Friday, 21 July 2017

Britain'sDNA - A Thing of the Past!

EWAN LAMB reports on the end of a colourful genetic journey

A clutch of ancestral DNA testing businesses set up in the Scottish Borders seven years ago and which made headline-grabbing claims about present day people's links to Romans, Saxons and Vikings while also attracting strong criticism from academics is to close less than two years after being taken over.

Thousands of individuals around the globe are believed to have had their DNA tested and analysed by The Moffat Partnership, established by Scottish author Alistair Moffat and a number of colleagues. Their clients included sports stars and show business personalities.

Operating under brand names including BritainsDNA, ScotlandsDNA, YorkshiresDNA and others, the partnership quickly attracted widespread interest from the media.

But when test findings were published and publicised in the press and on BBC radio there was an outcry from experts at University College London and beyond.

UCL even created a series of special web pages to challenge and contradict the claims of BritainsDNA. The establishment's staff explained: "The exaggerated claims made misled the public about what is possible from genetic testing. Some of their stories were ludicrous, which undermines the efforts of scientists who are more careful about the degree of uncertainty associated with their findings".

A time line charting the controversial progress of BritainsDNA states that The Moffat Partnership apparently had financial liabilities of £570,000 when it was acquired by Nottingham-based Source Bioscience Ltd in December 2015. BritainsDNA and its stablemates then traded under myDNAglobal, but continued to offer much the same range of tests.

The internet blurb declared: "Born from an innovative project bringing together historical analysis and genetic information from ancestral DNA testing, myDNA.global aims to provide new insights into the genetic origins of the British & Irish and those of British descent. For example, progressive steps have been made in discovering the tremendous diversity of our DNA, from the farthest reaches of Siberia, Africa and Indonesia, to the legacy of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Danes.

"By taking a test you not only begin your own DNA journey, but you also play a valuable role in research into the genetic makeup and origins of a nation. With your help we can at last write a people's history of Britain & Ireland."

But in a no punches pulled critique published in December last year Buzzfeed News science writer Tom Chivers headlined his article: "This DNA Ancestry Company Is Telling Its Customers “Mostly Total Bollocks” About Their Ancestors".

He wrote: "While no one appears to take issue with the actual DNA testing carried out by BritainsDNA, a large amount of what it then goes on to claim about people’s ancestry is misleading, or generic in the sense that the same information is true of lots of people of European descent, in the opinion of scientists contacted by BuzzFeed News.

"Dr Adam Rutherford is a geneticist and the author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, a book published in September which alleges that BritainsDNA makes “meaningless”, “speculative” and “unsupportable” claims. He told BuzzFeed News that the descriptions of ancestors accompanying BritainsDNA’s genetic test reports are “eloquent, but mostly total bollocks”. 

The decision by Source Bioscience to terminate BritainsDNAs activities comes hard on the heels of a major shake up of the company's management with three of the directors who oversaw the takeover of The Moffat Partnership having their appointments terminated before being replaced by a trio of new bosses.

Messages posted on internet forums by employees and former employees of the company alleged - among other things - "The new board fired all the top bosses and some management. The quality employees have been leaving in droves and taking better positions elsewhere."

Another poster wrote: "Lots of crazy things going on at this company. With countless tales of office affairs, back stabbing and incompetence, this company is a made for t.v train wreck."

A recent response from the new Head of Marketing read as follows: " The mentality of 'back-stabbing' as you call it, must change and that can only come from those of us who are left. We all have a responsibility to stop this and work together. The ability to communicate across groups has grown immensely since the top 3 have left and a team work environment must ensue here."  

A recent set of accounts for Source Bioscience showed an overall operating loss for the last financial year although DNA genetic testing formed only a small part of the business.

Nevertheless, the following notice posted on the myDNAglobal website confirmed the service was to be withdrawn:


"Dear Customers, It is with regret that effective from 3rd July 2017 MyDNA.global will no longer be accepting new orders. Whilst we have enjoyed offering this individual service it is unfortunately not something we are able to provide going forwards.

"All existing orders will be honoured – if you have recently purchased a test and have yet to return your sample please do so by 31 August 2017 so we can process your results.  Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that samples received after 31 August 2017 will be processed. For those customers who have already received their results these will be available to you via our website until 31 August 2018, after which they will no longer be available."





