a david hencke selection

‘A Hard Rain’: Johnson, Gove and Cummings Drive Britain Towards Elective Dictatorship
David Hencke, Byline Times, Jun 29 2020

The announcement that ‘Sir’ Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor, has quit is the most high profile indicator of a revolution that will be sweeping through Whitehall, Parliament and the courts over the next four years if Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings get their way. ‘Sir’ Mark will have to be replaced, under Civil Service Commission rules, by another permanent or former permanent secretary, but the new National Security Advisor, David Frost, is currently leading the Brexit negotiations with the EU and is a committed Brexiter and darling of the Vote Leave movement. Last week, the PM’s controversial chief advisor Cummings was reported to have warned that a “hard rain” would soon fall on the Civil Service. What has not been noticed is that the vast majority of new Whitehall appointments are now going to business and data experts, part of Cummings’ revolution to bring in ‘disrupters’ and, in his words, “weirdos and misfits” into the heart of Whitehall. The search for a new permanent secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) already involves a New York recruitment agency, Russell Reynolds, which states on its website:

The organisations that don’t disrupt themselves are the ones that will be disrupted.

Now, BEIS is recruiting a new head of behavioural change, data and insight with the aim of using data to revolutionise its communications strategy. A BEIS spokesman said that this will be beneficial:

Our recent Coronavirus campaign activity successfully reached some of the UK’s most disadvantaged groups, including vulnerable workers and business owners from a black and minority ethnic background, via TV adverts on community-focused channels, such as the Sikh Channel, British Muslim TV, and Islam Channels (Urdu and English) as well as translated radio live reads. As a result, this insight-led strategy helped lead to an increase in the take-up of Government support measures amongst these groups.

The Dept for Work and Pensions is recruiting 16 business analysts to organise its “products,” benefits and pensions, and nine new software engineers. The current 11 vacancies at the Cabinet Office are mainly data-orientated, with plans for new databases to be created for people with disabilities and black and ethnic minorities, including a new position to run a national location software system. In a speech at the weekend, the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, a Vote Leave ally of both Johnson and Cummings, backed the chief advisor’s agenda, praising Cummings’ new £800m advanced research projects agency which will allow scientists unlimited cash to follow their latest “crazy” ideas. He also attacked the establishment, saying:

The whole culture of Government, and the wider world of political commentary, is hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty.

He then laid out the Government’s programme:

We should reform planning rules to fast track beautiful development; pioneer biodiversity net gain to offset any adverse consequences of development; better use anonymised NHS data to improve health-care delivery; allow parents and others to compare schools on value added, exam entries and attendance among other factors; compare individual courts, judges and Crown Prosecution Service managers on their efficacy on processing cases; look at how successful individual prisons are at delivering education and rehabilitation programmes; compare that with re-offending rates; assess the effectiveness of anti-radicalisation programmes; ask what value for money gains the Troubled Families Programme has secured; interrogate the basis on which defence procurement contracts are considered value for money; ask how we judge the real impact of development spending; and I could go on.

All of this is being accompanied by post-Brexit legislation that is allowing a power grab by ministers at the expense of Parliament and democratic accountability. What was a parliamentary democracy which pooled some of its sovereignty as a member of the EU is being turned into an executive democracy, in which ministers are taking power for themselves and bypassing Parliament. Far from ‘taking back control’ of our laws, Parliament, the elected legislature at the heart of our representative democracy, is being demoted. Its main role in passing laws is being undermined by ministers ruling by decree. A report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee has forensically examined every piece of Brexit legislation and discovered extraordinary changes on the way in the next year.

The Government is using what are commonly known as Henry VIII powers or statutory instruments to give itself authoritarian powers. These include powers to create new criminal offences, impose unlimited fines on people, overrule in some cases legislation in the Scottish Parliament, and 150 new powers to changes duties and taxes on business and individuals. Even with something as mundane as the granting a road traffic goods licences, ministers have not bothered to even specify to Parliament how they will use the powers. At most, Parliament will get 90 minutes to debate each change and, in some cases, it will only be able to debate the change after it is already law. In his speech, Gove also took aim at other powerful bodies that provide accountability, blaming them for the failure of Whitehall to be bold. He said:

Far too often, innovation in Government is treated as though it were a mischief rather than a model. The default mechanism of the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, other select committees and various commentators is that any departure from the status quo must be assumed to be more downside than upside. Had they been able to interrogate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in 1783 they would have concluded that American independence was an expensive, untried and unjustifiable innovation. In Treasury terms it would have been novel and contentious and therefore stopped.

The position of the courts is also alarming. Ministers have taken powers under the EU Withdrawal Act to specify what retained EU law they should follow, not just at the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in the UK, but also in the lower courts and at tribunals.  Ministers have not published how this will be implemented, despite demands from MPs and peers to do so. Given that case-law arguments are a key part of any trial, the peers rightly fear that is going to lead to chaos in the courts, with numerous appeals against judgments. Combined with this, the fact that ministers want to reform the judicial review procedure and, if Gove is right, assess the efficiency of judges handling cases, this is a power-grab designed to reduce the independence of the judiciary.

