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The firm behind last year’s tax credits scandal as well as companies linked to debt collection services are among those who have been handed contact tracing roles by Serco, PoliticsHome can reveal.

The outsourcing giant was handed a lucrative £108m contract earlier this year to run a major part of the government’s contract tracing work, but has come under fire for subcontracting dozens of firms to conduct the bulk of the work.

In June, ministers confirmed that Serco had subcontracted approximately 9,000 staff out of the total 10,500 required to run the service to a panel of 29 subcontractors, but refused to reveal the list of firms because of commercial sensitivity.

But PoliticsHome can reveal that Concentrix, the US company behind a major tax credits debacle, are among those who have been handed contracts by Serco to provide staff to run the scheme.

Concentrix had been hired by HMRC in 2014 to tackle fraud and error in the tax credit system, but were removed just two years later following a swathe of complaints from MPs and claimants who had had their benefits reduced or halted by the firm.

Ministers later admitted that 87% of the 36,000 people who lodged an appeal against the firm’s rulings had their complaints upheld, while HMRC revealed that the cost of conducting mandatory reviews and closing the 181,000 cases left open by Concentrix had cost a further £30m in staff time.

Last year, the firm faced further criticism over their handling of the UK’s Action Fraud call center after an investigation by The Times revealed staff handling calls had described fraud victims as “morons”, “psychos” and “screwballs”.

Speaking to MPs after the reports, then-civil service chief executive John Manzoni said officials would “make sure” the firm were not awarded further government work “unless they could persuade us that they had got better”.

But despite the scandals, the company appears to have been contracted by Serco to run Tier 3 contact tracing services, which involves calling people who have come into close contact with an infected person and telling them to self-isolate.

Meanwhile, Serco have also handed contracts to two companies whose work is connected to debt collection services.

NCO Europe is a debt collection company that bills itself as “the UK’s leading customer service provider, from Contact Solutions to creating Payment Plans”, while Arvato CRM UK says it delivers “award-winning customer service and back-office processing services for some of the world’s most respected brands”. It is part of the global network of Arvato, owned by Bertelsman. Its sister company, Arvato Financial Solutions, offers debt collection services

Ministers have already faced criticism over the use of private firms to conduct contact tracing after it was revealed in August that the system had reached just 54% of people who had been in close contact with an infected person in the 20 worst-hit parts of the UK.

A spokesperson for Arvato declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Department for Health directed PoliticsHome to Serco. A spokesperson for the outsourcing firm said: “We went through a due diligence process for all our subcontractors that looked at their contact centre and customer service experience. 

“Some of the subcontractors were already also on the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Framework for Contact Centres.”

 NCO Europe and Concentrix did not respond to requests for comment.

Responding to the story, shadow cabinet minister Rachel Reeves said: “As if continuing outsourcing to a company with such a bad track record wasn’t enough, this government didn’t even ensure that those it was subcontracting were up to the job.

“Instead of outsourcing to tier upon tier of private companies, this Tory government should have put money into our public services which know local communities better, and are far more efficient.

“With the testing system on the brink of collapse when we need it most, the government has serious questions to answer on why this subcontractor – embroiled in scandal and with a track record of failing government services – was given responsibility for part of one of the most systems in our country.”

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India farmers protests: Thousands swarm Delhi against deregulation rules

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Farmers from the nearby states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh began arriving by tractors and on foot at the outskirts of New Delhi last week, where they blocked roads and set up makeshift camps, according to protest leaders. Some slept on the road or in their tractors, and several places of worship offered protesters food.

Police attempted to block demonstrators from entering the city. They fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday and Friday after protesters pelted police officers with stones and damaged public property, according to Manoj Yadav, a senior police official from Haryana.

The farmers are protesting laws passed in September, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi says will give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses, such as supermarket chains.

But the move has infuriated India’s farmers, who say that the new rules will leave them worse off by making it easier for corporates to exploit agricultural workers who make up more than half of India’s 480 million-strong workforce, according to India’s most recent Census in 2011.