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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Governing without policies? Surely not

Our Guest Writer J.D. pontificates on a revealing leaked email

Residents of the Scottish Borders who bothered to vote in May's local government elections presumably cast their 'Xs' fully realising activists campaigning for the Conservative & Unionist Party and its candidates had only one policy to offer the electorate.

There was no manifesto setting out Tory priorities for the Borders should they perform well enough to take control of the authority's £267 million budget by ousting the rainbow alliance which wielded power up to May 2017.

Not a mention for local government essentials like education, roads or even the vexed question of waste management which the last lot fouled up big time.

Just a one sentence mantra repeated ad nauseum about avoiding a second Scottish Independence referendum even though the topic had nothing whatsoever to do with getting the bins emptied or making sure other local services would be delivered efficiently.

On the face of it the Conservatives have always seemed dab hands at slogans. A relatively recent selection plucked at random from cyber space includes 'No Indyref Two', 'Strong and Stable Government' and 'The Big Society'. But the last two certainly could hardly be regarded as vote winners!

However, 'No Indyref Two' both locally and across Scotland generally certainly did take a trick. So far as the Scottish Borders was concerned the motto hit home and as a result theTories now hold most of the levers of municipal power.

But there is no indication two months on from polling day as to their policy choices or even their priorities for the area they now govern in tandem with a collection of mainly 'Independent' councillors who prefer to keep their political lights under the proverbial bushels.

Even before the council elections there was no trace of a Tory blueprint for Scottish local government to set beside the offerings of the Scottish National Party, Labour or even the Lib Dems - once the big beasts in the Borders political jungle, but now sidelined and virtually irrelevant.

Perhaps the Borders Tories didn't expect to be part of the new administration at Newtown St Boswells. Or if they did harbour ambitions of power and influence then they appear to have been ill-prepared for such an onerous responsibility.

The Borders press corps has this week uncovered the contents of a meant-to-be confidential email from brand new council leader Shona Haslam in which she invited suggestions and ideas from colleagues of every political persuasion for consideration going forward.

Instead of a preelection manifesto we are to have a post-election Governing Document which is due to be finalised for submission to a full council meeting in late August. A new way of doing local government in one corner of Scotland? Or a desperate plea for help from an administration without much of a clue on how to proceed? The choice, dear reader, is yours.

Maybe this has become global Tory policy for it smacks of Theresa May's recent appeal to her opponents to be constructive rather than destructive, and to provide her with ideas on how to fill an apparent policy vacuum. It looks as though Councillor Haslam isn't the only one who may have been staring at a blank sheet of paper over the long hot summer.

In her message seeking consensus Leader Haslam declares: "Party politics rarely comes into local government" [really?], adding that her offer to work together was "not just words".

But from the reaction so far from the SNP opposition on SBC it would appear Councillor Haslam's blandishments may have fallen on stony ground while her 'no politics' message simply lacks credibility.

The Tories' "No Indyref Two" chant could not have been spiced more liberally with political invective, so perhaps the Borders local government scene will not be as anodyne over the next five years as many of us had feared. No sign of consensus breaking out just yet.

It is hard to imagine what might have happened if the SNP and the others had joined the fun and helped the winners of the election to finalise their Governing Document with its 'high level priorities, expected outcomes and impact, and key performance indicators'.

The Plain English Campaign would have had a field day for a start, given that sample of impenetrable jargon.

But with all 34 members of SBC singing from the same hymn sheet (a.k.a. Governing Document) there would have been no need for scrutiny and no opportunity to lambast proposals.

There was certainly little or no opposition and a decided lack of scrutiny when the previous administration embarked on a vanity project or a daft scheme unwanted by local taxpayers.

Perhaps by refusing to participate in a one-party local government state the group of SNP councillors still sitting on SBC can provide the Borders with a worthwhile and representative opposition in the event of that Governing Document holding out the prospect of any crackpot notions. Watch this space.







Wednesday, 12 July 2017

New Earth fund liquidators may chase third parties

EXCLUSIVE by EWAN LAMB

The offshore investment fund which pumped over £39 million into a firm of insolvent waste management contractors commissioned by Scottish Borders Council has recouped just £364,967 of the losses thanks to a derisory 1.5 pence in the £ dividend from the administration estate.

Details of the 'windfall' are included in an update for creditors and investors in the Manx-based New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] fund (NERR) from joint liquidator Alex Adam, of insolvency specialists Deloitte. The NERR investment vehicle, part of Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd. was meant to supply the £21 million needed to develop and construct a waste management facility to deal with Borders household rubbish.

