Another Grayling privatised company bites the dust – leaving us less safe

“A private company which manages thousands of offenders in England and Wales after they are released from prison has collapsed into administration.

Working Links, a company that owns three community rehabilitation businesses which deliver probation services in Wales, Avon and Somerset and Cornwall, went bust on Thursday night.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said they had been aware of the company’s financial situation since October, and said it had put in place contingency plans to ensure “offenders will be supervised and the public will be protected”.

The union representing probation officers in the UK has reacted with anger to the news.

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, said: “This is exactly what we warned the government about from day one of this disastrous privatisation programme that has seen an award-winning service fall into total chaos in just four years.”

Chris Grayling was responsible for privatising the care of low-to-medium risk offenders four years ago as part of his reforms when he was minister for justice.

The MoJ said Working Links services would be handed over to Seetec, who manage community rehabilitation centres in Kent, Surrey and Sussex for the time being.

They also said they would bring forward plans to bring probation services in Wales back under government control.

Seetec confirmed they would transfer all of Working Links staff to their books.

The company’s executive director, Suki Binning, said: “It has been a challenging and uncertain period for probation teams in these regions, during which they have worked tirelessly to support the people they manage and protect the public.”

Lawrence slammed the government’s handling of the situation, adding: “Napo has continually pleaded with ministers to terminate the contracts between the MoJ and Working Links following highly critical reports from HM Inspectorate of Probation and a litany of high profile Serious Further Offences including a number of murders.”…”

“Bus Companies Earned Billions Amid Savage Cuts To Routes, Analysis Shows”

“Bus companies in England pocketed a total of £3.3bn in profits while they presided over swingeing cuts to vital routes, figures show.

Private firms together made hundreds of millions operating busses outside London each year since the coalition government came to power in 2010, official data has revealed.

Yet a report by the Transport Commissioner found almost 17,000 bus routes have disappeared over the past five years.

HuffPost UK reported last week how tightened council budgets have made bus services that were under-used, but previously considered essential, vulnerable to cuts.

Labour – which analysed the figures – said the stats highlighted how the bus industry “puts profit before millions of passengers”. …”

Information Commissioner wants Freedom of Information Act extended to outsourced companies

“The Information Commissioner has called for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) to be updated to include organisations providing a public function.

In a report to Parliament, ‘Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law’, Elizabeth Denham said: “In the modern age, public services are delivered in many ways by many organisations. Yet not all of these organisations are subject to access to information laws.

“Maintaining accountable and transparent services is a challenge because the current regime does not always extend beyond public authorities and, when it does, it is complicated. The laws are no longer fit for purpose.”

She added: “Urgent action is required because progress has been too slow. It is now time to act. This report sets out solutions that can extend the law to make it fit for the modern age.”

Denham said the main aim her report was to make an evidence-based case to extend the reach of FOIA and the EIR “to enable greater transparency and accountability in modern public services, which in turn improves services”.
The Commissioner said in the report that she would welcome a Parliamentary Inquiry via a select committee into the issues raised. The ICO has submitted the report to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and PACAC for their consideration. …”

“What It’s Like To Lose Your Local Post Office”

Another in the Huffington Post series of the effects of local authority cuts:

“Mole Meade is dedicated to the Post Office. The trade union rep has spent half of his life working as a clerk, while also representing its thousands of employees.

But after 30 years, his expresses his loyalty to the firm in a different way. He now frequently fights alongside councillors and community leaders to halt the disappearance of post offices from British high streets, as branches are closed across the country.

“I’ve seen it go through rack and ruin,” says Meade, who is now an executive at the Communication Workers Union.

Last year, Lewisham in London lost the last two Post Offices branches directly controlled by the company, known as “crown” sites, as Sydenham and New Cross pulled down their shutters for good in a move local councillor Alan Hall described as a “national scandal”.

But the Post Office has been under immense pressure to shut down those branches. Crown post offices now make up just 2% of the national postal network, having fallen from 373 branches in 2009, to 262 in March last year. Mostly, they have been subsumed into local news agents, or WHSmiths.

