The RMT Union is still in negotiation over terms of employment and pensions with Serco, the major private sector services contractor to the UK government, the shock recipient this Spring of the contract to run Scotland’s Northern Isles ferry services.
In the light of this situation and Serco’s stated interest in further moves into ferry services – with the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Services tender in the offing, the implications of a story that came to light at the end of last week are substantial – for the travelling public and for business, as well as for staff and the union.
On 20th September The Guardian ran a story showing that Serco had presented deliberately falsified data on the performance of an out-of-hours GP cover service it provides under a contract to the NHS.
This is in respect of its contract for this service for the NHS Cornwall Primary Care Trust, with no fewer than 252 instances of falsified data submitted, disguising the fact that the service was so regularly understaffed that a whistleblower alleged – with demonstrable reason – that it was unsafe.
The situation is so serious that Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee has asked the National Audit Office to undertake an investigation.
The Primary Care Trust instructed Serco to audit itself following the whistleblower’s concerns. The findings of 252 instances of manipulation of data to show that the required performance targets were being met when they were not, appear to relate only to the six months of this year which Serco has audited to date.
Staff have reportedly told the Care Quality Commission that Serco’s falsification of the data goes back four years, leaving the possibility of a massive long term scandal.
The Guardian, which conducted its own investigation into the matter this May, in which the whistleblowers’ information emerged and which led to the Cornwall Primary Care Trust requiring Serco’s internal audit, reports:
‘Serco’s failure to fill shifts for clinical staff remains a serious concern.
‘The PCT’s [Primary Care Trust's] report also reveals that Serco failed in the last two months to meet targets on passing calls involving an immediately life-threatening problem to the ambulance service within the stipulated three minutes; failed to meet targets for clinical assessment of urgent calls, and missed targets on the length of time it took for people to get through to the service.
‘While a review found patient satisfaction was high, a survey of local GPs whose patients used the service raised serious concerns about staffing levels, inappropriate assessment of cases and poor sharing of information.’
This last paragraph would appear to indicate a gap between the methodologies of the ‘review’ of patient satisfaction and the ‘survey’ of local GPs’ first hand knowledge of patient responses. Certainly the specific failures identified by the GPs are of material concern. Staffing levels – at the heart of the falsifications, erratic diagnosis and poor record keeping are matters that put patients substantially at risk.
Serco have admitted to the falsification – they could hardly do otherwise.
Bizarrely, according to The Guardian, local MP Andrew George was actually criticised by the Cornwall Primary Care
Mr George points out that Serco’s admitted 252 falsifications of data took place in the six month audit period where it, of course, knew that it was under scrutiny. He says, with good reason, that it is their performance in the years before this period, when they were unchallenged, with which he is mot concerned.
He is reported by The Guardian as saying – and who would not agree, that: ‘This also raises wider concerns about opening up even more of the NHS to private companies who, it seems, will go to any lengths to win and retain contracts.’
By the way, as is the empty fashion of the day, Serco has said ‘Sorry’ to the Cornwall Primary Care Trust which is its paymaster. There is no record of it having seen fit to issue even these meaningless apologies to the patients put and left at risk.
The issue here is the corporate culture involved, the preparedness to falsify data to keep a contract when you cannot or will not honourably meet the commitments you have signed up to deliver.
In the case of lifeline ferry services, poor staffing levels are of concern to ferry users, staff and the RMT, as, in maritime operations, is erratic record keeping.
Handing over lifeline ferry services to a company whose culture demonstrably accepts as a commercial expedient the falsification of data in the failure to deliver both a safe service and the service it is contracted to provide is of real concern.
This is not a situation the Scottish people are likely to endorse should the Scottish Government consider replicating it in extending Serco’s grasp of our ferry services to the Clyde and west coast.