By the time of the next scheduled General Election in 2024, if Cummings and Gove have their way, Britain will have a smaller, more authoritarian Government. The judiciary will be less independent and Parliament will not have to meet as frequently, because many changes to law will be made by ministers without the need for primary legislation. There will be more time for Johnson to play tennis and go for runs in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The only thing that could stop this authoritarian drift is the incompetence and arrogance of this Government itself, which has already been demonstrated by its failure to tackle the COVID-19 crisis competently. The Government’s next steps are going to be restoring the economy and negotiating in a post-Brexit world, at the same time. Will it be a recipe for chaos?

Another Great British World-Beating Fiasco
David Hencke, Byline News, Jun 19 2020

Desperate NHSX officials spent another £1.3m to try to save Britain’s doomed “world-beating” COVID-19 app by signing and extending contracts with IT companies to iron out bugs, glitches and security issues, according to the latest information on the Government’s contract finder site. Spending on the entire COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ programme is now approaching £120m, including contracts given to Serco and other organisations to create an army of people to trace everybody who has been in close contact with those who have tested positive for the Coronavirus. It emerged yesterday that the Government is now ditching its tracing app and shifting to a model based on technology provided by Apple and Google, which has been promoted as being more focused on users’ privacy. But, the desperation of officials to make the Government’s own app work is shown in a contract with Eggplant, a global software company based in London and Colorado, which has been given a £213k contract without competitive tender. The contract had to be rushed through, because:

There are genuine reasons for extreme urgency as there is a significant public health risk requiring immediate action as a result of COVID-19.

The company, which specialises in using artificial intelligence to iron out bugs and glitches, was authorised to do a “managed load test” to see if the app worked properly, provided accurate information and could work with third parties. It officially runs out on Jul 31, but can be renewed. Three other IT companies were awarded contracts with Cloudflare, Helecloud and NCC Security Services in Manchester to test the app, mainly for security issues. The value of the contract with Zuhlke Engineering in Switzerland to run the NHS app crept up from £3.9m to £4.725m. This brings the cost of the failed app just short of £10m. This rush of contracts during the final weeks before announcing that the NHSX app will be dropped in favour of the Google and Apple model suggests ministers were desperate to stick to the Government’s version. The Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has already begun rewriting history, having yesterday described the Government’s app as “the cherry on the top of the cake” rather than being central to the ‘Test and Trace’ system.

At the beginning of the month, Boris Johnson promised a “world-beating” app would be in place on Jun 1. This was cited as being essential for the Government to start easing lockdown, with people returning to work and children going back to school. At the same time, BBC News interviewed a ‘Test and Trace’ finder anonymously who said he had only been given a day’s training and had no work to do. Matthew Gould, the chief executive of NHSX, poured cold water on using the Google and Apple app when he gave evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee at the end of April. He told MPs:

The Apple and Google approach is itself evolving, and it is not there yet. They have said that they will do a two-stage process, first to try to make an (application programming interface) available, allowing those developing contact tracing apps to do so more effectively. The second stage is to develop their own contact tracing product, but we are some way from that second stage, so waiting for them would slow us down considerably.

Matt Hancock described the NHSX app as “groundbreaking technology.” But its Isle of Wight trial was not a success despite 60% of the people living there downloading it, because it would not work on iPhones. Meanwhile, the £108m spent on contracts with Serco and others has not been entirely effective, failing to trace a quarter of contacts and relying on people’s memory, rather than technology, to determine who they could have had close contact with. It is unclear what will happen to the contract with Zuhkle to run the app from Jun 15. The agreement allows it to be terminated, but neither Zuhkle nor NHSX would comment. The contracts with Faculty (run by Marc Warner, who worked with Dominic Cummings on a previous Conservative Party election project) and Palantir, including developing a national database for the X-rays of COVID-19 patients, suggest that work will continue with these companies.

Ruling By Decree: Boris Johnson and his Henry VIII Powers
David Hencke, Byline Times, Jun 16 2020

Ministers are using Brexit to give themselves sweeping powers to bypass the need for future parliamentary legislation to create new criminal offences and limit the powers of the courts, a new report by peers has revealed. An analysis of current Brexit legislation passing through Parliament by the House of Lords Constitution Committee reveals it is peppered with Henry VIII clauses, handing ministers significant latitude to change the law without having to spend time passing fresh legislation. Since Boris Johnson achieved his 80-seat majority in the Commons in the December General Election, the Government has been pushing through these new powers without seeking any compromises. The report warned:

The creation of criminal offences and the establishment and empowerment of public bodies by delegated powers is in general constitutionally unacceptable. Nor should delegated powers be used to change in any significant way the category of a criminal offence or to increase the level of punishment applicable to any criminal offence beyond a maximum penalty, which should always be stated on the face of any bill.

