PACAC is the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Under a different name this particular select committee first came into existence to monitor the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner – later termed the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The committee members have always had a difficult time being both the champions of the Ombudsman on the one hand, charged as they are with ensuring that Ombudsman reports about government bodies are acted upon. Then on the other hand holding the Ombudsman to account on behalf of parliament and the public. A kind of good cop/bad cop all rolled into one cop. It would appear from this Denning Law Journal that the committee originally acted as an appeal/review body for dissatisfied complainants and MPs.
For many years this Committee has served as a form of appeal/review from the PCA’ s decisions as to whether or not to investigate a complaint. If an M. P. or complainant is unhappy with the outcome, they are usually referred to the Select Committee. The Committee will investigate the complaint and can call the PCA to account for his decision.
That must have become rather irksome for the members of the committee as somewhere along the line they managed to narrow their role to examining the Annual Report released by the Ombudsman. As luck would have it in December 2018 PACAC put out a request for written evidence on the performance of the Ombudsman with particular reference to ‘value for money’. After the 2016/17 scrutiny meeting PACAC called for an external audit of PHSO given ‘its past problems’.
However, we also agree with the Ombudsman that before the PHSO can make the case for more funding, it will need to demonstrate that it is spending its current funding well. Given its past problems an external audit mechanism is required that will provide robust assurance of the value for money of the PHSO’s operations to its Board, the Committee and the public. We recommend that the Ombudsman asks his non-executive directors to commission this, and report back to us.
‘Robust assurance’ was called for so PACAC would be keen to learn about the alleged fraudulent overtime payments The ‘past problems’ no doubt referred to the National Audit Office Procurement Report which you can read more about here
Following the NAO investigation into ‘perceptions of procurement misdemeanors’ in 2013 a number of governance recommendations had been made. It would be an ideal time for the NAO to follow-up and assure themselves and parliament that their recommendations had been properly applied. However, it was not the NAO who were called in but Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman for the Republic of Ireland (as chair of the team) along with Caroline Mitchell, Lead Ombudsman of the FOS (Financial Ombudsman Services and recently the subject of a Dispatches expose). You can see Peter Tyndall here in the blue mac with PHSO Ombudsman Rob Behrens (front left) out visiting the Lowry exhibition in Salford. It’s good to see that they all get on so well isn’t it.
Strangely, the review team were completely satisfied with the financial monitoring and governance at PHSO. They clearly had not been informed of the accusations of fraudulent payments of overtime or that PHSO held no monthly records of payments to staff. See fraud, what fraud? part 1 PHSO
The review team didn’t say an awful lot on this subject to be honest. They said that things had ‘improved’ were ‘enhanced’ and ‘better’ without any reference to how they stood before or after. Peer Review Study Sounding a little like Anna Rampton, Director of Better in the spoof programme W1A this was their only comment on the subject.
- 5.2. Financial monitoring and governance arrangements have been improved, with enhanced financial literacy in key roles and a governance framework that supports better decision-making;
Better than what?
Clearly the review team were unaware of the accusations of fraud and it was my responsibility as a dutiful citizen to ensure that PACAC knew that all was not as it seemed. Consequently, I took the time to write a full report to PACAC and included the following passage.
Whistleblowers reported to PHSOtheFACTS discrepancies in bonus and overtime payments made by PHSO at the end of the 2017 financial year. A FOI request confirmed that PHSO do not hold data on individual payments made to staff for bonus or overtime due to contracting out to a third party. Without the data it is difficult to know how PHSO will defend against such accusations which are presently being reported to Action Fraud.
I kept it short and sweet but gave enough information for the committee to ask some serious questions at the oral scrutiny session in January. Such as;
- Why did whistleblowers go out to a third party when the PHSO has a policy on protecting whistleblowers.
- Why don’t PHSO keep accurate records of payments made to individual employees and how can they monitor for internal fraud without such records?
- How did any fake claims for overtime or bonus pay avoid the scrutiny of financial monitoring and governance?
Pretty obvious questions yet somehow, in the mix of things, they all got overlooked. The clerks had read the evidence, the MPs had read the evidence and Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chair of PACAC has read the evidence yet not one single question on the accusations of fraudulent payments, whistleblowing or the lack of accurate records. Remarkable eh?
Also, no connection was made with the results of the 2018 PHSO staff survey which was part of the evidence from PHSO to the committee. Evidently, only 48% of staff felt it was safe to challenge the way things were done and with an 80% response rate perhaps the other 20% didn’t feel it was safe to complete the survey. Who knows. External whistleblowing has to be a worrying sign, a cause for concern but apparently it didn’t concern PACAC. In fact the only person who did contact me with some concerns was Shaun Lintern from the Health Service Journal to find out if I could identify the whistleblowers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t but good of him to ask.