But instead of funding the project at the site of the Easter Langlee tip on the outskirts of Galashiels between 2011 and 2015, NERR was too busy propping up cash strapped New Earth Solutions Group (NESG), the waste 'specialists' handed a £80 million contract by Borders councillors.

The local authority and its collection of expensive consultants appear to have been completely unaware that NESG was millions of pounds in hock to banks and unsecured creditors while NERR was providing millions of pounds in management fees for Premier Group directors who also had a major stake in NESG.

The outcome of the Galashiels fiasco was a £2.4 million loss of taxpayers' money with an undisclosed financial disaster for NESG also likely to have run into millions. The Group crashed into administration last year after the Borders contract was terminated: NERR is being liquidated and Premier Group is being dissolved.

Mr Adam's investigations into NERR, according to his newly published report, are focusing on specific issues "where we believe a claim could be brought against third parties".

He says: "We have continued, in conjunction with our legal advisers, to review the information we have obtained from a variety of sources, with the objective of determining whether there are good prospects of bringing, and ultimately winning, actions against third parties.

"However, we do not wish to prejudice any potential claim by providing further detail at this stage. Whilst we are focusing on those issues which we have identified as having the greatest prospects of success we have not discounted other possible claims".

It should be remembered that the collapse of NERR, which once claimed a valuation of more than 290 million American dollars, and whose controllers told Scottish Borders Council that cash was pouring into the fund at the rate of £6 million per month, means 3,249 investors and shareholders have virtually no chance of recovering any of their money.

Mr Adam explains that shortly following the winding up of NERR he submitted a claim to NESG administrators Duff & Phelps for amounts outstanding to NERR in relation to the loans made to NESG.

"That claim has recently been accepted by the administrators who have paid a first and final dividend of 1.5 p in the £ to all unsecured creditors in the administration estate", the report shows. "As a result the company (in its capacity as a creditor) received a distribution of £364,967.

Mr Adam goes on to state: "For clarification, the dividend paid by NESG is a realisation in the liquidation estate of NERR which equates to less than 0.1% of the estimated shortfall to creditors and investors (before the costs of the winding up) of the company and two related funds shown in the directors' statement of affairs.

"As the costs incurred to date exceed the dividend received, the receipt of the dividend will not result in a distribution to creditors or shareholders of NERR. We still believe that any substantial recovery will depend on identifying and then successfully pursuing claims against third parties".

So the financial horror show linked to Scottish Borders Council's disastrous dalliance with NESG, NERR and Premier Group continues with the potential for more disturbing if not sensational disclosures yet to come.

The toothless watchdogs tasked with monitoring public authorities' conduct in spending other people's money may not be interested in this particular scandal with its distinctly shady undertones. The regulatory authorities may not wish to hold anyone to account for the loss of that £2.4 million.

However, Not Just Sheep & Rugby will continue to analyse and report future revelations just as we have done since the Easter Langlee deal was abandoned with extremely costly consequences in February 2015.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Was council's workforce wisdom 'sold' for £12 million?

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION by INSIGHT STAFF

A dramatic decline of 35 per cent in the number of staff aged 40 or over at Scottish Borders Council has coincided with an aggressive campaign to encourage early retirement and to promote severance or exit packages within the authority over the last seven years.

The loss of more than 1,600 'older heads' has occurred between 2009 and 2016, at the same time heralding a rapid 33 per cent influx of under 40s, including almost three times as many employees who are under 30 (up from 121 to 344).

The latest headcount of 4,140 at SBC is made up of 3,078 over 40s (74.3%) along with 1,062 younger staff members (25.7%). Those statistics can be compared to the 2009 figures which showed 4,770 out of 5,566 staff (85.7%) had passed their fortieth birthday with just 796 (14.3%) under 40.

And back in 2009 there were even 603 over 65s on the payroll. Today that number is stated to be 69.

The marked shift of the age profile in a relatively short period of time was revealed in a response to a Freedom of Information request (FOI number 10,185) which was published on the council's website in May. It appears to have slipped past virtually unnoticed, yet the data should be of interest to employment demographers and population scientists.

The full lists of figures for 2009 and for 2016 in brackets by age group are as follows: under 20: 0 (16); 20-29: 121 (344); 30-39: 675 (702); 40-49 1,249 (1,170); 50-59: 1,887 (1,476); 60-65 1,031 (363); over 65: 603 (69).The end result is that the average age of council staff has dipped from 52 to 47 over the seven years covered by the statistics.

