The Trades Union Congress (TUC) warned on Saturday 13 January that the government has failed to act on the lessons from the Post Office scandal. The union body says ministers’ refusals to tighten laws around taxpayer-funded contracts is a “huge missed opportunity” – and that ministers “repeatedly” ignored calls from unions for greater accountability and oversight of publicly-awarded contracts
The union body says that despite being made aware of the scandal years ago, ministers have ignored warnings and refused to put in place the necessary safeguards to prevent future scandals involving publicly-awarded contracts.
The TUC also says last October’s Procurement Act was a “huge missed opportunity” to tighten up rules governing the awarding of taxpayer-funded contracts to private companies.
‘Huge gaps’ in the law
The union body accused the government of leaving “huge gaps” in the oversight of publicly-awarded contracts.
- Freedom of information access: unions, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all called for October’s Procurement Act to ensure that private companies delivering a public contract are subject to Freedom of Information requests. But this was not incorporated into the legislation.
The TUC highlighted that such a provision would have helped uncover the scale of the problem with the Horizon software far earlier. And having a freedom of information duty would have made it far harder for Fujitsu and the Post Office to make false claims to the individuals affected.
- Independent oversight: In the drafting stage of the Procurement Act, unions called for the establishment of a new statutory body with a specific mandate to assess value for taxpayers’ money for publicly-awarded contracts.
This call was also not incorporated into law. The TUC says the lack of an independent oversight body with investigatory powers allowed the Post Office and Fujitsu to stonewall whistle-blowers and duck scrutiny.
- Greater transparency and value for money: As the TUC highlighted after the collapse of the outsourcing giant Carillion, public services should be run in the public interest not for profit.
The union body says the widespread outsourcing of public contracts has led to a race to the bottom on the quality of public services and workforce pay and conditions. But despite a catalogue of outsourcing failure the government has no programme to return outsourced services back in house. Plus, ministers have ignored union calls for a ‘public interest’ test to be applied when public services are outsourced.
In addition, unions proposed that Procurement Act should enable workers to seek compensation and redress if they were mistreated during the delivery of a public contract. But this again was rejected by government.
Union shut out at Post Office
The TUC also highlighted how the Communication Workers Union (CWU) was blocked from effectively organising at the Post Office. The Post Office set up and funded the rival National Federation of Sub-Postmasters (NFSP) – providing over £20m in funding over the last 15 years.
A High Court Judge ruled in 2019 that the Post Office “effectively controls” the NFSP and remarked that “the NFSP is not remotely independent of the Post Office, nor does it put its members’ interests above its own separate interests.”
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said:
The Post Office-Horizon debacle must never be allowed to happen again. But the government has failed to act on the lessons from this scandal despite repeated calls and warnings.
Last October’s Procurement Act was a chance to improve the oversight and delivery of publicly-awarded contracts. Yet instead of putting in place the necessary checks and balances, ministers blocked attempts to properly safeguard workers from mistreatment.
Huge sums of taxpayers’ money are still being awarded to private companies without proper accountability and transparency.
Calling for more services to be run in-house, Nowak added:
Things cannot go on like this. The government must take urgent action to beef up UK procurement laws. October’s Act was a huge missed opportunity. And ministers must call time on failed outsourcing. Public services should be run in the public interest, not for profit.
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