According to Ashutosh Mishra, the media coordinator of protest organizer All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee, which represents around 200 farming unions, tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered at each of New Delhi’s three borders — a line of protesters at one of the borders stretches for 30 kilometers (19 miles), he said.

Police have put up barriers and dug up roads to prevent protesters from coming into the city center to hold sit-ins. Mishra expects more farmers from around the country to join the protests in the coming days.

That’s despite New Delhi being a hotspot for Covid-19 in a country that has already reported more than 9.4 million reported cases, the most in any country bar the United States.

“We are trying to be weary of Covid but we don’t have an option — it is a question of life and death,” said Mukut Singh, the president of a farmers union in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who is leading thousands in protest in his home state, and says he will join the protesters in Delhi later this week.

“We are the ones who have provided food, milk, vegetables when the whole country was in lockdown — we were still toiling in the fields,” he said. “It is the government who has put us at risk by introducing these laws during Covid.”

What the protests are about

For decades, the Indian government has offered guaranteed prices to farmers for certain crops, providing long-term certainty that allows them to make investments for the next crop cycle.

Under the previous laws, farmers had to sell their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where they were guaranteed to get at least the government-agreed minimum price. There were restrictions on who could purchase at auction and prices were capped for essential commodities.

Modi’s new laws dismantle the committee structure, allowing farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price. Farmers have more freedom to do things such as sell direct to buyers and sell to other states.

Modi said increasing market competition would be a good thing as it fulfills farmers’ demands for higher income and gives them new rights and opportunities.

“The farmers should get the advantage of a big and comprehensive market which opens our country to global markets,” Modi said on Monday, as farmers protested in the capital. He hopes it will attract private investment into the agricultural industry, which has lagged as other parts of the country’s economy have modernized.

But farmers argue that the rules could help big companies drive down prices. While farmers could sell crops at elevated prices if the demand is there, conversely, they could struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply in the market.

Singh, the Uttar Pradesh farmer, said that removing the price guarantees will make life tougher for farmers.

“There is a lot of anger among farmers,” he said. “We don’t get even the minimum support price that is presently declared — removing these protections and making it easier for corporates to enter will completely buy us out.”

Why it’s such a hot political issues

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, meaning farmers are the biggest voter block in the country.

That’s made farming a central political issue, with farmers arguing for years to get the minimum guaranteed prices increased.

Security personnel deployed to stop farmers from entering the national capital during a protest against the Centre's new farm laws at Singhu border near Delhi, India on November 30, 2020.
In a bid to win over farmers, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in its 2014 general election manifesto that all crop prices should be fixed at a minimum of 50% higher than the production costs. In 2016, Modi promised to boost the country’s agriculture sector with a target of doubling the income of farmers by 2022.

Modi and his government continue to insist that they are supporting farmers.

He hailed the new laws as a “watershed moment” which will ensure a complete transformation of the agriculture sector. But besides calling the move long overdue, Modi has not said why he opted to introduce these measures during the pandemic, which has caused India to suffer its first recession in decades.

“The Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has always stood in full commitment to resolving the problems faced by farmers and will continue to stand by them,” said Narendra Singh Tomar, the Minister of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.

Tomar urged farmers to abandon their protests and instead discuss their issues with the government — although so far, Modi has shown no sign of capitulating to protesters’ demands.

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House steering panel backs DeLauro for Appropriations chair

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While the full caucus typically backs the Steering Committee’s pick, an upset has occurred as recently as 2014.

Lawmakers and aides watching the race expect it will be decided on a second round of voting for DeLauro and Wasserman Schultz, with allies of the Florida Democrat hopeful she can eke out a win with the help of Kaptur supporters forced to throw their support behind another candidate. The Ohio Democrat is not expected to secure enough support on the first ballot.

Kaptur, 74, the most senior Democrat on the spending panel and the longest-serving woman in Congress, has won support from many members of the Congressional Black Caucus — a powerful bloc that typically respects seniority in leadership elections. Supporters of Wasserman Schultz say she could win if she can secure even some of those votes.

DeLauro’s supporters, however, are confident that the close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and long-time champion of the public health and education communities will be confirmed as chair.

