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

16/09/20

“Put a stop to arguing over who’s responsible and put this right” - PAC condemns “badly missed” target to make thousands of Grenfell-style cladding homes safe

“System-wide failure” in “not fit for purpose” building regulations system leaves tens of thousands to live in fear and financial limbo.

Three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster in which 72 people lost their lives, only a third (155 out of 455) of high-rise buildings with Grenfell-style flammable cladding due to be fixed by now have had their cladding replaced with a safe alternative.

In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee says it is “imperative” that the new deadline, for works on the remaining high-rise blocks to be completed by the end of 2021, be met. The Government has no convincing plan for how it will meet that new deadline though, and even if it does there are a host of other serious shortcomings exposed by the Grenfell disaster that also need to be addressed.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government accepts that the British system of building safety regulation has been “not fit for purpose” for many years - and these failings have left a legacy of problems for the Department to address which extend far beyond the immediate need to remove dangerous cladding.

A lack of skills, capacity, and access to insurance is hampering efforts to improve or simply assure the structural safety of apartment blocks. This knocks on to any ability to restore the confidence of buyers and mortgage lenders in sales of flats across the country. Leaseholders are in limbo and facing huge bills because of a system-wide failure.

In March 2020 the Department announced that a further £1 billion would be made available to fund the replacement of other forms of dangerous cladding on high-rise buildings – but even by its own estimates, this will meet only around a third of the total costs.

Otherwise, the Government has no plans to support residents or social landlords to meet the costs of replacing dangerous cladding in buildings below 18 metres, of providing ‘waking watches’, or of fixing other serious defects brought to light by post-Grenfell inspections.

Although the Department also recognises that care homes would be at additional risk due to the difficulties in evacuating residents in the event of a fire, it has no knowledge of whether any of the 40,000 care homes, sheltered housing and hospitals below 18 metres in height are clad with unsafe material.

 

11/09/20

Ministry of Justice’s “naïve” approach to outsourcing has failed the taxpayer and prisoners - especially women –alike

Just 206 new prison places have been delivered out of 10,000 promised by 2020, with many prisons crowded, unsafe and with “dangerously high levels of violence and self-harm”

In a report published today, Friday 11 September 20202, the Commons Public Accounts Committee condemns the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service’s “failure” in attempts to improve the condition and suitability of the prison estate, echoing the “disastrous” probation reforms of 2014 that were finally abandoned and reversed earlier this year.

The Committee says that “the Ministry has once again exposed taxpayers to higher than expected costs as a result of inadequate planning, unrealistic assumptions and poor performance whilst managing facilities within prisons.”

Despite promises to create 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020, just 206 new places have been delivered so far, and prisoners continue to be held in unsafe, crowded conditions that do not meet their needs. Though women make up 5% of the prison population, in evidence to the Committee the Ministry was unable to answer basic questions about the female prison estate or demonstrate that conditions in these prisons are adequate for the needs and safety of prisoners.

Rather than delivering even a fraction of the promised places, HMPPS has allowed a staggering backlog of maintenance work to build up that will cost more than £900 million to address and means that 500 prison places are taken permanently out of action each year, due to their poor condition. 

Prison conditions and facilities play a crucial role in supporting prisoners to stay away from crime on their release and reduce the £18.1 billion cost to the economy of reoffending each year. Despite the PAC’s recommendations in May 2019, there is still no sign of a cross-government strategy for reducing reoffending.  

 

29/07/20

PAC condemns “slow, inconsistent and at times negligent approach” to social care sector in Covid-19 pandemic

In a report published today, Wednesday 29 July 2020, the Public Accounts Committee says the Government’s “slow, inconsistent, and at times negligent approach” to social care in the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the “tragic impact” of “years of inattention, funding cuts and delayed reforms”,  leaving the sector as a “poor relation” that has suffered badly in the pandemic.

This was illustrated early on by the “appalling error” committed when 25,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes without ensuring all were first tested for COVID-19 - even after there was clear evidence of asymptomatic transmission of the virus. 

Thanks to the commitment of thousands of staff and volunteers and by postponing a large amount of planned work, the NHS was -  just  - able to weather the “severe and immense” challenges to health and social care services in England and meet overall demand for COVID-19 treatment during the pandemic’s April peak – “unfortunately, it has been a very different story for adult social care”.