Peers are most angered by Henry VIII clauses which overturn some 50 years of European Union case law that have long been part of the English and Scottish law system. The report said:

The granting of broad ministerial powers in the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 to determine which courts may depart from (Court of Justice of the EU) case law and to give interpretive direction in relation to the meaning of retained EU law was and remains inappropriate. Each of these powers should remain the preserve of primary legislation. There is a significant risk that the use of this ministerial power could undermine legal certainty and exacerbate the existing difficulties for the courts when dealing with retained EU law.

The report reveals that peers tried to obtain a compromise over the wording but this was blocked by the Government, which is refusing to provide details of how the new ministerial powers will work. The report also analyses a raft of legislation, including new bills and acts covering agriculture, money laundering, immigration, trade, road haulier licences, taxation and reciprocal health agreements. The first agriculture bill, highly controversial because of the possibility of chlorinated chicken coming to the UK under a Pindo-UK trade deal, gave ministers wide-ranging powers including covering the marketing and labelling of food sold in supermarkets and the right to imprison and impose unlimited fines on people who broke the laws.

The revised bill now going through the Commons removed the power for ministers to create new imprisonable offences but kept unlimited fines, and includes more than 40 Henry VIII powers, including one going beyond current EU rules to classify new products as agricultural. Peers described the new law to give hauliers driving permits as “more of a mission statement” and “skeletal” because there was no explanation of exactly how the new powers for ministers would work making it impossible to scrutinise. The Government has since accepted amendments giving sunset clauses to these powers. The new law governing import and export duties give ministers huge powers, including one to change the law by “ public notice” avoiding informing Parliament at all. The committee scrutinising the bill, now law, said:

The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill involves a massive transfer of power from the House of Commons to Ministers of the Crown. Ministers are given well over 150 separate powers to make tax law for individuals and businesses. These laws made by Ministers will run to thousands of pages. The Treasury’s delegated powers memorandum, which sets out in detail all these law-making powers, alone runs to 174 pages.

Similarly, the new Act governing sanctions and money-laundering, which until now were part of EU law, also gives ministers wide discretion on who should be classified as a terrorist and what the sanctions should be. The peers said:

We expressed concerns about a separate power in that Bill that could be used to create an offence for which a sentence of imprisonment for up to 10 years could be imposed, as well as setting rules on the evidence to demonstrate that the case is proved and defences to such charges. While the House of Lords agreed amendments to constrain these broad provisions, they were subsequently reinstated by the House of Commons.

Whitehall Analytica: Dominic Cummings’ Shake-Up of the British State Gathers Pace
David Hencke, Byline, Jun 10 2020

Dominic Cummings’ plan to revolutionise Whitehall is gathering pace with advertisements rushed out to recruit 59 new civil servants to handle the COVID-19 crisis, major infrastructure projects and the reform of further education. Under its minister Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office placed advertisements at the turn of this month to recruit 43 civil servants to run two new networks across Whitehall. Meanwhile the Department for Education is recruiting 16 senior civil servants to change the further education system, something that both Cummings and Gove wanted to do when they ran the department. The advert for a network of 30 deputy directors across Whitehall states that they will earn between £70k/yr and £117,k/r. It states:

Candidates should be familiar with using data and evidence to make decisions and influence, experience of analysing complex problems and interpreting complex data to create and present evidence-based insight and recommendations. Using data to effectively drive recommendations, consider the impact on a vast range of customers from diverse backgrounds, understand and highlight risks to customers, and add value to the business. Encouraging others to do the same.

Initially they will be employed to work on COVID-19, with new posts in the Dept of Health and Social Care; Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; the Dept for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and Dept for Transport. The advert added that other ministries will later be involved. It states:

Successful candidates will be working on emerging priorities and as such the exact responsibilities and reporting structures for these posts will reflect the evolution of the Government’s response to the pandemic and new challenges over time.

It adds that candidates must be self-starters and have personal resilience with “experience of working effectively and of leading a team successfully during periods of sustained pressure, scrutiny and ambiguity.” It also emphasises that Whitehall is keen to recruit candidates from ethnic minorities because there are too few in top posts. The jobs were advertised on May 31 and the closing date for applications is next Tuesday. The 13 new jobs in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority advertised by the Cabinet Office offer salaries of between £57k and £77,877.

The work involves experts in infrastructure, project delivery, and project finance, who work with Government departments and industry. We support the successful delivery of all types of infrastructure and major projects; ranging from railways, schools, hospitals and housing, to defence, IT and major transformation programmes.

The closing date is next Monday. Cummings, the Prime Minister’s controversial chief advisor, has been keen on reforming project management and attracting new people. In his blog in January, he wrote:

If you think you are one of the a small group of people in the world who are truly great at project management, then we want to talk to you. Victoria Woodcock ran Vote Leave, she was a truly awesome project manager and without her Cameron would certainly have won. We need people like this who have a 1-in-10k-or-higher level of skill and temperament.

