A second whistleblower has spoken out about the Legal Aid Agency’s highly controversial contract procurement process. Paul Staples, a bid assessor with 20 years’ experience of public procurement process, has described the tender as ‘shambolic and unprofessional’.
Proceedings were issued yesterday in a legal challenge of the tender backed by close to 50 firms. ‘There was very little concern for quality. I would go so far as to say quality wasn’t even part of the equation,’ Staples told LegalVoice.
Freddie Hurlston, a bid assessor and former LAA senior manager, went to the Law Society Gazette to make public his concerns about the ‘botched’ tender. The justice secretary Michael Gove in the House of Commons (in response to a question by the Labour MP Andy Slaughter) dismissed Hurlston’s concerns as ‘merely one voice’.
Paul Staples has been involved in over a dozen public procurement exercises in a range of sectors including local authority, police and the education sectors often in senior management roles. He revealed that he had less than an hour’s training before he began assessing bids and received no training at all for his role as a moderator.
‘From day one I wasn’t happy with the process,’ he said. ‘I was of the opinion that this was not a professional way of doing things. There were questions from the start.’
Freddie Hurlston previously said that the LAA was ‘overwhelmed’ by the scale of the assessment process. There was a total of 600 firms, making 1098 bids, pitching for 527 duty solicitor contracts, 17 questions in each bid and each question sub-divided into three or four parts. The small team of bid assessors had to consider 50,000 answers. They were originally expected to hit a target of 20 answers a day but those targets increased to 30 under pressure to stick to a tight timetable.
Paul Staples spoke informally to ‘half a dozen’ assessors about their experiences working at the LAA. ‘It was only a matter of time before they were voicing their complaints… about the whole process and that they were being driven like slaves,’ he said; adding that – other than his colleague he met on day one – the other assessors had no previous procurement experience.
‘On day three, we were called into a meeting and were told that the process was falling behind. As a result the quota increased from 30 to 35 answers,’ he said. ‘There were treats, for want of a better word – a Snickers or a Mars bars – if we hit targets at a certain time; and if we didn’t reach quota for the date there was a serious chance our hourly rates would be cut and our roles terminated.’ There was a whiteboard where the results were recorded. ‘At one stage someone hit 50-plus. We were filled with incredulity,’ he recalled.
Staples was an assessor for five or six days before moving to moderation. He was given no training for moderation and was expected to achieve a target of 70 answers a days. He was asked to leave because the management felt that he was not covering enough cases. When asked where he would place his experience of the LAA in his experience of 20 years’ procurement, he said: ‘At bottom of the pile.’
What did he make of the Ministry of Justice dismissing Freddie Hurlston’s concerns as being unrepresentative? ‘I thought they were trying to smear him. We were full of admiration for going public. He captured everything that was going in the MoJ at that time. We couldn’t have put it any better ourselves.’