The Committee is particularly concerned about staff in health and social care “who have endured the strain and trauma of responding to COVID-19 for many months” and who are now expected to “cope with future peaks and also deal with the enormous backlogs that have built up”.

Failure to protect staff by providing adequate PPE has hit staff morale and confidence, while a lack of timely testing led to increased stress and absence. These same staff will be called upon in the event of a second peak and the NHS will need extra staff to deal with the backlog of treatment.

As well as its calls for a “second wave ready” plan, for health and the economy, the Committee expects an account to be provided in September of the spending under “policies designed to create additional capacity quickly” which - while necessary, especially in the haste the Government was acting in  -  have resulted in “a lack of transparency about costs and value for money”.

 

23/07/20

“Astonishing” failure to make economic plan for pandemic could have long-term consequences

In a report published today Thursday 23 July 2020 the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee says it was “astonished” to learn that, despite the threat of a pandemic being one of the government’s top risks for years, it failed to consider specifically in advance how it might deal with the economic impacts of a national disease outbreak.

The Committee heard in evidence that HM Treasury waited until mid-March - days before the lockdown that closed schools and businesses across the country for months - before designing the economic support schemes it would put in place.

The nature of Government co-ordination and decision making in the pandemic is having major and long-lasting impacts on people’s lives. It will be a huge task to ensure lengthy school closures do not have long-term or irreversible effects on children and young people’s future health and education.  Yet, while school closures were predicted in pandemic planning, there seems to have been no plan for how schools and pupils would be supported to continue to learn.

Central government has not given local authorities, on the front line of the response for both the SME and care sectors, the clarity or support they need, and overall there has been unclear planning and advice for lifting lockdown in a number of sectors.

The Committee reiterates its urgent call for Government to learn the lessons from its response to the COVID-19 pandemic so far, and do the work now to ensure it doesn’t repeat its mistakes again in the event of a second spike in infections - or another novel disease outbreak. The Committee expects a report back from the Cabinet Office, by September 1st, on Government’s progress on a “second wave ready” plan.

 

10/07/20

England faces “serious risk of running out of water within 20 years”

 In a report published today, Thursday 9 July 2020, the Public Accounts Committee says all the bodies responsible for the UK’s water supply  - Defra, Ofwat and the Environment Agency – have “taken their eye off the ball” and must take urgent action now to ensure a reliable water supply in the years ahead. It concludes that the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has shown a lack of leadership in getting to grips with all of the issues threatening our water supply.

There is a serious risk that some parts of England will run out of water within the next 20 years. Over 3 billion litres, a fifth of the volume used, is lost to leakage every day: a situation the Committee describes as “wholly unacceptable”.

The report says Government has failed to be clear with water companies, privatised in 1989, on how they should balance investment in infrastructure with reducing customer bills, and says “ponderous” water companies have made “no progress” in reducing leakage over the last 20 years. 

The committee calls for Ofwat to produce annual performance league tables for water companies; step up on promoting water efficiency and deliver an effective campaign for water saving.

Industry action has failed, says the committee and government needs to step in and substantially step up efforts to coordinate increased awareness of the need to save water. 

PAC conclusions and recommendations

1. Government has failed to be clear with water companies on how they should balance investment in infrastructure with reducing customer bills. The government recognises the need for investment in strategic infrastructure projects and water companies are responsible for considering the options available to them and putting their investment proposals to Ofwat based on these considerations. Ofwat scrutinises companies’ investment proposals and accepts or rejects them on the basis of the evidence of need, and whether the costs of the proposal are reasonable. Water companies have had little help from government in how they resolve the tension they face in balancing their plans for investment with the need to keep bills affordable, especially where they feel they have good evidence on their customers’ willingness to pay for long-term resilience. We recognise that infrastructure improvements cannot be achieved overnight, but the rate of progress has been far too ponderous. 

 

Recommendation: The Department should provide more guidance to water companies on the level of investment needed to ensure resilience by 2050 and how they should balance this in their business plans with pressure to reduce consumer bills. The Department should write to us by 31 December 2020 to update us on progress in this regard and how they plan to accelerate the pace of infrastructure improvement.  