The closures are particularly poignant in light of rising concerns about the death of the high street, and discussions about how to draw more customers in as numbers continue to fall nationwide. Forecasters predict some 175,000 jobs could be lost as footfall declines again this year.

“You’ve got a government currently banging on about ‘oh, we’ve got to do something about the high street’, and they’re the ones killing it off,” Meade said.

The Sydenham closure was “probably one of the most offensive” closures, he said. It wasn’t just a place to post a letter or a package – as a full service site it was also where people could apply for work permits, or sort out issues with their immigration status.

“What happened in Sydenham, this happens in every office that’s got UK border agency facilities. People who come to Britain for economic, political, asylum reasons have to get UK border agency facilities at some point and with the closure of Sydenham, those facilities evaporated,” he told HuffPost UK.

But like so many decisions driven by austerity over the past few years, the closure made sense on paper. Services were not withdrawn completely, and people could go to WHSmith stores for some of the things the post office provided them with. But as with similar cuts across the UK, there was a quiet but profound impact on the people who relied on it.

The slow decline of the post offices is just one of the cuts that we have been examining in our new series, What It’s Like To Lose. After nearly eight years of shrinking local budgets, HuffPost UK has been focusing on the disappearing bus routes, leisure centres, clinics and job centres that together paint a picture of what life is like for millions of people who rely on public services in the age of austerity.

Now, the shuttered branch in south London’s New Cross stands vacant. “This was a post office that was very well used – always queues out the door. So there was very much a need in the neighbourhood, and we didn’t want either of them to go,” says Laura Wirtz, a local resident.

Wirtz was an instrumental figure in the campaign against the New Cross closure, heading up the petition of 3,000 signatures which was eventually presented to Downing Street last February.

She told HuffPost UK: “When I started the campaign and started taking the petitions around the pubs, I would hear comments like ‘Oh, we’re going to lose that as well?’.”

“We’d already lost the bank, and the library was only kept open for two days a week but then volunteers are running it. We’re just losing all of our essential services and the only things that still exist are private, promotional spaces.

“There’s nothing owned by us, nothing that’s for the community and so there’s just a general feeling that the amenities we depend on, they’re not going to be open for us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

But this is not simply a story of one post office being closed, says Lewisham councillor Joe Dromey, who opposed the closure of the New Cross crown site. This was a whole constellation of pressures. “It’s part of a wave of closures of Crown post offices we’ve seen in recent years which has been an effort by the post office to save money and cut costs,” he told HuffPost UK.

“The reason why it delivers big savings for the Post Office is because it replaces decent, well-paid union organised jobs on secure terms, with low-paid, insecure work. The savings are on the back of undermining decent, quality work,” he said.

Grievances were aired at local council meetings last year, with local residents fearing the economic impact of the closure, as well as longer queues and poorer service. Consultations were even held between residents and Post Office bosses, which councillor Liam Curran labelled a “cosmetic exercise”.

A campaign was launched online, adopting the #SaveOurPostOffice hashtag. Their action culminated in a number of petitions being presented to Downing Street. But it didn’t stop the closures.

Curran told HuffPost UK: “They all closed down one by one. Last year, there was about just under 300 that were crown branches. But before that, there was thousands and thousands of them. Now they’re closing, despite all the lobbying a petitions from people up and down the country, they’re being ignored.”

Founded in 1986, Post Office Ltd now has a network of 11,500 branches across the UK, directly employing 8,000 employees in its Crown branches, and 50,000 in its sub-post offices. It broke off from the privatised Royal Mail in 2012 to become an independent, state-owned firm as part of the Postal Services Act 2011.

But it has weathered challenging conditions, and faced questions over its viability as it began to report losses reaching £108m in 2007.

In a bid to overhaul the brand’s fortunes, the government provided a £1.7bn cash injection in 2007, in hopes that it could become profitable again by 2011. Part of this deal saw 85 Crown sites close, most of them sold to retailer WHSmith.

The 2007 government subsidy was followed up in 2010 with £1.3 billion in funding to help the firm further. As part of efforts to modernise, it introduced two new types of shop – open plan ‘main sites’ with longer hours and more services, and ‘local style’ post offices which are housed within corner shops and are open during retail hours.

