Tag Archive for: Politics

As the results come in from local elections in England, it is clear that basically the country just wants the Conservative Party to go, the sooner the better. I don’t think there is huge enthusiasm for anyone else but most of the public are just sick of the infighting, incompetence and idiocy of the ruling party in recent years.

However, will changing our local councils make things better? A very interesting article in The Times   looked at data provided by a new agency, the Office for Local Government (Oflog). Ministers set up Oflog last summer to provide “authoritative and accessible” performance data to support improvement in local government.

The data looks at the efficiency and effectiveness of local councils across 27 categories in five main areas: waste management, corporate and finance, adult social care, planning and roads. It revealed for example that some councils have recycling rates that are twice as good as others and that some authorities are failing to process half of planning applications on time, while others are not late on a single one. The figures also show the extent to which many councils are struggling with debts, with six local authorities already having declared themselves bankrupt since 2021. That is certainly in part becuase of lower funding from the centre of government, but competence (or lack of) seems to come into play too in most cases.

The Times accessed all the data to look at variations, which are huge and pretty inexplicable other than by sheer management competence. For example, in the year to September 2022, Hinckley & Bosworth borough council in the East Midlands completed less than half of household planning applications on time. But Tamworth borough council, just 30 miles away, was not late on any.  

The Times also came up with league tables to see if there was any political correlation with performance. Nottingham (Labour controlled) was the worst performing authority. Torridge district council, on the north Devon coast, came top of the table – it is run by independent councillors.

But the results actually supported a theory I’ve held for years, suggesting it is not that the Conservatives (Tories) are generically better or worse than Labour in terms of competence (with the Lib Dems in the picture too in a smaller way). Of the ten worst-performing councils, six are controlled by Labour. Of the ten best-performing councils, six are in coalition or are run by independents, while the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives run two each.  Eight of the ten worst-performing county councils or rural unitary authorities are controlled by the Conservatives – while seven of the best-performing ten are in coalition or run by independents.

So what it does seem to show is that the worst-performing councils are almost always in areas, towns or cities where there has been a long-term dominant party, whether that is Labour or Tory. Conversely, the best-performing councils are generally more contested, so independents rule the roost, or no single party has a clear majority, or power has changed hands over recent years.

That stands to reason really. If there is a long-term dominant party, there is more scope for arrogance to creep into decision making, or fraud and corruption to spring up, and there is less scrutiny of decisions. “Bad buying”, whether it is just wasting money on frivolous or unnecessary spending, or more serious fraudulent or corrupt expenditure, is more likely where power is well entrenched. Take fraud for example. You are less likely to bribe a councillor, or to stand as a councillor yourself so you can influence planning decisions for nefarious purposes, if it is not clear who will be in charge after the next election.

Similarly, some of the arrogance we have seen in councils such as Woking, where the dominant Tory council invested hundreds of millions in unwise property deals, or in Nottingham, where the council (Labour in power since 1991, 50 of 55 councillors) thought it could run an energy firm better than the professionals, came about I’d suggest in part at least because the councillors thought they were unchallengeable and had complete power.  My own council, Surrey Heath, has also lost money – not as much as Woking though – on property deals put in place by a very arrogant Tory leadership. But last year for the first time ever the Lib Dems took power here.  

However, the correlation is far from perfect. Thurrock, where the council is now suing “businessman” Liam Kavanagh, who allegedly cheated the council out of over £100 million with dodgy solar farm investment schemes (hopefully the ex-finance head at the council will end up in court too), has actually had a few changes of council over the years.

But Liverpool is another example where single-party dominance led to a culture of corruption. Even after commissioners came in to run the City in 2021, the job description I saw for the Head of Procurement role still did not suggest a real appetite to put in place all the controls and governance you would want to see as a taxpayer!

Anyway, all this suggests that if your main interest as a voter is in the effective running of local services, rather than any deep political beliefs, you should aim to keep your local council and councillors on their toes by creating a competitive environment. How you can best do that will vary by area and even local electoral ward. But that seems the best strategy if you want your money to be used honestly and well.

Coming back to the Post Office Horizon scandal, last week at the long-running enquiry into the events, Fujitsu finally apologised and owned up to their contribution to the terrible events. The firm has now promised to make substantial contributions to the payments which should go to the affected sub-postmasters shortly, we hope.

As the BBC reported, “The boss of Fujitsu’s European arm says it has “clearly let society down, and the sub-postmasters down” for its role in the Post Office scandal.