Pelosi typically doesn’t get involved in steering races after she publicly backed Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) in 2014, who won the steering panel’s nod to become the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2014, only to lose the spot in a stunning caucus-wide vote. The caucus instead chose Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who went on to become Energy and Commerce chair.

DeLauro — the second-most senior contender for the gavel who controls the largest chunk of nondefense spending as the head of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee — has long been expected to lead the appropriations panel and has a reputation for working with senior Republican appropriators like Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

DeLauro, 77, is a “work horse” and a “force of nature,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who’s pushing her colleagues to vote for the Connecticut Democrat, in an interview last month. “Her appeal is that she has integrity, that she has wisdom, that she’s such a hard worker and a strong fighter for the issues that she cares about.“

Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Military Construction-VA spending panel, has been expected to pick up support from freshmen, moderates and some members of the CBC. Supporters point to her robust fundraising for Democrats — particularly for vulnerable members that will be crucial to keeping the House majority in 2022.

Some Democrats said a disappointing Election Day that cost the party more than a half-dozen House seats underscores the need for change, including a more moderate candidate that could bring generational diversity to the leadership ranks.

“I think that in the aftermath of the election, it makes clear that the old ways of doing things just aren’t going to work anymore,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats who supports Wasserman Schultz, said last month.

The three Democrats are vying to succeed retiring Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the first woman ever to lead the spending panel. All three have vowed to make the appropriations process more transparent and accessible to members, while supporting the return of earmarked spending to help Democrats secure cash for pet projects at home.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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Boris Johnson Has Suffered The Worst Rebellion Of This Parliament, But Won A Key Vote On Tier Restrictions

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Boris Johnson suffered his worst rebellion of this Parliament but saw his tier system of coronavirus restrictions pass a vote in the Commons (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

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Boris Johnson has won a vote on his controversial tier system of coronavirus restrictions but only after suffering the worst rebellion by his own MPs of this Parliament.

A total of 53 Conservatives rejected his plans to place almost the entirety of England into tough new measures once the second lockdown ends tomorrow night. There were fraught scenes in the Commons, with one MP describing the atmosphere as reminding them of the Brexit votes in 2019 which eventually brought down Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.

But the legislation still passed through the Commons by 291 votes to 78 – a winning margin of 213 – after Labour’s official policy was to abstain, although 15 of the party’s MPs defied the whip and voted against it.

However, it is far from a convincing victory for Number 10, with the number of rebels failing to back the plans enough to have comfortably wiped out the government’s 80-seat majority if the opposition had all voted against it.

Among them were seven former Cabinet ministers and a host of senior figures in the party, along with a dozen from the 2019 intake of new Conservatives.

It represents the biggest number of Tory MPs defying a three-line whip since last year’s election victory, and does not bode well for future votes on coronavirus restrictions due next month.

Explaining how the Prime Minister ended up facing yet another rebellion, Conservative ex-minister Tim Loughton MP told PoliticsHome: “I don’t know why the government is doing this.

“We have had eight months of lockdown and in those eight months the government could have learned an awful lot about what things cost, the balance of the risks, they just haven’t produced that evidence to inspire confidence in what they are asking us to do.”

He said Mr Johnson was unlikely to be in serious trouble politically but there is a “general frustration” that MPs were not being treated like grown ups, saying they are “being fobbed off with vague attempts at justification”.

The vote came after the Prime Minister had spent the afternoon trying to win round sceptical backbenchers in Parliament following a speech to open the debate in which he argued there was a “compelling necessity” for the regional tiers.

He said despite the positive effect of the second lockdown on infections people “cannot afford to relax” saying: “We have to be realistic and we have to accept that this vaccine is not here yet, no vaccine is here yet.

“And whilst all the signs are promising and almost every scientist I have talked to agrees that the breakthrough will surely come, we do not yet have one that has gained regulatory approval.

“And we can’t be completely sure when the moment will arrive. And until then, we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter.”