Simultaneously, the number of Crown sites fell, with figures showing that by the end of March, there were 262, making up 2% of the entire network, compared with 373 in 2009. A 10-year deal was drawn up between Post Office Ltd and WHSmith, in which 61 sites are to be sold to the high street giant until 2026.

Curran said he fears that the government is set on privatising the Post Office completely. “It’s the equivalent to a national service like the railways, water, power, that actually should be under the ownership of the public through the government, and that provides a service that benefits people.”

He said it is part of “the story of wider privatisation, and government priorities.”

The Post Office told HuffPost UK it does not take branch changes lightly.

“The Post Office is not immune to the pressures facing all retailers, and we must respond to the unprecedented change taking place on high streets and adapt to changing customer needs.

“We want our services to remain at the heart of communities, including in Lewisham, in a way that’s financially sustainable, not just for today’s customers but tomorrow’s too. 98% of the Post Office network is run in this way, on an agency or franchise basis. It’s a model that works through delivering the benefits of shared overheads and footfall.”

The company reassured customers that they would still be able to rely on the facilities they expect, adding that there are “very rarely changes” to services over the counter.

“We do not make changes to our branches lightly – but we need to make them if we are to ensure that our services remain at the heart of towns and cities, not just in the short term, but for the long term too.”

It is clear that, amid the changing face of New Cross high street, the loss of the Crown post office signifies the fall of yet another constant, a reliable community nerve centre.

Meade said: “It affects the very fabric of our high streets and our society, because what you can’t put a price on is a person, whether young or old, can go to the post office weekly, and that’s probably the only people they speak to.

“You can’t put a price on that.”

Outsourcers should be allowed to fail – says outsourcing boss

“Politicians and regulators responding to Carillion’s collapse should resist the temptation to turn outsourcing companies into “safe spaces” that cannot fail, the boss of a rival has urged.

Carillion, which built roads and hospitals and provided cleaning and catering to the public sector, went under one year ago this week, leading to calls for tighter rules for outsourced services and greater scrutiny of those providing them.

But Rupert Soames, who led Serco through its own financial crunch four years ago, told The Sunday Telegraph: “You will get companies that are ­well-run and ones that are badly run – and the bad ones should go bust. …”

Chilling report on NHS sustainability – it isn’t sustainable

Owl says: anyone who cares about the NHS should read EVERY PAGE of this 58-page report, which is written in clear and accessible language.

Every page signals a death-knell for the NHS sooner rather than later.

It is hard to pick out anything – every page tells a story of (deliberate?) mismanagement, underfunding and chaotic accounting.

For example:

“Key findings

The funding settlement for the NHS long-term plan

8 The long-term funding settlement does not cover key areas of health spending. The 3.4% average uplift in funding applies to the budget for NHS England and not to the Department’s entire budget. The Department’s budget covers other important areas of health spending such as most capital investment for buildings and equipment, prevention initiatives run by Public Health England and local authorities, and funding for doctors’ and nurses’ training. Spending in these areas could affect the NHS’s ability to deliver the priorities of the long-term plan, especially if funding for these areas reduces. The government will consider proposals in these areas as part of its 2019 Spending Review. In addition, without a long-term funding settlement for social care, local NHS bodies are concerned that it will be very difficult to make the NHS sustainable (paragraphs 2.27 and 2.28).

9 There is a risk that the NHS will be unable to use the extra funding optimally because of staff shortages. Difficulties in recruiting NHS staff presents a real risk that some of the extra £20.5 billion funding will either not be used optimally (more expensive agency staff will need to be used to deliver additional services) or will go unspent as even if commissioners have the resources to commission additional activity, health care providers may not have the staff to deliver it (paragraphs 1.19 and 2.29).