Paul Patterson admitted there were “bugs, errors and defects” with the Horizon software “right from the very start”.  Mr Patterson also reiterated the firm’s apology for its part in the scandal.

Some of the Post Office staff involved in prosecuting the sub-postmasters came over at the enquiry as being both stupid and vindictive, enjoying their role as the “bad guys”. Clearly, the Post Office saw a role for nasty, vicious people in this case.

Then, in the Sunday Times today, Robert Colvile has written an excellent article about the history of the Horizon software. I was also surprised and pleased to find that he quoted from my book, Bad Buying, within his article. He reviewed the book (pretty positively) when it came out in 2020.  My quote is nothing to do with Horizon though – Colvile uses another story of mine to demonstrate general issues with contract management in the public sector.

But he makes a connection that I had missed (and I should have spotted). Horizon started with an ICL project, “Pathway”,  working with the then Department of Social Security back in the 1990s to automate benefits payment. I was actually Procurement Director at the DSS for part of the time this pretty lousy programme was running! But I had not realised it morphed into Horizon, and along the way the failing ICL got acquired by Fujitsu.  

When I joined the DSS, in 1995, I was not exactly welcomed by the people running that programme. I was struggling to get any traction with the programme leadership. So I asked my boss whether I should push harder to get involved. “Do you have plenty of other things to do”, he asked me. Yes, I replied, loads of stuff. “In that case, I think I would leave that programme alone”, he advised. He knew it was a dog and was saving me from failure by association.

That was when the Minister Peter Lilley stood up at the Tory Party conference and showed off the “benefits payment card”. It wasn’t real of course – there never was a working benefits payments card. His was mocked up in his hotel suite the night before by his aides, I was told.

I followed the Horizon case from the beginning and I thought I wrote about it on Spend Matters many years ago but I can’t find the article now, so maybe I just thought about covering the case. I do remember my internal debate about whether to include the story in my Bad Buying book, but it was complex, unfinished and subject to ongoing legal action, so I decided not to, unfortunately perhaps. Although I don’t think my book would have had any effect compared to the TV programme.

Let’s just hope now that the compensation gets sorted out quickly for those affected. And I’ll come back to another issue which Colvile comments on, the question of why Fujitsu has continued to win government contracts since the Horizon affair became public. That takes us into some interesting questions about public procurement regulations, so I’ll save that for another day.

We have local council elections in England on Thursday this week (May 4th). According to the opinion polls, the Conservatives may lose one thousand seats to Labour and (in areas like Surrey where we live), the Lib Dems.  Of course, as a mere procurement author and commentator, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting how you should vote. I mean, if you think we have seen growing prosperity in recent years, improving public services, clear rivers and lakes, a great train service, a ruling cadre that deeply cares about the people… you should vote accordingly.

Personally, I would like to see more councils where there is no single party in control, or at least where the control does and can change over the years. Where the same party rules for decades on end, complacency can set in, or elected councillors can even start behaving in an unethical or criminal manner.

We’ve seen some extreme cases of this in recent years. It is not just one political party behind these disasters either – it was Labour led councils that failed in places including Slough, Liverpool and Croydon, and the Tories in Thurrock, Woking and Northamptonshire. But they have all presided over financial disasters, with gross incompetence always a factor and accompanying fraud in some cases. 

Certainly one common thread is the secrecy, lack of openness and transparency that we see in the behaviour of the councils. My own local council, Surrey Heath, is not quite a disaster on the scale of some of these others, but the Tory council made an extremely misjudged investment in commercial property in Camberley town centre, buying right at the peak of the market. In terms of asset value, that has cost the local taxpayer over £50 million and counting. But the deals were stitched up by a very small cabal of councillors and executives – not even all the Tories in council knew what was going on. Hopefully, the Lib Dems will win here this week, then at least we might get to see the full accounts and the full story behind what went on.

In the case of Thurrock, it was brilliant work by journalist Gareth Davies that exposed the huge and very “strange” investments that may end up costing the taxpayer £500 million in real cash losses. Again, there was no transparency and councillors refused to disclose information for year, even after Freedom of Information requests. (I will be astonished if no-one ends up in court over this case).