The 16 new jobs advertised at the Department for Education include five policy managers who will earn £60,290/yr, and 11 policy leaders who will earn £49,269/yr. Applications close on Friday. The posts are for people to introduce “innovatory polices” in education. The advert states:

Our staff shape the future of education, training and social care, by working with industry and education leaders to develop policies and services in a post-Brexit global economy. We are working to ensure that our world-class education system continues to contribute to trade, exports, and the general economy by addressing labour market and economic challenges.

Alex Thomas, programme director on policy-making at the independent think tank, the Institute for Government, said:

It makes sense for Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings to use the present COVID-19 crisis to pursue their policies about recruiting new people to make the Civil Service more diverse. Deputy directors are under enormous work pressure at the moment so they will welcome more staff.

A Cabinet office spox said:

Coronavirus is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades. As you’d expect, it’s vital we have the right people in place from a range of backgrounds to effectively deliver the Government’s response.

Whitehall Analytica: Dominic Cummings’ Whitehall Revolution is Underway
David Hencke, Byline Times, May 29 2020

In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, the PM’s chief advisor has begun the first steps in his planned Whitehall revolution that could permanently change the way the country is run. On May 1, a Pindo recruitment agency won a contract from the Government to headhunt worldwide a new permanent secretary for the Dept for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a ministry that will play a crucial role in building up Britain post-Brexit. The job is not being advertised internally, as is the normal practice. This step, small as it might seem, is highly significant. It signals the first attempt to break-up the most powerful group of people in Whitehall. There are about 40 permanent secretaries (no official list exists) and they manage all Government departments. They are the glue that holds Whitehall together. They have a regular weekly meeting to network and discuss common issues with no ministers present. They give policy advice to ministers, keep an eye on unauthorised breaches of Government spending and manage and lead their departments. All of this is anathema to Dominic Cummings. For years, he has railed against Whitehall. At an event hosted by the think tank IPPR in 2014, he was reported as saying:

The whole Cabinet Office structure and No. 10 structure is completely broken, anyone who has to deal with it knows.

The system had to change, he said, and the Treasury’s broken, while having a Cabinet of 30 people was a “complete farce” and should be whittled down to just six or seven key ministers. Cummings had particular praise for the heads of Big Tech companies, citing Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as role models for government administration. His ideas, he conceded, may have sounded far-fetched, but he maintained rather presciently:

Things are possible, and they are particularly possible when crises hit.

In 2018, Cummings expanded his attack on Whitehall in a paper which predicted:

There will be a chance for a small group to face reality and change the political landscape with new priorities and a new approach to the whole problem of high-performance government.

Dominic Cummings has already achieved his objective of breaking the power of the Treasury when his insistence on appointing its special advisors caused the resignation of the then Chancellor Sajid Javid. His enthusiasm for US tech firms was shown by his meeting with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Palantir during the early days of the Coronavirus crisis. But now the obsession with tech disruptors is directly affecting Whitehall. The recruitment company Russell Reynolds, which has been awarded £63k to find the new permanent secretary, is not a company that specialises in recruiting government posts. It has been used by Whitehall before for specialist posts such as a director of intelligence for the Care Quality Commission, the chair of the Royal Mint (which is run as a business), for HS2, nuclear liabilities and Ministry of Defence specialists. Its ethos on its website shows that it expects to recruit people with digital leadership and believes that all companies should be run as technology companies. Some of its philosophy reflects Cummings’ own worldview. it states:

The organisations that don’t disrupt themselves are the ones that will be disrupted.

Russell Reynolds would not discuss the contract, saying that it does not discuss its private clients business. The contract has been placed by the Crown Commercial Office under Digital, Data and Technology recruitment rather than the normal senior posts system, which provides a further clue about the direction of the shake-up.

The permanent secretary, who should be appointed by the end of August, is not the only post that follows Cummings’ programme for change. Alex Hickman, a former Vote Leave campaigner and an organiser of the Big Tent Festival, has become Boris Johnson’s special advisor for business, strengthening the number of individuals from Vote Leave in Cummings’ office. Henry de Zoete, who worked alongside Cummings as a special advisor to Michael Gove at the Dept for Education, has been appointed a non-executive director to the Cabinet Office Board, the other members of which include the Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill.

Probably the strangest appointment, given the sensitivity of the COVID-19 pandemic, is Baroness Dido Harding, who is now in charge of the trace-and-track programme launched this week. She is a former jockey and is on the board of the Jockey Club. Harding was made a peer in 2014 by David Cameron. A year later, as CEO, she was at the centre of the TalkTalk hacking scandal in which the details of 157k customers including names, emails and phone numbers, and 15k bank account numbers were accessed by hackers, with the company receiving a record £400k fine from the Information Commissioner. She was later appointed the chair of NHS Improvement. Her husband, John Penrose, is Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.