 

2.  It is wholly unacceptable that over 3 billion litres are wasted every day through leakage, with no improvement in the last 20 years. From a high of over 4.5 billion litres a day in the early 1990s, daily losses through leakage fell to around 3 billion at the turn of the century. However, this reduction was followed by over a decade of complacency and inaction, which has meant water leakage is now a hugely pressing problem. No one organisation has got a thorough grip on dealing with this issue and driving the change necessary. The Department urged water companies in 2016 to make tackling leakage a much higher priority. However, there has still been little progress. The Department has belatedly set annual targets for water companies and longer-term targets to reduce leakage by a third by 2030 and by half by 2050. Ofwat assures us that companies are exposed to substantial penalties if they do not meet their targets over the next five years and is confident that the worst performing companies are now starting to get their act together. Ofwat now expects leakage to fall by 16% between 2020 and 2025, which would result in 561 million litres of water a day being saved. However, meeting the targets relies on unknown and untested approaches. We are unconvinced by Ofwat’s hope that water companies will “surprise themselves” at what they can achieve,  and call on the Department and Ofwat to be more proactive in ensuring companies meet leakage targets. 

 

Recommendation: The Department should hold water companies to account by publishing annual league tables showing their performance on tackling leakage against the targets set. Annual published league tables should be introduced by 31 December 2020. 

 

3. Government has failed to develop a national message to consumers on the need to reduce water consumption and how to do so. Government relies on water companies to promote the importance of reducing water consumption. But with each company adopting different approaches there is no coherent or coordinated national message. As a result, awareness of the need for water efficiency is very low compared to that of saving energy. There is no evidence of the impact on consumer awareness or behaviour of what water companies are doing. This demonstrates that industry action has been insufficient and has failed, and that government now needs to substantially step up its efforts to coordinate increased awareness of the need to reduce water consumption. In July 2019 a group of organisations including the Environment Agency launched the ‘Love Water’ campaign, but the campaign has no central funding and relies on voluntary contributions from water companies, none of which has yet been secured. To date there is very little to show for the campaign besides a Twitter feed with fewer than 1,000 followers, and the Environment Agency accepts that a lot more needs to be done. For the non-domestic market, including the public estate such as hospitals and schools, the government has attempted to improve water efficiency by introducing competition to allow customers to choose alternative retailers. But the rate of switching has so far been pitiful, and the retailers that are operating in the market are generally failing to offer water efficiency advice and services. 

 

Recommendations

The Department should urgently develop a plan, with adequate funding, to increase public awareness of the need to save water. The Department should write to us by 31 December 2020 to update us on progress in this regard.  

The Department should publish annual league tables showing water companies’ and retailers’ performance on reducing consumption. Annual published league tables should be introduced by 31 December 2020. 

 

4.  We are not convinced that achieving the net zero target is sufficiently embedded in the oversight and regulation of the water industry. The process of building the new infrastructure needed is energy-intensive. Each of the different types of infrastructure water companies can invest in will have differing carbon costs as well as financial costs. The Department has a major part to play in achieving net zero by 2050 and described it as the challenge of our generation. We are told that both water companies and the Environment Agency have committed to net zero by 2030 but it is not clear how this will be achieved or how carbon footprints are taken into account in the planning process and in Ofwat’s methods for assessing options. The Department says that it is working with Water UK, the trade association for water companies, to look at how to embed this in the water resource planning process. 

 

Recommendation: Ofwat should write to us within three months setting out how it will ensure water companies take full account of carbon emissions in appraising the options available to them. 

 

5. The Department has not demonstrated sufficient leadership to drive forward the implementation of product labelling, changes to building regulations and other measures that can make a major contribution to improving water efficiency. Water companies and other industry stakeholders have been calling for mandatory water efficiency labelling on domestic products such as washing machines and dishwashers in the UK for some time. An efficiency standard that all new homes must be built to a standard water usage of 125 litres of water per person per day was added to the building regulations in 2015. The government’s 2019 Spring Statement made a commitment to future-proofing new-build homes with low-carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency. However, no pledges were made on water efficiency, which demonstrates the lack of importance government has attached to this issue, and government’s inability to mobilise and coordinate cross-departmental efforts to meet water efficiency objectives. In July 2019, the Department ran a consultation on further measures to reduce personal water consumption, which included questions covering water efficiency labelling. The Department tells us that it will respond to the consultation soon but will not commit to any specific date. We acknowledge that the Department needs to work with other departments on these policy areas but it clearly needs to be more influential in ensuring that water efficiency is a priority across government in the same way as energy efficiency.  

 

Recommendation: The Department should write to us within four months, setting out a timetable for when it expects to implement product labelling and any other changes, including to building regulations, designed to improve water efficiency. 