Many of the cases involve “bad buying” in a conventional procurement sense too. That was certainly true in Croydon, where construction and refurbishment contracts were part of the story – that is another case where we don’t know yet if the driver was fraud, incompetence or both.  In other examples, it is dodgy investments (which is “buying” of a sort, I suppose), and we also see ridiculously extravagant payoffs to top executives too.

At the end of 2022, Labour published their plan for greater devolution of power. If Labour win the next election, the government will devolve more budget and control to local councils and mayors. I’m all for that in theory, but given what we have seen in the last few years, it also makes me nervous.  If Keir Starmer really wants to do that, he must put in place some checks and balances to make sure we don’t just see more Croydons and Thurrocks, but with even bigger sums of money.

Transparency needs to be addressed, public scrutiny should be made easier, and there should be a strengthened audit regime for councils. But the problem with audit is it is after the event when the money is already gone! So maybe there should be some sort of pre-expenditure check for projects, investments or contracts over a certain amount?  Perhaps a reincarnated Audit Commission could fulfil that role? Anyway, just throwing more money and power at some of the incompetent and /or crooked muppets we have seen around local government in recent years does not seem sensible.

The consultancy group PwC was hit recently with a £7.5m fine over a string of errors while auditing the engineering company Babcock’s accounts, including creating a false record of documents for a sensitive government contract.

In one case, there was no evidence that PwC’s audit team had actually bothered to review a 30-year-contract worth up to £3bn, and in another, the team (none of whom spoke French) had failed to check a €640m (£570m) contract written entirely in French.  There was no evidence PwC tried to translate the documents to confirm the terms of the deal.  PwC’s auditors were also found to have “created a false record” of the audit evidence they had actually gathered in relation to a sensitive government contract.

Yet profit per partner for PWC last year was £920K  Are audit partners in the big firms really worth best part of a million a year? They are not entrepreneurs who have built a business, or indeed CEOs running a major organisation. And it’s not just PWC – KPMG was fined £14.4 million last year for its failings in the audit of Carillion, the construction firm that went bust in 2017. Second-tier firm Grant Thornton messed up over the Patisserie Valerie audit, after the firm collapsed because of alleged internal fraud in 2019.

Meanwhile in the US, Ernst & Young LLP (EY) EY got a massive $100 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and agreed to various measures to address ethical issues. The firm was charged for “cheating by its audit professionals on exams required to obtain and maintain Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licenses, and for withholding evidence of this misconduct from the SEC’s Enforcement Division during the Division’s investigation of the matter.”

What is wrong with auditors?  You would think in a well-functioning market, firms that behaved like this would fail and be replaced by better players.   But this is an oligopoly, and the barriers to entry are huge, and perhaps insurmountable. Ironically, the more rules and governance imposed by governments on auditors, then the harder it is for new market entrants to break in – we haven’t seen a significant new player really during my entire working life. The “switching costs” are high for clients too, and the big firms build very close relationships with senior corporate executives which helps to reduce the chance of competition.

The end result is that clients are paying too much, and often not getting good work in return. Although professional procurement involvement in buying these services has increased somewhat in recent years, frankly that does not seem to have had much impact. 

Close to home for me, the Surrey Heath Council accounts for 2019/20 are still in draft form and have not been signed off by the auditor, BDO.  In an election leaflet pushed through our door the other day, the ruling Conservatives say this – “FACT: Our accounts are ready but our auditors BDO continue to miss deadlines (including for Lib Dem councils). We are working hard to find new auditors and increase transparency”.

At least the draft accounts report is available for public inspection, which reveals that the author does not know how to use apostrophes  (“the Council has managed to deliver substantial saving’s on interest payable …)

But if this delay is down to the auditors, surely this is gross incompetence and mismanagement from BDO?  Is this not worthy of a wider barring of the firm from public sector work?  Or (I know this is hard to believe), might a political party be publishing misleading information? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question – but seriously, if auditors are incapable of getting a council’s accounts signed off three years after the end of the year in question, then they shouldn’t be doing this sort of work at all.

It’s usually  a sign of desperation in terms of the public finances (in the UK anyway)  when politicians suddenly start talking about “efficiency savings”. It’s even more serious when they start building them into future forecasts of public expenditure before identifying where the “savings” might actually come from.  

There is nothing wrong with looking for savings from procurement or internal efficiencies, an any good manager should be doing so continuously. But if you really wanted to run such a proper programme across the UK government, you would need to plan and think carefully about how you structure and resource that, which areas you will focus on and so on.  I was involved in the Gershon efficiency programme way back in the mid-noughties and whilst it probably did not deliver everything it wanted to, it was a serious attempt to address difficult issues such as cross-departmental collaboration and a structured category management approach to central government buying.