Dominic Cummings’ Billion-Dollar Brainchild
David Hencke, Byline Times, May 20 2020

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, is famously said to have put on his WhatsApp profile: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa.” He has almost succeeded in the first and is now within spitting distance of setting up the second with the allocation of £800m in the March Budget to form ARPA, his personal research agency, and another unannounced £140m going to the new NHSX AI lab for a similar style research. So what is ARPA? And why does Dominic Cummings have such a love affair with it? ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) is a Pindo invention dating back to the 1960s, which later morphed into DARPA when Defense was added to its title, which concentrated on “blue sky research” with no official controls. In its early days it produced spectacular failures, which are never talked about, but also amazing successes which were exploited by venture capitalists such as the laser printer and the Apple computer. ARPA does not do any research itself and has a small staff but brings together scientists who collaborate and compete and are given millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money to pursue ideas with no strings attached. Cummings’ particular hero is the first director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, Joseph Licklider. Known as “Licky” from Xerox he worked on inventing laser printers and the first personal computer. Cummings wants to replicate ARPA in the UK. He already has an agenda on what it will do and how it will be run. In 2018, he wrote a 47-page document concluding:

A British ARPA would cover research into machine learning, robotics, energy, neuroscience, genetics, cognitive technologies and crucially, funding what now seem ‘crazy’ ideas just as the internet and quantum computers seemed ‘crazy’ before they became mainstream. There should be a systematic improvement in the ecosphere of school curricula, universities, venture capital, high-skilled immigration policy, planning policy, tax policy, the structure (and incentives) of public companies, intellectual property law, which in important ways supports rent-seekers and undermines innovation and is particularly badly understood by politicians & officials. We could play an extremely valuable role as an experimental test-bed for scientific regulation outside all three major blocks (Pindostan, Eurostan & China) without having to obey awful EU rules like GDPR.

The PM’s chief advisor also wants to change the culture for MPs and Whitehall decision-makers as part of the project, ending a system which has stayed impartial for a century and a half. Cummings famously said:

I aim to replace them by hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos who have a one-in-10k-or-higher level of skill and temperament. Our technological civilisation should aim for very widespread literacy in quantitative reasoning about risk and uncertainty (>2/3 of the population?). Now, 3/4 of MPs cannot answer a very basic probability question like the odds of tossing two heads in a row. Performance is so low and ignorance so vast that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. It has been shown how children can master statistical reasoning to a far higher level than the normal politicians, and even better than expensively-trained doctors, who mostly fail quite basic tests of statistical expertise related directly to their core work.

At the time, he was held back by what he called the May/Hammond axis, which would have none of it. But, after Theresa May was forced to stand down as PM over the impasse on Brexit and Boris Johnson became the country’s leader last August, everything changed. Philip Hammond, May’s Chancellor, obviously a bête noire, even later had the Conservative Party whip removed when he rebelled against the Government. By December, when Johnson won the General Election, the Conservative manifesto committed to spending £250m on setting up ARPA.

In January, the shape of ARPA was a matter of intense debate within the Conservatives. Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank, produced a report, Visions of Arpa, in which different ideas were floated. Jo Johnson, the PM’s brother and former Science Minister, wanted it allied to the more establishment UK Research and Innovation body (UKRI), which distributes more than £7b/yr, mainly to major charities such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK and to Oxbridge and London university colleges. David Willetts, another former Science Minister and a member of the UKRI board, wanted a more independent relationship nearer to Cummings’ plan.

The report revealed that the Government would be able to replace both the current chairman and chief executive of UKRI this year as they are retiring, giving Cummings a chance to influence who gets the two top jobs. By March, the new Chancellor Rishi Sunak decided, despite the huge cost to come in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, to allocate £800m to the project, more than three times the original sum. What has not been noticed is that the £250m contract for a new NHSX lab, which involves Faculty, Palantir, Google, Amazon and Apple, has allocated £140m for research projects run on similar lines to ARPA. The Artificial Intelligence in Health and Care Awards also invite people to come up with fresh ideas in the NHS and encourage “start-ups” as well as academics to apply.

Two of the contractors for the NHSX lab have close links with Cummings. Faculty is controlled by Marc Warner, whose brother Ben, now a special advisor to the PMO himself, used to be a principal at his brother’s AI company. He is said to have worked closely with Cummings on the modelling programme used in the Vote Leave campaign. Palantir is owned by billionaire Peter Thiel, and he is warmly cited by Cummings as one of the people who supports the Pindo equivalent of ARPA. Altogether, in the space of just nine months, Cummings has managed to turn the tables on the old Theresa May regime and bag himself almost £1b for his pet project. So, if he has his way, by 2021 GB will have left the EU and he will have an even more powerful tool to control events and change British political culture.

£8b NHS Health Data Plan Tech Arm Set Up Without Oversight
David Hencke, Byline Times, May 15 2020

Hugely expensive plans are being drawn up to put everybody’s NHS health data in a computer cloud once the current COVID-19 pandemic is over, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals today. The uncosted new system would replace the current fragmented IT system in health trusts and GP surgeries and it is not clear yet when or how it would work with a current £8.1 billion IT modernisation programme being undertaken by health trusts and NHS Digital, the IT arm of the Department of Health and Social Care. The NAO report, written before the COVID-19 crisis broke, is scathing about the fragmentation of IT in the NHS, which in some cases leaves it vulnerable to cyber-attacks. In 2017, the NHS experienced widespread disruption from the WannaCry cyber-attack, including the cancellation of around 19k appointments at an estimated cost of £92m. The department and its arm’s-length bodies have since taken steps to improve cyber security, including setting up a Data Security Centre to help prevent, detect and respond to cyber-attacks.

