England NHS multimillion-pound contract consultants axed

By Tom Barton & Craig Lewis
BBC Look East

image copyrightStrategic Projects Team/YouTube
image captionThe Strategic Projects Team worked on projects including the NHS' Friends and Family Test

An "award winning" team of business consultants linked to a series of failed multimillion-pound NHS deals is to be scrapped.

The Strategic Projects Team, which boasts of delivering "over £6bn of major projects," was set up to deliver the first franchise-run NHS Hospital.

NHS England has now raised "real concerns" about its work, saying the unit will be "closed down".

The team (SPT) says it intends to "eventually" complete the projects.

Formed in 2009, it has previously worked on huge contracts like the Hinchingbrooke Hospital franchise - the first deal of its kind - and the five-year £800m UnitingCare contract for older people's service in Cambridgeshire.

The unit, which currently sits under the control of the Arden & Greater East Midlands Commissioning Support Unit (CSU), also worked on the NHS Friends and Family Test, a patient ratings system aimed at improving nursing care.

It has previously been honoured for its work at the Independent Healthcare Awards and HealthInvestor Awards.

image copyrightPA
image captionThe Hinchingbrooke Hospital scheme was the first ever franchise arrangement for an NHS hospital

What happened to SPT's major projects:

* Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon:

What the SPT says: Hinchingbrooke was "the first ever franchise of an NHS Hospital" and the SPT's "dedicated communications team provided in-depth support"

What happened: Circle withdrew from the project three years into a ten year contract, saying the franchise was "no longer viable". The decision came after the Care Quality Commission placed the hospital in special measures.

* UnitingCare:

What they say: The SPT was one of a number of suppliers supporting the "innovative" project - a tender worth up to £800m over five years. Following the collapse of the scheme, the SPT said it had completed a "successful association" with UnitingCare, adding "while there may inevitably be some learning from a future inquiry... we remain proud of the contribution we made to yet another ground breaking piece of work"

What happened: The contract collapsed after just eight months after UnitingCare said it was not "financially sustainable"

* George Elliot Hospital, Nuneaton

What they say: The SPT "delivered an exemplary service" during a complex procurement process, providing "hard work, diligence and strategic insight"

What happened: Following significant improvements in clinical performance, the decision was made not to pursue the procurement process

* Weston Hospital, Weston-super-Mare

What they say: The SPT will "lead activities" to "achieve a sustainable future and reach Foundation Trust status"

What happened: A deal which would have seen Weston taken over by the neighbouring Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust was dropped as it "did not represent a sustainable future"

* The Pathology Partnership

What they say: The SPT became involved in the East of England pathology network in 2010 to "prepare the ground for change"

What happened: Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust "intends to withdraw" from the partnership over the next 12 months

* Staffordshire cancer and end of life contracts

What they say: The SPT is working with CCGs "to transform the way people with cancer, and those at the end of their life are cared for and supported". The project has been awarded NHS Pioneer status

What happened: The project has been put on hold pending the outcome "of the independent review" into UnitingCare

The Hinchingbrooke deal collapsed when Circle pulled out of its 10-year contract in January 2015 - just three years after it began.

Following the launch of a series of reviews into the failings at UnitingCare, other projects involving the SPT were put on hold.

These reviews have now led to the SPT being scrapped.

Analysis by Tom Barton, Political Reporter, BBC Look East

The Strategic Projects Team was at the heart of negotiating a number of flagship NHS contracts. The appointment of private provider Circle Health to run Hinchingbrooke Hospital is the most famous - while the £800m UnitingCare contract to deliver healthcare for older people in Cambridgeshire was the biggest. Both of these fell apart - and a number of other projects collapsed or were abandoned at various stages.

On their website, the SPT says it "supports projects which are often complex, hugely challenging and require a relentless work ethic".

So have some of the projects have been too complex and challenging - or has the support not been good enough? NHS England are clear that they have "real concerns" about the work done.

The other big question is whether the demise of the SPT suggests the NHS in England is losing enthusiasm for big outsourcing projects like Hinchingbrooke and UnitingCare.

I'm told no ministers were involved in the decision to close the unit - so there hasn't been a change in government policy. But given the involvement of the SPT in so many of the biggest contracts - who inside the NHS now has the experience to carry on their work in the future?

A senior manager inside one collapsed SPT project said his main issue had been "their total refusal to acknowledge reality".

They "stuck doggedly to rules" and a "silly" timetable, meaning "honest discussions couldn't take place until too late".

"Any fool could've seen from the start that the competing regulatory requirements meant the project was doomed," he added.

"Had the SPT been willing to listen we could've found a much better solution."

'Catastrophic misunderstanding'

Last week, an investigation into UnitingCare by the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the planning and lack of data setting out the true cost of the service.

The report said the SPT, which was paid £292,700, failed to include advice on the need to secure performance guarantees in the text of its evaluation of the contract. As a result, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) had not sought such a guarantee.

Speaking at the time, Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner said the report was "particularly critical" of the SPT, which he called "the outriders for NHS privatisation".

image captionCambridge MP Daniel Zeichner called for the UnitingCare contract to be investigated

The failing is also noted in the CCG's own report on the way the contracts were handled.

An NHS England review into UnitingCare, published in April, said the SPT had been retained to assist the CCG "in ensuring success with the process," but that a "number of flaws" were identified.

A second NHS England review is expected to take a closer look at the role of the SPT and other contractors. This is yet to be published.

'Some anxiety'

A spokesman for NHS England said: "In the light of recent NAO and NHS England investigations we have real concerns about the work of the Strategic Projects Team, which as a result is going to be closed down as an offshoot of the Arden and GEM CSU."

The SPT's managing director Andrew MacPherson, said the unit had been "seeking an alternative host" since September.

He said the end of the UnitingCare contract had created "some anxiety" with the SPT "concerned we were becoming the story".

He added the team intends to ensure existing commitments are "fully discharged to completion" and its expertise is properly redistributed.

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