Last week, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a new efficiency drive. “The drive will be spearheaded by a new Chancellor-chaired “Efficiency and Value for Money Committee” that will cut £5.5 billion worth of waste – with savings used to fund vital public services”.

Set up a committee – I’ve always found that’s a great way of making savings! But when you look closely at the announcement, it seems to apply mainly to the NHS and the arm’s length bodies (“Quangos”).  They “will be expected to save at least £800m from their budgets”.  The Arm’s Length Body Review will see savings supposedly come from “better use of property, reduced reliance on consultants, increased digitisation and greater use of shared services, as well as the use of benchmarking to drive efficiencies”.

What has the last government been doing all these years to leave these savings on the table?!  It’s a good job the Conservatives are now in power to sort it out!  Hang on a minute – they’ve been in office for over a decade now. It’s taken quite a while to realise that issues such as “reliance on consultants” are costing the taxpayer a fortune.  

Meanwhile, the “£4.75 billion worth of savings agreed with the Department of Health and Social Care will come into effect financial year 2022/23.”  So together that gives us £5.5 billion in “savings”, which more than covers the £5.5 billion target previously mentioned. So are central departments not covered by this? It’s not clear.  We may come back to where exactly these huge health savings are going to come from.

The other element of the announcement is this. “The Treasury will also launch a new Innovation Challenge to crowdsource ideas from civil servants on how government can reduce waste and improve public services, with winners selected this Summer and best ideas becoming Government policy…. A 2015 Innovation Challenge received 22,000 responses with 16 measures implemented”.

I predict there will be many ideas from civil servants, and the most common will be “stop Ministers coming up with stupid f***ng policy ideas that will never work and cost a fortune”.

Consider great historical examples such as NPfIT in the NHS, ID Cards, privatisation of probation, FireControl, Universal Credit, most PFI programmes, the aircraft carrier programmes … etc.  Maybe it would also help if we didn’t give PPE contracts to friends of friends and then waste billions because of over-buying and not checking the specification.

But back to the new “efficiency programme”. We’ll know quickly if it really means anything when we see if and how it is to be resourced, and how often this committee is going to meet. The methodology of measuring “savings” is also key. I’m sure the DHSC will find a way of showing Treasury that it made the “savings”, yet somehow it managed to overspend its budget at the same time… and yes, I am deeply cynical about all this!

Our attention bandwidth has been pretty much occupied by Covid for the last two years now, with some small space left for assimilating news about trips to Barnard Castle, Downing Street parties and maybe the goats in Llandudno for a bit of light relief.

That has led to many of the usual issues that might have got more media coverage slipping through the net, including some that might have been featured here as Bad Buying cases studies. Outside pandemic-related stories, government procurement has not really hit the headlines. Yet huge sums are still being spent, including in the defence arena.

The UK Labour Party recently published a “Dossier of waste in the Ministry of Defence 2010 – 2021”, a report looking at the projects that have cost the taxpayer “at least £13B in taxpayers’ money since 2010”. Many were fundamentally procurement-related and the report is a depressing litany of write-offs, overspent procurements and contract cancellations.  Often this sort of report is light on the analysis and heavy on the politics, but I must say that this one is worth reading – it appears to be thoroughly researched, using reputable source material and non-sensationalist analysis.

However, although the report covers the period starting with the election of the Tory-led coalition in 2010, the truth is that Labour has not historically had a great record on defence spending either. It has been a challenge for every government. Indeed, programme lead times are often so drawn-out, it is virtually impossible to pin the blame accurately on anyone – politician, official, consultant or supplier side.  

For example, the Nimrod maritime patrol and attack aircraft  “waste” of £3.7 Billion quoted in the report, based on 2013 MOD accounts and arising from final contract exit in that year, relates to contracts let way back in 1996 in the dying days of the John Major Tory government. But the significant issues and problems through the development phase happened under Labour, before the coalition finally (and probably sensibly) pulled the plug in 2010.

The other issue with this new report s that it is much stronger on putting numbers to the problem than it is in terms of offering solutions. The final words from John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, are these;

This Government shows no serious intent to get a grip of these deep-seated problems. So as our first steps from day one, Labour in Government would:

  • Commission the NAO to conduct an across-the-board audit of MoD waste
  • Make the MoD the first department subject to our new Office for Value of Money’s tough regime on spending decisions.

