Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Poor service simply won’t do

Since 2010, the government has increasingly outsourced a range of public services. It is difficult to know whether the poor performance delivered by many of these contractors is due to inadequate specification, non-existent monitoring or ministerial indifference. Sometimes it appears to be all three.
Of course, some of those failings have been front page news. For example:
  • G4S completely bungled the provision of security for the London Olympics; even the company described it as a ‘humiliating shambles’ and the army and the police had to be called in at the last moment.
  • G4S – again – and SERCO were caught ripping off the public purse by charging the Ministry of Justice for electronically tagging people who had left the country, people they hadn’t tagged, and, even in some cases, people who were dead.
I have a clear view that companies which fail to perform or cheat should be prevented from being considered for other contracts, but the current government doesn’t agree.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has increasingly used third-party contractors to provide health and disability assessments. In July 2012, DWP signed three regional contracts to provide Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments: two with ATOS and one with Capita Business Services Limited (CAPITA). A PIP is a benefit for people aged between 16 and 64 who have additional costs because of a long-term illness or disability.
In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found unacceptable local and regional variations in the contractors’ performance. Service was regularly unacceptable. There were particular concerns for claimants with fluctuating and mental health conditions. Too many assessments did not meet the standard required, and the price had increased without any noticeable benefit for claimants or taxpayers.

As well as complaints from individual claimants, there were widespread concerns from third sector organisations about the assessment process. A Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in April revealed serious concerns about the validity of assessment tools, the systems in place, the training of assessors and the lack of ethical practice. Despite pressure, the government simply refused to conduct an urgent investigation into the issues.

If anyone required further proof that something was going badly wrong, the latest Tribunal Statistics show that 63% of PIP decisions were overturned on appeal.

A few weeks ago, the government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) rated the DWP’s PIP programme in the Amber/Red category. This is defined as “Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.” In other words, current PIP performance is shambolic and neither the government or its contractors has any plan to put things right.

This simply will not do, which is why ministers will be asked a lot of questions this week and under pressure to put things right for some very vulnerable people.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Your vote counts

Nearly thirty years ago, Ken Livingstone published a book entitled If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it. Of course, he was as wrong then as he is today. To say the least, It’s unfortunate that so many people have used that argument as a justification for ducking their democratic responsibilities ever since.
If nothing else, voting in, and the outcome of the EU referendum – which is heralding probably the biggest single UK policy decision since the end of the second world war – ought to tell us something quite different. Voting has always made a difference, and the collective outcomes of everyone’s votes do make a real difference to all our lives.

I was reminded of this recently, when the House of Commons’ Library published three one-page factsheets on education issues:
  • Schools and class sizes
  • Teachers, and
  • Participation in education
Each of the factsheets contained basic data and illustrative graphs on the specific topic. So, for example, the factsheet on teachers carries information on the numbers of teachers, pupil/teacher rations, and entrants and leavers and vacancies over the last thirty years.

When you look at the data in graphic form, it is really easy to see how voting has changed things.
Under Conservative and Coalition governments, pupil/teacher ratios have consistently risen, new entrants to teaching (reflecting the numbers in teacher training) fall and the number of leavers increases, as do the teacher vacancies. Whereas under Labour governments, increased resources for education saw class sizes falling, and increases in the numbers of teachers being trained saw vacancies falling.

When you look at the data on class sizes, exactly the same patterns repeat. So, for example, the proportion of primary school pupils in large classes peaked at nearly 35% in 1998. It subsequently declined sharply to 18% in 2002 and continued to gradually decline until 2011. Since then it has increased again and that will continue as school funding per pupil is set to fall by between 5.5% and 8% over the course of this parliament.

You can find the reports at Why don’t you look at the facts for yourself? You can then assure yourself – and others – that your vote counts.