 

6.  Abstracting too much water from rivers and other sources, including chalk streams, can damage the environment, and there are particular risks associated with HS2. Around 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in the UK and the aquifers (underground layers of rock that hold groundwater) that feed them are also used for the public water supply. The Environment Agency must balance the need to preserve the environment by maintaining flows with meeting the demand for water. On top of the threat of drying up caused by over-abstraction, chalk steams have also faced damage from sewage being discharged into them by water companies. The Environment Agency has prosecuted Thames Water on a number of occasions for breaching the conditions of its permits and allowing sewage to enter rivers from its treatment plants. Major infrastructure programmes also pose a threat. For example, in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the HS2 programme needs up to 10 million litres per day to facilitate tunnelling. The Environment Agency says that it will not grant approval for HS2’s plans unless the project has both identified and then set out mitigation for impacts to groundwater sources. The Department told us that partnership grants to the value of £882,000 were provided to charities and stakeholder groups in 2020-21 specifically for the improvement of chalk streams and chalk habitat. The Department needs to consider whether this is enough to deal with what the Environment Agency described as a “clear and present danger”.  

 

Recommendation: The Environment Agency should write to us within three months setting out clear objectives, and its planned mitigation actions and associated timescales for eliminating environmental damage from over-abstraction and sewage outflow.

 

08/07/20

Committee demands detailed plan for PPE from DHSC within 2 months, ahead of potential second Covid wave

In a report published yesterday, Tuesday 7 July 2020, the Public Accounts Committee warns that Government does not have either a clear understanding of the equipment needed for clinical and care workers, or how to distribute it – particularly in the more fragmented care sector.

The Committee is extremely concerned by widely reported shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for clinical and care workers during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and says Government is still not treating this with sufficient urgency. It is “absolutely vital” that the same problems do not happen again in the event of a second wave, but uncertainty still prevails around future provision of local PPE across the health and social care sectors.

Within two months of this report the Committee expects the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to clarify its governance arrangements and outline when it expects to have a predictable supply of stock and ready access to PPE supply within the NHS and care sectors. This should include detail on the roles and responsibilities for the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment across NHS and social care settings.

The NHS is now attempting to clear the extensive backlog of screening and treatment that developed during the first wave, and return to more routine and planned services again, against the backdrop of a range of pre-crisis performance measures it was struggling to meet.

The Committee says the NHS now needs a coherent plan for how it will function after the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis cannot be used as an excuse not to address long-standing issues, highlighted in previous PAC reports, such as workforce shortages, coherent and aligned capital investment strategies, and tackling trust deficits.

As part of the preparation for COVID-19 “to protect the NHS and save lives” the Government provided significant additional funding to the NHS, including writing off £13.4bn of loans.

But this, and funding for specific staffing and other support, do not address the underlying issues of the NHS financial sustainability the PAC has been highlighting for years - alongside reports on the increasingly poor performance against waiting times standards for A&E and cancer, and on the growing waiting lists for elective treatments.

In 2018-19 all NHS trusts in England were together running a combined net deficit of £827 million.

Within patient services, performance against the 18-weeks waiting times standard in 2018-19 was at its worst since 2009-10, and the number of people on the waiting list had increased to an historical high of 4.23 million at the end of March 2019.

At October 2019, trusts reported an estimated total backlog maintenance cost to restore their estate to an appropriate standard of £6.5 billion, of which £1.1 billion was high-risk: disrepair that poses an increased risk of harm to patients.

The long-term failure to devise a capital strategy to address this was extended when the comprehensive 2019 Spending Review was postponed, to focus on exiting the EU. The Committee says DHSC and NHS England & NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) must now identify a capital strategy that clearly sets out expectations on how backlog maintenance costs will be addressed.

There is a similar long-term failure to publish a ‘people plan’, and continued lack of long-term investment in people and training, to address the 40,000 nursing vacancies and 9,000 vacancies for medical staff in the NHS.

The Committee says:

- By December 2020 NHSE&I should report back to the Committee with a timetabled plan to get the 10 most financially distressed trusts - running a still-rising combined deficit of £844 million - back to financial balance

- As we move into the next phase of managing the pandemic NHSE&I must step up public information to clearly set out what patients can expect in terms of services available, waiting times and encouraging patients to access services they need

 

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.

 

News