MPs challenge Serco over its trustworthiness to run public services

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 22 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7019
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

MPs have challenged the company at the centre of a GP out of hours service scandal over its trustworthiness to continue to provide the public service.

A new report into what happened in Cornwall where private company Serco provides out of hours GP services for NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group was discussed by MPs on the parliamentary public accounts committee at an evidence session on 20 November.

Representatives from four private companies, which provide services to the public sector, appeared before the committee as part of its inquiry into the delivery of public services by private contractors.

In July the committee published a critical report into the service Serco provides in Cornwall in which it accused the company of bullying employees, providing a short staffed and substandard service, and manipulating data to hide the truth.1

At the evidence session Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chairwoman and Labour MP for Barking, asked the witnesses for their views on the importance of transparency in deals.

Alastair Lyons, non-executive chairman of Serco, giving evidence, told MPs, “I think there is a duty on us as providers to the public sector to be transparent in all respects.”

However, committee member Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for south Norfolk, mentioned a forensic audit report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) on the out of hours service provided by Serco to the former Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Primary Care Trust that had been passed to the committee only the day before.

“Pricewaterhouse finished the work on this in April and it was sent to the NHS in September so it’s been knocking about somewhere for almost two months but not with us,” said Bacon.

“I’ve now just seen Serco’s rebuttal of the areas where PWC says it wasn’t given full access, so there is an argument going on here in these two documents about whether you’ve been transparent in all respects or not.”

Lyons replied, “As far as Cornwall is concerned, this report relates to data 12 months ago and there’s been a huge amount which has been done on Cornwall since then.

“As a company, we were deeply saddened and very sorry for what went on in Cornwall. It should never have happened and what we have been focused on is changing those circumstances in Cornwall so that now we are delivering the required standards of care and required standards of staffing.”

Bacon said, “There are various companies like yours and others who have to a considerable extent undermined, by their own actions, public and taxpayers’ trust in them so you’ve got to work very hard to sort this. In light of all these arguments and spats and your previous record, why should taxpayers trust your company?”

Lyons said that the events in Cornwall had “saddened and shocked” him, adding, “I need to make sure they don’t happen again. It’s those actions that we are now taking, which I believe is the main reason why the taxpayer can have confidence that you can deal with Serco, confident that Serco will deliver value for money and confident that we will be transparent in our dealings with government.”

Hodge said that the inquiry was not intended to say whether it was a good or a bad thing for government to contract out public services, but to look at ensuring that there was accountability for the taxpayer’s pound and value for money.

The inquiry continues.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7019


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