Governments of all hues are always telling us about how they want to 'save money', especially during periods of austerity. It's invariably possible by 'greater efficiency', by 'doing more with less' or 'better targetting', but the funny thing is, it nearly always ends up costing more, delivers less and often merely shifts costs to other areas of public expenditure.
This from the Guardian:-
This from the Guardian:-
I'm a DWP call handler and have no time to care about your disability claim
This morning I spoke to a cancer patient, a woman with kidney failure, and a young man who had just lost the mother of his children. Each of them thought I was trying to help them. I wasn’t really though, because helping them would take longer than 23 minutes.
Twenty three minutes is how long it should take me to help you make a benefit claim, according to my bosses. I work in a Department for Work and Pensions contact centre and take calls from people who are at their lowest point.
These are people who need my help to navigate the complex claims system so that they can get a meagre payout. They’re often vulnerable and desperate by the time they reach me. My job is to fill in a new claim form for employment and support allowance based on the information people give me and then send that form off to the benefit centre where the claim is processed.
The headset beeps and I launch into my scripted greeting. The caller wants to tell me about her recent cancer diagnosis, what type it is, what the treatment will be, the reasons her employer has given for not offering sick pay. But I don’t have time to listen to her story. “I’m afraid we need to stick to yes or no answers” I say, and I feel horrible because this poor woman wants to tell someone about this huge awful thing that’s happening to her, she wants a friendly listener to make her feel reassured that she will at least get financial help.
But for me, the only thing that’s really important is how long each call takes. We are measured on our average handling time (known as AHT) and if this slips beyond 23 minutes per call we face performance management, which is code for “you’ll get in trouble”. This involves anything from stern words and increased micro-management from your line manager right up to written warnings and dismissal.
I have a script I read from, over and over again, the same for every customer. Some of the questions are opaque at best: “has your doctor told you that special rules apply to your condition?” is one which flummoxed the woman this morning who has cancer; the script specifies that I should not offer an explanation of the term unless I’m asked. She did ask, so I read the follow-up line “special rules means your doctor has told you that your condition has a life expectancy of less than six months.” No, she said, not yet, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief that I wouldn’t need to ask another series of questions about this, pushing the call-handling time up further.
In the DWP’s modern-day version of a sweatshop, we staff are singularly ill-equipped to actually offer any help or support. I have had absolutely no training in how sickness benefits work. I don’t know what happens when I send a claim to be processed, so I can’t answer any questions about what will happen next or when somebody will get a payment.
Quality checking is done but it’s about whether we are reading every word of the script, there is no measure of how good a service we provide or whether or not people are able to make a successful claim with our help.
The woman with cancer has answered all of my scripted questions and I am reading her a list of instructions about what to do next. I doubt she is taking it all in; at this point she’s been listening to me for 45 minutes. I’ve already failed to hit the AHT target; she has children and it takes a long time to input all their names and dates of birth, plus she took ages to find her tax credits award notice to read me the figures. I decide I will take an extra couple of minutes to explain to her the importance of sending in fit notes signed by her doctor on a regular basis.
This isn’t in my script despite being absolutely key information and a major stumbling block for many new claimants. If the call is listened to by my line manager this will be flagged up as an area where I’m missing time targets, as will the three minutes earlier in the call where I let her cry quietly down the phone because her life is imploding and she’s frightened of what the future will bring and this is all too much for her. A more motivated call-handler would have got her back on track quickly, today I am not that person.
I feel like crying too after this call, because I know I have failed this woman in so many ways. No time for me to cry though, there is no break between calls, the headset beeps again immediately and this time it’s a woman with kidney failure. I’m failing her too, and afterwards I will fail the bereaved young father, and this afternoon there will be more and more people I fail to help. And this will continue presumably until the government finally finds a way to do away with benefits entirely, at which point our sick and disabled people will be left with nothing, not even my hurried 23 minutes of script.
This from the Daily Record reminds us of that cunning spending sleight-of-hand so favoured by Gordon Brown:-
Privately run Addiewell prison will end up costing taxpayers nearly £1billion – more than 12 times what it cost to build. The outrageous bill for the jail in West Lothian, built under the controversial private finance initiative in 2006, was revealed after a parliamentary question by SNP MSP Fulton MacGregor.
Scottish Prison Service chief executive Colin McConnell revealed the estimated cost of the 25-year contract with Sodexo Justice Services will be £955million. The deal was brokered by the then Labour and Lib Dem administration.
MacGregor said: “This is an absolutely staggering revelation, showing the sheer incompetence and damaging legacy of the Labour and the Lib Dem executive. The PFI contract for Addiewell prison was always a bad deal for the public purse, but the latest estimates revealing a bill of nearly £1billion for a £80 million building will leave Scottish taxpayers paying way over the score for years to come.”
Dave Watson, head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland, said: “The extortionate cost of the Addiewell prison project reinforces the call for a full inquiry into all public-private partnership schemes to consider bringing them back into the public sector.”
Under PFI or PPP schemes, private firms got contracts to construct and maintain public buildings, usually for 30 years, in return for an annual “unitary charge” that covered the initial capital spend and ongoing running costs. The SNP dropped the system when they came into power in 2007 and instead set up a scheme that caps the profits private firms can make.