10 From what we have seen so far, the NHS long-term plan sets out a prudent approach to achieving the priorities and tests set by the government, but a number of risks remain. The long-term plan describes how the NHS aims to achieve the range of priorities and five financial tests, set by the government in return for the long-term funding settlement, which NHS England believes are stretching but feasible. As with all long-term plans, it provides a helpful indicator of the direction of travel, but significant internal and external risks remain to making the plan happen. These risks include: growing pressures on services; staffing shortages; funding for social care and public health; and the strength of the economy. Our reports have highlighted how previous funding boosts appear to have mostly been spent on dealing with current pressures rather than making the changes that are needed to put the NHS on a sustainable footing (paragraphs 2.24 to 2.26).

Financial and operational performance of NHS bodies

11 In 2017-18, NHS commissioners and trusts reported a combined deficit of £21 million. This was made up of:

The combined deficit of £21 million does not include adjustments needed to report against the Department’s budget for day-to-day resources and administration costs.

12 It is not clear that funding is reaching the right parts of the system.
The overspends by trusts and CCGs were broadly offset by the underspend by NHS England. In 2017-18, NHS England’s underspend included: £962 million from non-recurrent central programme costs, including efficiencies from vacancies;

a £280 million contribution to the risk reserve and £223 million from centrally commissioned services, mostly specialised services (paragraphs 1.4 and 1.8).

13 Most of the combined trust deficit is accounted for by a small number of trusts, while the number of CCGs in deficit increased in 2017-18. The net trust deficit hides wide variation in performance between trusts, with 100 out of 232 trusts in deficit. In 2017-18, 69% of the total trust deficit was accounted for by 10 trusts. NHS Improvement has committed to returning the trust sector to balance in 2020-21, but it is difficult to see how this will be achieved for the worst-performing trusts under current arrangements. Although support provided to trusts in NHS Improvement’s financial special measures programme has been successful in improving the position of some trusts (by £49 million in 2017-18), the financial performance of the 10 worst-performing trusts deteriorated significantly in 2017-18. Between 2016-17 and 2017-18, the number of CCGs reporting overspends against their planned position increased from 57 to 75. The NHS long-term plan sets out the national bodies’ aim that no NHS organisation is reporting a deficit by 2023-24 (paragraphs 1.6 and 1.11).

14 There are indications that the underlying financial health in some trusts
is getting worse. In 2017-18, trusts reported that their combined underlying deficit was £4.3 billion, or £1.85 billion if the Provider Sustainability Fund (which replaced the Sustainability and Transformation Fund in 2018-19) is allocated to trusts in future years. There is no historical data on the underlying deficit that takes account of one-off savings, emergency extra cash and other short-term fixes that boost the financial position of the NHS, so it is not clear whether this position is getting better or worse. However, indicators such as cash support and one-off efficiency savings suggest the position has not improved. For example, in 2017-18, the Department gave £3.2 billion in loans to support trusts in difficulty, up from £2.8 billion in 2016-17. In 2017-18, 26% of trusts’ savings were one-off. Trusts will need to make additional savings in 2018-19 to replace these one-off savings (paragraphs 1.13, 1.14, 2.13, 2.17 and 2.18).”

“Surge in outsourcing after Carillion collapse ‘staggering’, unions say”

“Trade unions have accused the government of failing to learn lessons from the collapse of Carillion, instead pumping even more money into outsourcing companies, a year on from the firm’s high-profile demise.

The lifetime value of outsourcing contracts awarded in 2017-18 “rocketed” by 53% from £62bn to £95bn in the past year, according to the GMB union, which pointed to nearly £2bn in contracts awarded to Capita and Interserve despite both issuing profit warnings.

The GMB said this showed a government “hell-bent” on privatisation, despite the warning signs given by the collapse of Carillion, which managed public sector contracts to provide services such as prison maintenance and school dinners.

The GMB national secretary, Rehana Azam, said: “What other explanation can there be for this huge increase on outsourced contracts in the year Carillion went bust and when other outsourcing giants look like they’re on life support?”

The GMB’s criticism comes on the first anniversary of Carillion’s failure, which has cost the taxpayer an estimated £150m and has caused major delays to two multi-million pound hospital construction projects in Liverpool and Birmingham.

Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, bemoaned a lack of action taken against former Carillion directors, who were accused by a committee of MPs of “recklessness, hubris and greed”, reiterating calls for a criminal investigation. …”