A POWERFUL committee of MPs accused Serco of bullying its staff and offering a substandard out-of-hours doctor service to patients.
As reported, the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last week published a damning report on the operation of the £32 million contract to ensure sick people see a doctor when GP surgeries are closed.
The service provided since 2006 by Serco – fiercely criticised after it emerged staff altered NHS data 252 times – was "not good enough" and "still falling short", the report said. Staff were the first to raise the alarm with the media about doctoring of performance figures to mask the effects of understaffing.
PAC chairman, Margaret Hodge MP, said: "It's disgraceful that the public had to rely on whistleblowers to find out that the out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall ... was short-staffed and substandard, and that service data was being manipulated, making the company's performance look better than it was."
The report delivered four main criticisms, namely that:
Serco appeared to have had a "bullying culture and management style" to deter staff from raising concerns. Searches of employees' lockers left them "fearful".
The service provided by Serco was "not good enough" as it had struggled to "ensure enough staff are available", "consistently failed" to meet targets and "performance (was) still falling short".
The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Primary Care Trust, did not "scrutinise Serco's performance effectively" – failing to withhold payment or terminate the contract for poor performance – and even paid bonuses.
Two staff altered data on 252 occasions – revealed by an internal audit between January and June 2012 – resulting in Serco "overstating (its) performance". The PAC expressed dismay that no explanation was offered for their action, nor why the pair signed confidentiality agreements before leaving.
The PAC report follows criticisms by the National Audit Office and health regulator the Care Quality Commission, which consistently found evidence of short-staffing.
Mrs Hodge said: "The failures in this contract matter, because the NHS will be making increasing use of private and voluntary providers. We must have confidence in the ability of NHS commissioners to contract effectively, to monitor rigorously, and to extract appropriate penalties and where necessary terminate contracts.
"None of these conditions (was) met in Cornwall."
NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group (KCG) now runs primary care health services in Cornwall.
The KCG said Serco was – as a "goodwill gesture" – handing back an £85,000 bonus payment, representing all performance-related pay for 2012.
Joy Youart, managing director of NHS Kernow, which took on the out-of-hours contract in April, said it would do everything to ensure a quality service and has "tightened" the application of the contract.