Whether this trend has affected standards of service to SBC's 'customers' or has impacted on the delivery of local government functions is a matter for those who come into contact with the range of departments which come under the control of the local authority.

Spending cuts and alterations to services have undoubtedly taken their toll with members of the Scottish public often expressing dissatisfaction with their local government service in general.

Self-assessment of performance by SBC and its fellow local authorities tends to be up-beat with an optimistically positive spin attached to the statistics. The fact remains that over 600 complaints a year are logged on the Borders council system even though a significant proportion are dismissed as unworthy of investigation at an early stage in the complaints process.

Meanwhile the shedding of more elderly - and presumably experienced - members of the workforce has been achieved at a considerable cost to the public purse.

Research by Not Just Sheep & Rugby shows SBC has spent some £12.177 million on 481 early retirement and redundancy packages since 2010. The average cost of these 'golden goodbyes' works out at £25,300 with a number of them well above £100,000.

After the cull of staff began in earnest around 2009 Audit Scotland had this to say in its audit report on the council's 2009/10 annual accounts:

"As part of the business transformation programme the council made a number of staff positions redundant during 2009/10. The council also offered some early retirement to staff both on an individual and group (Teachers) basis. The council has reviewed its policies pertaining to Early Retirement, Voluntary Severance and Compulsory Redundancy in the light of the emerging severe economic constraints the council must address in the immediate future. Furthermore recruitment, agency staff and overtime have all been identified as areas of reduced spend to meet cost saving plans.

 The report went on to warn: "A decrease in the workforce may result in service disruption and deterioration in quality of service. We will continue to monitor the workforce planning proposals and the consequent impact in 2010/11."

In a response outlining its planned management action, SBC claimed:"All retirements and redundancies are planned and managed to ensure knowledge transfer and to minimise potential disruption. Responsible officer:  T Logan, (director of resources)".

However, the use of exit packages accelerated during the next three financial years. In 2010/11 94 employees left with £2.358 million between them. The exodus became a veritable stampede in 2011/12 when 138 leavers picked up £3.579 million, and a further 75 posts were sacrificed on the alter of 'cost saving' in 2012/13 involving expenditure of £1.888 million of public money.

The 2011/12 books included details of the controversial total payment of more than £318,000 made to departing chief executive David Hume, including £103,000 as compensation for loss of employment.

Audit Scotland later observed: "The previous chief executive left the Council under the voluntary severance / early retirement scheme in place. As part of our audit, we considered the process for this and concluded that this was in line with the Council’s standing orders.

"We note that this was undertaken through the Council’s emergency powers but, while the previous chief executive’s departure was reported to a subsequent meeting of the full Council, no formal reference was made to the circumstances . In accordance with the terms agreed with the previous chief executive, his departure was initially referred to as “retirement”.

"This may have created a misleading impression and, with hindsight, it may have been preferable to have agreed to describe the departure as “early retirement under the voluntary severance scheme” as used in subsequent press releases."

A former council insider who looked at our findings remarked: "I find this interesting as some dead wood has been pruned. However I do feel some people who performed well and enjoyed the job have departed for the wrong reasons because job descriptions have been changed and other factors introduced to encourage their departure.

"For example this has involved qualified experienced people who were performing well in Planning, Economic Development and Technical Services but were probably too good at their job and stood up for what was right".




Monday, 3 July 2017

Who do they think they're kidding?

by OUR CHIEF LEADER WRITER

A policy document produced barely a year ago by Scottish Borders Council declared that informed openness was at the heart of the local authority's approach to information management.

The April 2016 production entitled Information Governance Policy also claimed that SBC was committed to creating, managing and keeping records that document its principal activities.

One of the exceptions to those rules appears to have been any or all of the information linked to the Easter Langlee waste management farce starring SBC, its contractor New Earth Solution Group and a collection of private consultants who scooped up hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees in a four-year drama which cost taxpayers dear. At least £2.4 million, in fact with no punch line at the end of the comedy of errors.

Virtually any shred of evidence in council files which might hint at incompetence or simply bad governance has been either completely concealed from public view or has been so heavily censored with black ink to render the information unreadable and unfathomable.

Since the policy document was published its contents have been shown to be worth little or nothing so far as this issue is concerned.

Time after time 'informed openness' has been concealed by a wall of silence to thwart any Freedom of Information request aimed at finding anything out about the New Earth fiasco.