Among those Tories to vote against were MPs from Kent – which moved after lockdown from Tier 1 to Tier 3 – Tom Tugendhat, Greg Clark, Damian Green, Craig Mackinlay. The former party leader Iain Duncan Smith also voted against.

Defending the measures, which were roundly criticised by his own party for being too severe, Mr Johnson said: “I’m not this afternoon seeking open-ended measures. On the contrary, these regulations come with a sunset clause… at the end of February 2 and at that point… we will have sufficient data to assess our position after Christmas.

“And though I believe these types of restrictions will be needed until the spring, they can only be extended beyond February 2 if this House votes for them.”

And he criticised Labour for having “no credible plan” to tackle coronavirus and mockingly accused them of the “heroically” abstaining on the vote, saying: “I do think however it is extraordinary that in spite of the barrage of criticism that we have, we have no credible plan from the party opposite, indeed we have no view on the way ahead.”

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party could not back the legislation claiming there are “real risks that this plan is incapable of controlling the virus this winter”.

He told the Commons the government’s policies so far have not worked, but added: “We recognise the need for continued restrictions but it’s not in the national interest to vote these restrictions down today and we will allow these restrictions to pass.

“We accept the case for restrictions, we want a plan that’s going to work. We’re on plan five and this one’s full of holes. We have been there so, so many times; the Prime Minister’s stood there and said this is the plan, this will solve the problem.

“Fifth time round, still a plan with holes that have been there for months.”

There was lots of anger from Mr Johnson’s own side, with a number of former Cabinet ministers attacking the plan, including Andrea Leadsom who said the regulations would “inflict deliberate harm” on her constituency.

Fellow Conservative Steve Baker, one of the leaders of the Covid Recovery Group which has vocally opposed the plans, said: “Here we stand at a profoundly dangerous moment, heading into infringements on our liberties around vaccination and testing which we would never normally tolerate and so therefore I find with huge reluctance, I’m going to have to vote no tonight to send a message to the government.”

And senior MP Sir Bob Neill said he could not support the regulations as they were “disproportionate” and went beyond the evidence, while fellow select committee chair William Wragg added: “Now if these measures are arbitrary and there is no exact science behind them, the sooner that the government would admit that – because at least it would be an honest approach.

“But as it has not done so, I can’t support these measures this evening.”

On the Labour side the former shadow justice minister Richard Burgon tweeted he voted against the restrictions as it would “fail to drive the virus down properly while we await a vaccine and the lack of decent sick pay is a disgrace”. 

His colleague Toby Perkins said he wouldn’t back it over the support package for the hospitality sector, while Labour former minister Kevan Jones described the government’s response to Covid-19 as “arrogant” and “shambolic”.

The MPs who defied Sir Keir were overall a mixture of MPs from the north of England and those in the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group, while former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who now sits as an independent, also voted against the three-tier restrictions.

Summing up the debate health secretary Matt Hancock gave an emotional speech revealing his step-grandfather caught Covid-19 in Liverpool and died on November 18.

Fighting back tears he told MPs: “In my family, as in so many others, we’ve lost a loving husband, a father, a grandfather to this awful disease.

“So from the bottom of my heart I want to say thank you to everyone in Liverpool for getting this awful virus under control.

“It’s down by four-fifths in Liverpool, that’s what we can do if we work together in a spirit of common humanity. 

“We’ve got to beat this, we’ve got to beat it together.”

The minister finished by saying another nationwide lockdown across England “would be the only alternative” to the government’s proposed tiers, telling MPs: ”By voting for this motion you are supporting all these people and the public who want to see us act together.”

Following the vote Mr Harper said in a statement: “We very much regret that in a moment of national crisis so many of us felt forced to vote against the measures that the government was proposing.

“The House of Commons has spoken and we hope that the government will take on board the comments we have been making on the need for better data and modelling, regional cost-benefit analysis and on trusting MPs with the information they need to make such important decisions on behalf of their constituents.

“We must find a way to break the transmission of the disease, recapture the public’s support and confidence, end this devastating cycle of repeated restrictions and start living in a sustainable way until an effective and safe vaccine is successfully rolled out across the population.”

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