Meanwhile the NAO found that staff in 46% of health trusts cannot rely on the current digital system for information they need when they need it. The NAO found that the modernisation programme which should be largely complete by 2024 was relying on a £3b contribution from cash-starved health trusts and was sceptical whether they would or could contribute. The report reveals some new information about the role of NHSX, set up last July, a month before Boris Johnson became PM. The NAO says the department and NHS England can “change or close it as they see fit” without reference to anyone. It says NHSX is working on creating communication protocols known as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which would go through different layers so they could transfer patients’ data from an individual health trust or GP surgery to a cloud. This is similar to people transferring their own personal data and files on their computer or smart phone to a Google cloud. The difference is that this data could be shared across the whole of the NHS, and it could like the recently trialled NHSX contact app for COVID-19, be vulnerable for security reasons after plans to extend its role to cover an individual’s health status were inadvertently made public on Google Drive. A NAO spokesman said:

The use of APIs with a data layer, is at an early stage. It does not have a clear scope yet, so we are unable to comment on its implementation, much less how it affects the COVID-19 response. But we note that other parts of Government found similar approaches to be difficult and expensive.

On the use of the cloud he added:

The Department’s Vision for digital, data and technology includes the principle that all health-care services should run in the public cloud. We have not assessed progress against the ambition. We have noted that organisations should not underestimate the cost and effort of moving to the cloud. And also noted that, since cloud is a service funded by revenue expenditure (whereas in the past IT projects have largely been funded through capital investment) so it will have funding implications that will need to be managed.

The implication is that the cost of the new system will come from spending on patient services rather than being a capital project funded by the taxpayer. Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts committee, said:

The Dept of Health and Social Care knows what a digital revolution could mean for NHS patients. However it hasn’t drawn up the detailed plans needed to make one happen. NHS systems were originally supposed to be sharing data seamlessly by 2005. Fifteen years later, the NHS hasn’t even established a complete set of standards for Trusts and the IT industry to follow. The NAO report shows that not enough has been learnt from previous failed IT strategies. Meanwhile, continuing dependence on obsolete systems leaves the NHS open to another WannaCry style cyber-attack.

NHSX Contact Tracing App Management Outsourced to Private Company and to be Accessed Overseas
David Hencke, Byline Times, May 8 2020

The management of the new NHS contact tracing app, which could potentially hold anonymised data on millions of British citizens with Coronavirus, is planned to be outsourced in the middle of June to a private firm, according to details of a contract released by NHSX. Meanwhile, according to these contracts, computer engineers working in other European countries and the Far East will have access to the app as part of a troubleshooting role agreed between the NHS and the Swiss firm. Details of the planned schedule and management for the launch of the App are among six contracts for the app totalling nearly £8m released three days ago by NHSX to the government’s contract finding site. NHSX is planning to have a centralised system of gathering the information rather than relying on the information staying on people’s smartphones through a joint Google Apple app which is used by other countries with the exception of France. The recently published contracts show that two companies, Go Pivotal (UK) Ltd and Zuhlke Engineering Ltd, pick up the vast bulk of the work. Both are offshoots of two major multinational companies.

VMware GO Pivotal, which has two contracts to design and test the app worth £1.8m, is part of the Pindo giant Dell Technologies group which have a huge range of commercial and military contracts. The main contract to manage the app, worth £3.9m, went to Zuhlke Engineering Ltd. Its parent company is Zuhlke Technology Group AG based in Switzerland which has over 10k projects and employs well over 1k people in eight countries. According to the contract, after a peer view with the Government, Digital Service NHSX plan to hand over the management of the app to Zuhlke in stages between Jun 8-15. As part of the management, 37 engineers will be deployed and the company will be “making use of Supplier’s Teams in Asia and Europe.” Who and where they are has been redacted, but the company has teams based in Hong Kong and Singapore and in Belgrade, Sofia, Vienna and cities in Germany and Switzerland who could have access to the project. The contract also allows the company to use its own premises in Greater London to remotely access the app and all the staff computers to access the app will be supplied by the firm and not NHSX. Zuhlke has also been asked to assess compatibility with the decentralised Google Apple app system as part of the contract. The contract states:

The Supplier will run a two week timeboxed technical spike to investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the existing proximity mobile application and platform.

This has been interpreted by some commentators as a suggestion NHSX could dump the present system. However, Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee on 28 April, poured cold water on this approach. Gould told MPs:

The Apple and Google approach is itself evolving, and it is not there yet. They have said that they will do a two-stage process, first to try to make an API available, allowing those developing contact tracing apps to do so more effectively. The second stage is to develop their own contact tracing product, but we are some way from that second stage, so waiting for them would slow us down considerably.