Reforming the department will not be easy, but this report takes a crucial first step in revealing the unacceptable scale of waste in the MoD.

Well, he is certainly correct to say reform won’t be easy. But I’m not sure what an NAO “across the board audit” will achieve.  NAO can do little more really than verify the numbers. The organisation does on occasion also offer recommendations for performance  improvement, but has no resource to follow that through into implementation. And it is far from clear what the new Labour  “Office for Value for Money” is actually going to do that Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Services, NAO and Treasury can’t already. (Although I am polishing up my application to be its CEO, of course).

We’ve had (and still have) some very capable procurement leaders in MOD and people such as Bernard Gray –  who had his foibles, but possessed a first-class brain – have had a go at running the totality of Defence Acquisition. They haven’t managed to improve matters much, because the issues are clearly deeply engrained in the whole of the military ecosystem. Problems go way beyond “acquisition” or “procurement” into very high level and fundamental issues such as the three services split, uniformed/civilian tension, the pressure on military leaders to lie to secure budget, arguments over domestic industry capability, and the unhealthy proximity of the buy-side and the supply-side in UK defence.

If these tough challenges aren’t addressed – and they probably won’t be given the short-term nature of British politics – then I’m afraid “waste” and “procurement failures” will continue. That applies whichever political party is in charge and whichever Defence Minister has his or her couple of years pretending to run things.

(This picture is not the Ajax vehicle we’re discussing here of course. It is my photograph of one of the earliest tanks ever made, now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln, the city where the world’s very first tank was designed, in a meeting room at the White Hart hotel).

The story of the Ajax armoured fighting vehicles (small tanks, if you like), bought for the British Army from US defence firm General Dynamics, looks like it will be a lengthy case study if I do produce a follow up to my first Bad Buying book.

Wasting a fortune as in this case is by no means a unique occurrence for the military, and we have seen similar disasters in many countries, as equipment turns out to be far more expensive than planned or fails to provide the capability that was desired. Sometimes, both of those failings are present. 

In the case of Ajax, the General Dynamics solution was chosen in 2010 and the contract agreed in 2014. The first vehicles should have been delivered in 2017, and the first British Army squadron should have been using them by mid-2019. However, problems emerged during testing. For instance, the vehicles were so noisy that crews were required to wear noise cancelling headphones and be checked for hearing loss at the end of operations.

The Times reported expert opinion that problems with Ajax were so serious, the government should consider cancelling the £5.5 billion deal to buy 589 of the vehicles. So far, the vehicles have cost £3.2 billion despite only 14 being delivered — all without a turret and of odd sizes.  A leaked report by the Government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which reports to the Cabinet Office, says that the problems with the Ajax vehicle do not seem to be manageable or resolvable within the agreed costs and timescale.

Recently it was revealed that trials of the Ajax armoured vehicle were halted from November 2020 to March 2021. Then trials were paused again in mid-June on “health and safety grounds” amid concerns that mitigation measures put in place to protect soldiers — including ear defenders — were not sufficient.  Excessive vibration and noise meant crews suffered from nausea, swollen joints and tinnitus, and soldiers were only allowed 105 minutes inside the vehicle, with a maximum speed of 20 mph (32 km/h).

Not very good in a real-life conflict, really. “Could you stop shooting at us, we have to let our chaps out for a bit of a rest now, they’ve been in there almost 2 hours!”  Amazingly, suspension issues also mean that the turrets could not fire while the vehicle was moving, and vehicles were unable to reverse over obstacles more than 20 cm high. I think even my Kia could manage that – we’re getting into the territory of “you have to laugh really, or you would cry”.

Another element of the Ajax story which would be amusing if the whole programme weren’t such a huge waste of public money came last week when the public announcement of the latest problems was made during the England versus Germany football match! Talk about timing a bad news story to avoid public focus.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, said that the vehicle’s weight had ballooned to 42 tonnes after many redesigns. It was now “heavier than any tank during the Second World War”, he said.  Some observers have suggested senior officers in the army may have hidden the extent of the problem over recent months to prevent it being axed as part of the government’s Integrated Defence Review.