PFI came under renewed scrutiny in April when a string of Edinburgh schools that were upgraded under the scheme were forced to close amid safety fears. We then revealed how the total bill for the privately built and managed public projects in Scotland will climb above £36billion. Labour and the Lib Dems declined to comment on the Addiewell figures. Scottish Greens justice spokesman John Finnie MSP said: “PFI has been an unmitigated disaster and one which those two former governing parties should apologise for.”
Finally, a reminder from the Morning Star about that 'competition' Grayling held for privatising probation:-
The government argues that competition improves services, but in the probation service at least a quarter of contracts were awarded without any competition at all. Solomon Hughes reports
The Conservative government has privatised most of the probation service over the past two years, in a multibillion-pound scheme the Labour Party called “crackpot.” Chris Grayling, the minister who launched the scheme, insisted it would make the management of ex-offenders better and cheaper because there would be “greater use of competition to drive value and ensure taxpayers’ money is invested in services that work.”
That’s the standard argument for privatisation — commercial competition makes things better. Except a freedom of information request reveals that there was no competition in many probation regions. At least a quarter of the contracts, worth £1.7 billion, were awarded without any competition at all. Only one single company bid for each of these contracts.
Probation in five regions, including London, is run by companies which got the job because they were the only ones who applied for the work. And in four more regions there was a competition, but the Ministry of Justice did not give the job to the “winning” bid. Instead the “second-best” firm won the deal because the ministry was scared an overall lack of competition meant the “winning” firms would dominate the market.
Probation services try to steer offenders and newly released prisoners away from crime and into jobs and housing. In 2013, then justice secretary Grayling launched a “rehabilitation revolution.” Probation would be handed over to new, privately run “community rehabilitation companies.” These private firms would be paid to take over probation for all but the 20 per cent of most dangerous offenders in 21 UK regions.
Sadiq Khan, then Labour’s shadow justice minister, called it a “half-baked scheme” that might be “a danger to the safety of local communities.”
The privatisation doesn’t get a lot of press, but it is really huge and risky. According to the original tender contracts, the seven-year deals are worth £6.2bn of taxpayers’ cash. If the companies are worse at steering offenders back into society, then people can by badly harmed by the scheme.
Grayling said: “The contest to win one of our sought-after rehabilitation contracts will be genuine and hard-fought.” But a detail in a report investigating the privatisation by official watchdog the National Audit Office published in May revealed that there were “single bidders” in some areas. Grayling’s claims of a “hard-fought” contest were untrue. The auditors did not say which areas had no competition, so I asked for the details through a freedom of information request.
After two months and much consultation, the Audit Office told me which of the five contracts went to firms that were the “only one compliant bid.” They include the probation services in both London and the Thames Valley. These were given to MTC, a US private prisons firm with no previous British experience and a record of riots and scandals in the US.
The London contract — worth £982 million, according to tender documents — is the biggest single deal in the probation privatisation. The government has handed a very sensitive, billion-pound contract to a dubious firm for the simple reason that no other company wanted the work.
The other “single bidder” firms given probation contracts without competition were Working Links, which got the contract to run probation in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall; Sodexo which was given Norfolk and Suffolk and Purple Futures, a consortium led by privatisation specialist Interserve, which got Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. According to tender papers, that means £1.7bn of probation contracts were given with no competition.
These firms got these huge, safety-critical contracts because they were the only ones that wanted them. The government picked the applicants from a shortlist of one. There was also a further failure of competition: in four more regions the Ministry of Justice deliberately did not give the contract to the best bidder. The ministry had a rule that no single company could have more than 25 per cent of all the probation contracts, supposedly to stimulate competition.
But because there was not enough competition for the contracts in the whole process, this meant the ministry had to deliberately give the contracts to the “next best bidder” in South Yorkshire and Bedfordshire-Northamptonshire-Cambridgeshire-Hertfordshire (which both went to French catering firm Sodexo); Bristol-Gloucester-Somerset-Wiltshire (which went to Working Links) and Derbyshire-Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire, which went to a consortium led by Australian “workfare” firm Ingeus. In each of these regions probation has been taken from the public sector and deliberately given to a private firm which the ministry knows was not the best for the job.
All told, nine of the regional probation contracts were awarded to firms without proper competition, either because there was only one bidder or because the department chose the “second-best” bidder. The value of these contracts according to the tender documents is £2.9bn, or 47 per cent of the total value of the entire privatisation. The Ministry of Justice told me that “in each case the successful bid met the minimum thresholds. Other bids for these areas failing to meet the minimum thresholds were excluded.”
Sadiq Khan said the probation plan was a “botched privatisation,” a “grotesque and unnecessary waste of money.” The contracts involve critical work with offenders which can affect whether they get homes and jobs and “go straight” or return to crime. But the only thing stopping this all going wrong is a claim about “minimum thresholds.”
Many of the firms have no experience of working with ex-offenders. Those that do, like MTC, have a terrible record. The only thing the government could claim as a plus was “competition” — but in many cases there was no competition. Grayling modelled his scheme on the Work Programme for the Unemployed, which itself was a failure. However, he has “moved on” since the scheme was launched.
Only two things stand between us and probation failure. First, firms like MTC or Sodexo. Second, the new Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Neither inspires confidence.