The NHSX chief executive is also worried about malicious use. He told MPs:

One of the concerns around contact-tracing is the ability to detect malicious use. One way to do that is to look for anomalous patterns, but we are not clear that a decentralised approach would allow that.

Gould also said it would difficult to trace back contacts of someone who was subsequently tested and found not have the virus who had been told to self-isolate if it was a decentralised system. Two MPs on the committee, Conservative MP for Heywood and Middleton Chris Clarkson and Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, both raised concerns about privacy and the use of the app. Gould promised them he would do a data privacy assessment before finally going ahead and publish it. He insisted that the NHS would be the only people who would be able to access the data. Byline Times put these points to NHSX about the management of the app being handed over to Zuhlke, the security issues surrounding people working abroad being able to access the app, and whether they were dumping the centralised system. NHSX did not reply.

Palantir Coronavirus Contract Did Not Go to Competitive Tender
David Hencke, Byline Times, Apr 22 2020

Highly controversial contracts which allow ministers and senior health officials to mine confidential data from tens of thousands of COVID-19 hospital patients have been awarded to technology companies without being put out to competitive tender, NHS England has disclosed to Byline Times. The system is now live and being used to inform senior health officials on the latest situation at the daily Downing Street briefings. The contracts involve five companies: Microsoft, Google, Amazon Web Services, Palantir Technology UK and Faculty. Two of the contractors, Palantir and Faculty, are highly controversial either because of links to the CIA and the Donald Trump administration; or to Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief advisor and the former head of the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum, which was found to have breached UK electoral law by overspending. Palantir is owned by Peter Thiel, a right-wing billionaire, who has set up ‘HHS Protect Now’ in Pindostan, which according to Forbes Magazine, won a $17m contract on Apr 10 from the Pindo Dept of Health and Human Services Program Support Center to provide detailed data from a wide range of organisations on the spread of COVID-19. Thiel is publicly backing Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. According to the Guardian, Faculty had a pre-existing contract with other companies to help build a £250m artificial intelligence lab for the NHSX subsidiary, and took on a leading role in the data response to the pandemic. It is run by Marc Warner, whose brother Ben was reported by the Sunday Times to have been recruited to Downing Street by Cummings after running the Conservative Party’s private election model. Ben Warner, who used to be a principal at his brother’s AI company, is said to have worked closely with Cummings on the modelling programme used in the Vote Leave campaign. Faculty’s lawyers told the Guardian:

Faculty’s NHS contract was the result of a tender process that was not influenced by Dominic Cummings.

The decision to award the new contracts without competitive tenders is justified by NHS England as legitimate under an obscure statutory instrument laid before Parliament in Feb 2015 by the Coalition Government. The statutory instrument was drawn up by the Cabinet Office under the then Conservative Minister Francis, now Lord Maude of Horsham, as part of a reform of public contracts following new EU directives. It includes a ‘get out’ clause which lists a series of scenarios. The two that appear to be relevant in this case state:

Contracts and framework agreements may be modified without a new procurement procedure for additional works, services or supplies by the original contractor that have become necessary and were not included in the initial procurement, where a change of contractor cannot be made for economic or technical reasons such as requirements of interchangeability or interoperability with existing equipment, services or installations procured under the initial procurement, or would cause significant inconvenience or substantial duplication of costs for the contracting authority, provided that any increase in price does not exceed 50% of the value of the original contract; or where all of the following conditions are fulfilled: the need for modification has been brought about by circumstances which a diligent contracting authority could not have foreseen; the modification does not alter the overall nature of the contract; any increase in price does not exceed 50% of the value of the original contract or framework agreement.

A Dept of Health press release in August last year shows that the NHSX AI lab was obviously not envisaged for COVID-19 work. The onset of the pandemic could be used as a reason to do this. NHS England would not provide the value of the new contracts but under this regulation it is allowed to spend up to half the value of the original award, giving it scope to spend up to £125m. The contracts have been staunchly defended by Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, in a blog on the gov.uk website. In the blog, Gould states:

All NHS data in the store will remain under NHS England and NHS Improvement’s control. Once the public health emergency situation has ended, data will either be destroyed or returned in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS and partners. After the emergency is over, we hope to be able to use what we have learned from our technology partners to get better within the Government at data collection, aggregation and analysis in a way that protects the privacy of our citizens. Having relevant data to hand will make our systems more resilient and better able to respond immediately to the next crisis, or even predict it before it happens.

The chief executive of NHSX claims that this new system should also allow Public Health England to respond much faster to any crisis in a particular health trust or hospital facing difficulties with handling COVID-19 patients. When asked for an example, NHS England said:

I’m afraid we aren’t at this stage sharing examples of how it has helped locally just yet.

The NHSX contract is the second big Government data contract that has not been open to competitive tendering in recent months. Idox Software Ltd, part of the worldwide Idox Group, won a £1.7m contract for its revamp just in advance of purdah imposed by the 2019 General Election (purdah is the period in which politically sensitive announcements or decisions cannot be made in the run-up to an election), and before new regulations had come into force that will allow the company to make major software changes to the compilation of the new electoral register. It was put to the Cabinet Office back in January that the award of such large contracts breached EU rules stipulating that any construction and works tender above £663,450 should be put out to competition. A spox explained that there were only three specialist companies that could do the work in the UK and each of them had won a contract.

