completion 2022) to allow modular build of Dreadnought-class submarines 

 

06/05/2020

Desperate parents scramble for “golden ticket” EHC plans to secure adequate support for children with special educational needs  

In a report published today, Wednesday 6 May 2020, the Public Accounts Committee says children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are seeing their education, well-being and life chances damaged by failings in SEND provision, and that the Department for Education does not have a grip on mounting pressure in the system.  

 

Many children with SEND are evidently being failed by the support system. Joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission Inspections have found that half of local authority areas (47 of the 94 areas) have significant weaknesses. The Department considers that the difficult financial position of many local authorities and schools, explains why are struggling to meet the needs of pupils with SEND and to cope with those who have challenging behaviour. 

 

These problems see pupils with SEND far more likely to have their education disrupted and life chances further diminished by exclusion from school: 44.9% of permanent exclusions and 43.4% of fixed-period exclusions in 2017/18 were pupils with SEND, levels even the Department admits are unacceptable. 

 

The system is riddled with unexplained inequalities - almost twice as many boys as girls are identified as SEND, and there are large disparities between ethnic groups and across different regions.  

At January 2019, 1.3 million school-age children were recorded as having SEND. 20.6% of these had legally enforceable entitlements to specific packages of support that are set out in formal education, health and care (EHC) plans. These were children whom local authorities had assessed as needing the most support. Receipt of these EHC plans has become a ‘golden ticket’ that parents fight for to try and secure access to adequate support for their children.  

That left just over 1 million children with SEND who did not have EHC plans but had been identified as needing additional support at school. At January 2019, 87.5% of all pupils with SEND attended mainstream state primary and secondary schools.

The Committee is concerned that the current structure of funding and provision gives little incentive for mainstream schools to include pupils with SEND, and budget-hit local authorities are left paying over the odds to transport pupils to the few places  in state special schools, or for costly places in independent special schools. Local authorities can allocate additional funding to support genuinely inclusive mainstream schools, but in 2018-19 only 85 of 150 local authorities had budgeted for this. 

There is inadequate supervision of SEND provision, with infrequent Ofsted inspections not equipped to capture specific problems or ensure that they are remedied. The Committee says the Department needs a new approach, supplementing evidence from inspections with, for example, intelligence from regional schools commissioners, parent-carer forums, schools forums, and head teachers. To give parents more confidence in the system and the information being used to underpin decisions about their children, the Department should explain on its website what information it collects and how it uses it.