Friday 18 November 2011

Whitehall – misfeasance in public office

Dame Helen Ghosh has been Permanent Secretary at the Home Office since 1 January 2011. Before her, it was Sir David Normington. And before him, it was Sir John Gieve who signed the accounts.

On 21 July 2006, the Times published Accounts for Home Office adrift by trillions:
A National Audit Office review of transactions carried out on the Home’s Office’s financial IT system found problems with the data. “When the gross transaction value of debits and credits within this data was totalled, they each amounted to £26,527,108,436,994: almost 2,000 times higher than the Home Office’s gross expenditure for 2004-05 and approximately one and a half times higher than the estimated gross domestic product of the entire planet,” a note from the National Audit Office said.

“This suggests something has gone seriously awry. We have yet to receive an explanation for what has happened,” the note added.

Last night Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the [Public Accounts Committee], said: “In any parish council or cricket club the person responsible would have been out on his ear. What actually happened was that Sir John was promoted to become Deputy Governor of the Bank of England in charge of financial stability in the banking system.

“You might reasonably expect to see this in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but not in real life.”
Make the most of any smile that brought to your lips.

On 11 November 2011, the National Audit Office published HM Revenue & Customs – The expansion of online filing of tax returns.

Unpromising material, granted. It repays attention nonetheless.

All of HMRC's IT to handle tax returns is supplied under contract. The contract is called ASPIRE and the contractors are Capgemini and Fujitsu. ASPIRE is worth £8 billion over 10 years. The NAO are talking about how HMRC spends 8,000 million of our pounds. Under the heading Operational performance, they say (pp.8-9):
HMRC uses a range of indicators to measure the performance of its ICT services, which include online services, and it measures availability that relates specifically to online filing. HMRC has a high-level view of the overall costs of ICT provision through the ASPIRE contract. It has been taking steps to improve that information and achieve cost savings. It does not yet have a detailed breakdown of the costs of online filing services, so it cannot benchmark those costs to assess their value for money. HMRC is currently negotiating with the ASPIRE contractors to obtain a clearer breakdown of the costs of ICT services provided.
What are the NAO telling us?

For anyone who missed it, the NAO provide a second chance (p.11) when they say that HMRC ...
... should proceed with its plans to identify ICT costs specific to online filing services and ensure that current negotiations with the ASPIRE contractors provide sufficient breakdown of cost information for regular benchmarking of costs.
HMRC has "a high-level view of the overall costs" of IT but not "a detailed breakdown". The contractors won't give them a detailed breakdown. HMRC are having to negotiate with the contractors to get a detailed breakdown. HMRC don't know what they're getting for our money. They just keep paying. The contractors don't tell HMRC what they're invoicing for. They just keep demanding money. Lots of money. £8,000,000,000 of our money.

This isn't Gilbert and Sullivan. This is Mario Puzo.


The exegesis above is due to Tony Collins, investigative journalist and hero.

He reminisces about an earlier incidence of this irresponsible, unbusinesslike, spineless, craven, beholden behaviour of Whitehall's:
Several years ago the Conservative MP Richard Bacon asked criminal justice officials for a breakdown of costs on the “Libra” contract for magistrates’ courts IT. The Department didn’t know. So it referred Bacon to Fujitsu, Libra’s main supplier.

Fujitsu eventually provided a breakdown so vague – with high-level categories such as “network services” – that Bacon had little choice but to ask the same questions repeatedly to find out how public funds were being spent with Fujitsu.

In the end Bacon failed – and he had little support from departmental officials.
It's an ugly and horrifying subject that no-one wants to dwell on. Which may be why Mr Collins forgets another case he himself reported, the case of the NHS's £11 billion+ NPfIT contract:
I understand that when auditors carried out a check at NHS Connecting for Health they found box-loads of invoices that had not been analysed.

Auditors found that the invoices were being paid as they came in, without a reconciliation of what was being charged against what was being delivered, and without a check on the extent to which payments related to sign-off of systems by local trusts.
Richard Bacon MP, hero, has been active on all three projects – Libra, NPfIT and ASPIRE – together with Tony Collins, trying to get value for money for the public and, so far, failing.

Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General at the NAO, is unearthing tons of evidence of negligence.

Whitehall says it's doing nothing illegal, which may be true, but it's not the responsible behaviour we have a right to expect and, for the moment, the money keeps pouring out of the bucket and into the pockets of the contractors and the management consultants and the PFI financiers.

Nothing illegal? Is there a lawyer in the house? Is there a case here to bring charges of misfeasance in public office?


Updated 8 November 2013:
DWP untouched by MPs’ criticisms over Universal Credit IT project
Did DWP mislead MPs and media over Universal Credit?
DWP cover-up over Universal Credit IT project?
More IT-based megaprojects derail amid claims all is well

Updated 9 November 2015
Police funding sums are totally wrong, Home Office admits

Police and crime commissioners accused the Home Office of being unable to add up after a senior civil servant admitted that the wrong data was applied in its planned overhaul of the way in which cash grants are distributed to the 43 forces in England and Wales ...

In the case of Scotland Yard, the Home Office grant estimate was said to be wrong by more than £100 million ...

Andrew White, the chief executive of Devon and Cornwall’s PCC office, uncovered the discrepancies after his own analysts were unable to make the Home Office figures add up. He said that he received a letter admitting the mistake yesterday from Mary Callum, the director-general for crime and policing ...
After signing the £26½ trillion Home Office accounts (please see above) Sir John Gieve went on to become a Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. Can Mary Callum follow this tradition?

Updated 13.4.16

UK borders safe?

A dutiful Whitehall under the political control of Westminster?

High standards of misfeasance maintained, particularly at the Home Office:
Top civil servant kicked out of Parliament committee for 'unsatisfactory' answers to MPs

A senior Whitehall mandarin refused to say whether the UK Border Force budget has been cut – before being kicked out of a hearing with MPs for giving "unsatisfactory" answers.

Oliver Robbins was threatened with being held in contempt and repeatedly criticised when he side-stepped a string of questions put to him by the home affairs select committee.

Mr Robbins, the Home office second permanent secretary, was asked nine times by Keith Vaz, the committee chairman, whether the borders budget had been finalised, without receiving an answer.

Twenty minutes later Mr Robbins was told to leave the session ...

Updated 29.6.16
Permanent Secretary appointed to lead the new EU unit in Cabinet Office

29 June 2016

Oliver Robbins has been appointed as the head of the new EU Unit in the Cabinet Office.

Oliver will have responsibility for supporting Cabinet in the examination of options for our future relationship outside the EU, with Europe, and the rest of the world as well as responsibility for the wider European and Global Issues Secretariat ...

Mark Sedwill, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, said: "... I can think of no better person to lead this work than Oliver Robbins, who, in the past year as Second Permanent Secretary for borders, immigration and citizenship, has made such a positive impact in the department, and developed considerable expertise in many of the issues central to negotiating British withdrawal and establishing a new position in the world".
Let's hope that Mr Robbins will be a little more forthcoming than he was with the Home Affairs Committee.

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