But there is some debate about the underlying causes of this fiasco. There are claims that there was a “anyone but BAE Systems” view in the military when the supplier was being chosen.  Private Eye and The Times also suggested that General Dynamics just said “yes” to everything the Army wanted, without really being able to provide it. “They went to General Dynamics and said ‘Can you do it?’ and they said yes”.

But others see the fault sitting with the military, with the specification being continually changed and made more complex over the years, leading to that issue with the weight of the vehicle, as Ellwood pointed out.

Bernard Gray, who was Chief of Defence Material from 2011-16, has published some interesting comments on Twitter recently.  He suggests that the initial contract was fine, which might be understandable as his team must have been very involved in that phase. But changes to the specification driven by the Army after contract signature, on what should have been a fixed price, fixed spec contract, are behind the problems, he suggests. Gray said this;  “I don’t think that’s true if the product was not fit for purpose. The problem was, how much had MoD deviated from the 2014 contract by 2019… that’s what we need to explore”.

If that diagnosis is correct, it may prove hard to recover money from General Dynamics. If the firm has simply done what it was asked or required to do by the customer, we can hardly blame it if the end product doesn’t work.

Another thread on Twitter related to the decision by the Australian army not to select the Ajax product. Apparently, that was because when they took up references from the British army in 2019, they were told to avoid it.

It is all a huge mess anyway, not just financially but also operationally, as this is a pretty essential and fundamental piece of kit for our soldiers. As usual, the taxpayer takes the hit, and as usual we will never find out exactly who should carry the can for this in the military, civilian MOD or political worlds, or indeed on the supply side. Will anybody get fired? You must be joking. Strangely enough, it always seems impossible to place the responsibility for Bad Buying in the public sector on anyone in particular.  

We wrote about the collapse of Greensill Capital here, and more information has emerged on a daily basis over the last couple of weeks. It seems increasingly clear that the talk of innovative new supply chain finance models was nonsense, concealing some old-fashioned dodgy lending to unstable companies. (after I drafted this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others, including Bill Crothers and Jereny Heywood, head of the civil service).

For instance, Greensill’s financing of the Gupta group of companies was based (in part at least) on a notional future income stream. But there were no actual orders, no contracts and not even any named customers in some cases! That is a million miles away from traditional invoice factoring. The way this very high risk lending was then dressed up and sold by firms such as Credit Suisse as low-risk bonds will I suspect keep the courts occupied over coming years.

But another interesting aspect has been the role played by the UK’s ex-Prime Minster David Cameron. He appointed Lex Greensill as his “crown commercial representative” for supply chain finance back in 2014. Greensill got his CBE in 2017 and Cameron then took up a role as an adviser to the firm when he left office. His share options were rumoured to be worth tens of millions. Last year, he is alleged to have lobbied the Treasury and the chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to try and obtain government grants and loans for Greensill. To the credit of senior civil servants, most of Greensill’s applications were refused.

That has led to questions about the propriety and ethics of Cameron’s intervention. But it raises some broader questions too. In an excellent article in the Sunday Times (behind the paywall unfortunately), columnist Mathew Syed raises the general issue of ex-politicians and their activities post-politics.

For instance, as Syed says, “ Robert Rubin, former US Treasury secretary, helped introduce a law that allowed banks to merge with insurance firms, something lobbied for by Citibank. He left the Treasury the day after the law was passed and, three months after that, was hired by — you guessed it — Citibank. He earned $126 million (£91 million) over eight years as the bank loaded up on risk, then used his connections to secure $45 billion in taxpayer bailouts when it failed”.

The former Danish Prime Minster Thorning-Schmidt says that she is still independent, despite co-chairing Facebook’s Oversight Board. But she now argues that an aggressive regulatory approach could “infringe freedom of speech”.  She won’t say how much she is being paid in this role – but we know that Nick Clegg, ex leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, now VP of Global Affairs at the firm is on something around $1 million a year. Ex UK Chancellor Philip Hammond now has 14 jobs including with the finance minister of Saudi Arabia, whilst his predecessor George Osborne has nine jobs including at the world’s largest investment firm.

Syed points out that what we are seeing is dangerous and calls this sort of process “retroactive inducements”. It is undermining our faith in capitalism and democracy as politicians see that their route to future wealth is to help market incumbents, Syed argues. “Unconsciously or otherwise, the revolving door is lubricated”.

I would slightly disagree with Syed in that it does not need to be an “incumbent” – Greensill was a relatively new market entrant. But the concern is that those in positions of power might see future benefits coming to them if they do favours for a firm now.