Why did Cabinet Office Rush through Procurement of Controversial Electoral Services Company IDOX Just Before the General Election?
David Hencke, Byline Times, Jan 7 2020

A large software company whose shareholders include Brexiter and former Conservative Cabinet minister Peter Lilley has been given a lucrative contract by the Cabinet Office without competitive tendering to revamp the management of the electoral register in extraordinary circumstances. Though local government is in charge of the electoral register, the Government has responsibility to contract an annual national canvas of people entitled to vote. Idox Software Ltd, part of the worldwide Idox Group, won the £1.7m contract for its revamp just in advance of purdah imposed by the 2019 General Election (purdah is the period in which politically sensitive announcements or decisions cannot be made in the run-up to an election), and before new regulations had come into force that will allow the company to make major software changes to the compilation of the new electoral register.

Another acquired subsidiary of Idox, Opt2Vote, was found to have broken the law by ignoring legal verification procedures in the counting of postal votes in the 2015 General Election following a complaint by a count observer. An analysis by the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, upheld the complaint stating that postal voting counts in Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen, Ayrshire, Moray, Scottish Borders, Angus and Clackmannanshire did not comply with the law. As a result, in 2016, all electoral registration officers were issued with a circular telling them to revise their procedures and for Idox to make its system compliant with the law, while the Electoral Commission sought more flexibility in future legislation.

The Idox contract raises questions about how close politicians should be to the electoral process, which has to be neutral. Until he resigned his directorship in 2018, Peter Lilley, who is an ardent Eurosceptic and a member of the Conservative European Research Group (ERG), was also the director of a company with contracts that covered counting in the 2016 EU Referendum. He has a second biggest director’s shareholding in the group which is valued at $219m and has risen in value by 32% in the past year.

 Idox is also approaching a private monopoly in providing electoral services to local councils. By expanding its contracts and buying-out rivals such as Halarose, Strand and Opt2Vote, the company states that 52% of UK is covered by its electoral management system solution. Its interactive voter response (eCanvass) has been used to register one million people and it has trained 75,000 polling station staff. The redacted terms and conditions of the Cabinet Office contract with Idox Software are here.

The contract awarded by the Cabinet Office will enhance its position still further and it data matches information held on millions of people by the Dept for Work and Pensions with local authorities to draw up the new electoral management system. The aim of this new trawl appears to be to find people who are not on the electoral register and include them in future registers. Idox will set up the software for future national canvassing of all voters in the UK, excluding Northern Ireland, with a target date of completing this next June.

The extraordinary part of the new contract is how it is being rushed through by the Government. The policy to reform canvassing the electoral register was only announced in September as Boris Johnson arrived in Downing Street, though the Cabinet Office had been working on drawing up a reform since 2015. Idox was awarded its £1.7m contract on 25 October 2019 and the first phase of work was begun on Nov 1, four days before the legislation to enable it was written. This first phase completed by the beginning of December, two weeks before the General Election, even though the legislation did not come into force until the end of December. Around the same time as the annual canvas was announced, leaked memos published by Buzzfeed News revealed that Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was insisting that the Cabinet Office collected data from all government digital services as a “top priority.”

The Idox contract is one of three contracts awarded without competitive tendering for an exercise to reform the annual canvassing of people entitled to vote. Each local authority has been left to choose which company it wishes to work with and the data controller will remain with the electoral registration officer of each council. When it was put to the Cabinet Office that the award of such large contracts breached EU rules stipulating that any construction and works tender above £663,450 should be put out to competition, a spox explained that there were only three specialist companies that could do the work in the UK and each of them had won a contract. A spox for the Cabinet Office told Byline Times:

We are working with three electoral management software suppliers to update their systems in order to implement upcoming changes to the annual canvass. However, the reduction in companies that can do the work has partly been caused by Idox buying up their potential rivals. All contracts awarded to EMS suppliers were subject to robust scrutiny, in line with government procurement regulations.

Earlier this year, Idox set up a system so that it could continue to prosper in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit at the end of 2020. A statement on its website discloses its strategy:

Idox plc delivers its products and services via wholly-owned subsidiary companies registered in the countries in which it operates. In the main, this enables Idox products and staff to be sold and delivered in the countries in which we expect to need to supply products and deliver services. They include Idox companies registered in the UK, the EU (France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Malta and Ireland) and countries outside of the EU (Pindostan, India and the Republic of North Macedonia). In most cases, the core skills required to deliver the key products and services are located in both EU and non-EU countries. This mitigates any limitation on staff travel and the ability to export people-based services.

Byline Times has contacted Idox Plc for comment, but it has not yet received a response. This article was amended to clarify the roles of local and central government in contracts for the electoral register and the data matching with the DWP. On Oct 1 2010 Peter Lilley’s shareholding as a former non-executive director was also clarified.

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