It’s not just the politicians…

And of course it is not just Cameron and co that we should worry about. Bill Crothers became vice-chairman of Greensill having been government’s Chief Commercial Officer from 2012-15.  Now I don’t think for a moment Crothers did particular favours for Greensill in that role – I didn’t pick up any hint of that at the time. In fact, I have heard it suggested that Crothers may have actually put money into Greensill himself, so may be a personal creditor.

But you can see the danger here of senior decision makers looking to their futures.  I know it is an issue in the Ministry of Defence. So many senior people, particularly uniformed mid-level officers who leave the forces in their forties or fifties, end up working for defence suppliers. Are they tempted to help those firms whilst they are public servants, or be gentle with them if they are a contract manager with the firm as a supplier, because of what they might get in the future?

Syed calls for change. The solutions are simple, he says.  He wants “stronger constraints on lobbying and donations, together with new rules on monopolies and moral hazard. Crucially, we should also raise the pay of ministers and regulators, with the quid pro quo of longer periods that prevent them from working for corporations after leaving office”.  I don’t agree that these are “simple” issues though – higher pay for Ministers would not go down well with many! But he is absolutely right when he says this.

Above all, though, we need a transformation in values of the kind that has (partially) changed medicine. For until seemingly decent people can see that their actions are unethical, we cannot hope to win. It is, I think, the only way to save capitalism from itself”.

And I would extend that beyond politicians, to the ranks of the senior public, military and civil service too. If key people are constantly thinking about what might be in it for them at some future stage of their career, we’ve got big problems.

(On the day I published this article, the Sunday Times of March 28th had yet more about Cameron’s involvement and that of others including Bill Crothers and the late Jeremy Heywood, ex-head of the civil service. So we may come back to this story again once I have digested that!)

The arrest of Steve Bannon, President’s Trump ex-adviser, hit the headlines this week. Along with several other men, he is accused of siphoning off funds that were given to a charity which sought private donations to support the building of the Trump-promoted wall (fence, barrier, whatever) between Mexico and the USA.

Without getting into the mentality of the donors who would give their hard-earned cash for that cause, the case does point out the difficulties of knowing exactly where you money is going when you had it over to any charity.  There have been many examples over the years of charities that do genuinely support good causes, but appear to be just as interested in spending money on fancy offices and big salaries for executives.

Even an organisation as reputable as the Australian Red Cross ran into controversy recently when it had to defend its decision to spend up to 10% of bushfire relief donations on administration costs. That doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me, but in the past, it had promised to put 100% of all money raised directly to a cause.

Then there are the actual fraudulent “charities” that act as a front for criminal activities. For instance, four men were found guilty recently of fraud in the UK when they expropriated over £500K of donated money rather than using it for genuine purposes.  Collectors in camouflage trousers and “Save Our Soldiers” shirts rattled collection tins and conned people at railway stations into thinking they were giving to support disabled troops. But the  money went to fund the lifestyles of David Papagavriel, Terence Kelly,  Ian Ellis and Peter Ellis. That’s the reason I never put money in collecting tins if I don’t know the charity, by the way, even if it looks like a great cause.

The third type of charity-related fraud comes when a charity itself is the victim. Every organisation that sees large amounts of money flowing through it can be a target for what I define as “procurement related fraud”, and charities are no exception. There are some interesting examples of this in my new book, Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failures, frauds and f*ck-ups (to be published by Penguin Business on October 8th).

The fraud may originate from outside the organisation, but often there are insiders involved, or in some cases it can be a purely internal affair. For example, one story in my book covers the exploits of the CEO of an education charity, Philip Bujak. He was sentenced to six years in jail in 2018 at Southwark Crown Court in London for swindling some £180,000 out of his organisation. Using a company credit card, false invoices to Fake “suppliers” and other routes he got the charity to fund his honeymoon, and family events at hotels. One bill for a “charity conference” was really his mother’s 80th birthday party, and he was also keen on buying and restoring paintings.

So don’t think that everyone who works within a charity is automatically a good person. There can be the odd bad apple, which means that charities (like every other organisation) need to take strong anti-fraud measures to protect against internal or external villains. I haven’t got the space here to go through all those suggested steps, but my book goes into that in more detail, with seven key principles to avoid buying-related fraud and corruption listed and explained.  And we will come back to those here at a later date as well.

Meanwhile we will watch the Bannon case with interest …