FOI requests have also shown that far from writing things down in a diligent manner, the council has admitted on more than one occasion that written records were not kept when asked about a particular aspect of the saga.

The most notable of these failures to minute proceedings may have concerned the fact finding mission by a large delegation of officials and councillors of every political hue to NESG headquarters near Bristol in October 2014. Apparently no written records were kept and no reports were produced after the party returned from their two-day jaunt to the south-west of England at taxpayers' expense.

It later transpired the Borders expeditionary force had gone to the wrong waste treatment facility. The Avonmouth plant was completely different from the one planned at Galashiels and they should have visited a research and development establishment at Canford, Dorset instead.

Anyone interested in getting at the truth in the SBC/NESG affair will have taken heart from the two recent decisions by different Scottish Information Commissioners who both dismissed the council's refusal to divulge reports and other documents and ordered the authority to comply with requests.

These were both humiliating defeats in the theatre of FOI, and a victory for persistence and doggedness. Unfortunately, as this publication has said on a number of previous occasions, those who are supposed to keep watch over local government spending do not regard the loss of £2.4 million as a significant issue worthy of investigation.

But at least Commissioner Agnew and Commissioner Keyse have done their best to lift the smokescreen which descended at council HQ the day the ill-fated contract had to be shredded.

As Ms Keyse says in her decision notice issued last week: "The Council has not explained why information relating to its own matters is still sensitive, or why this information is excepted from disclosure".

It is hard to fathom some of the reasons for secrecy promoted by SBC during investigations by the SIC.

For example: "The Council considered that the withheld information was industrial as it contained details about the technology processes proposed by NESG, the level of technological testing and proving which had taken place, and the extent to which technological solutions had not yet been achieved.

"The Council stated that information which details the project, and where it has failed, and why it should not be pursued, is information of high commercial sensitivity".

This was SBC's stance despite the previous financial collapse into administration of NESG and the liquidation and total insolvency of its funding partners.

To finish: a couple of extracts from that discredited Information Governance Policy.

[1] "Through our commitment to sharing information, SBC intends not only to fulfil any legal obligations, but also to promote a spirit of openness and accessibility. SBC will fulfil its legal obligations with effective and timely responses that protect individuals' rights while promoting a spirit of openness and accessibility in our responses through a commitment to share information".

[2] "Non-compliance with this Information Governance policy could have a significant effect on the efficient operation of the council and may result in financial loss, reputational damage and an inability to provide necessary services to our customers".

We will leave our readers to decide whether - in this particular case - those lofty sentiments are worth the paper they are written on.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Did council fall for claims of fund's bosses?

DOUG COLLIE reports on the contents of more newly released documents

Scottish Borders Council was told an "environmentally friendly" investment fund was attracting cash at the rate of £6 million per month, and there would be plenty of money to finance a brand new waste treatment facility for the region to be developed by contractors New Earth Solutions Group.

But behind the sales patter, including a stupendously impressive graph sent to the council in March 2013, the managers and controllers of the Channel Islands registered New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund (NERR) were siphoning off millions of pounds in fees.

These payments, which were being transferred from NERR to its Isle of Man parent Premier Group Isle of Man Ltd, totalled more than £22.7 million over the space of two years, sufficient to cover the £21.5 million capital cost of constructing the Borders waste project at Easter Langlee, Galashiels.

Another set of reports and letters which have been released by SBC under Freedom of Information contains extremely positive facts and figures relating to NERR's financial well-being.

The documents include a letter outlining NERR's state of health and its intentions towards the Borders waste centre.

A separate communication between NESG and the council appears to reveal that NERR had invested £1 million into the scheme to cover predevelopment costs. It is not known whether this £1 million should be added to NESG's multi-million pound losses and the £2.4 million of taxpayers' cash which SBC squandered on the failed venture.

A 2012 letter from David Whitaker, a director of the NERR fund to Chris Cox, managing director of NESG - Mr Whitaker was, at the time, also director of NESG and of the project company set up to deliver Easter Langlee - outlines how well NERR was allegedly doing. It is the first NERR correspondence to be released as a result of a FOI request.

According to Mr Whitaker: "The NERR investment fund is experiencing growing interest via its two feeder funds from UK and overseas investors who recognise that it offers growth potential and diversity as part of their investment portfolio or pension fund, as well as being an environmentally friendly investment.

"The Feeder Funds have raised in excess of £95m of cumulative subscriptions since Summer 2008 – of which around £65m has been invested into NES and its projects to-date and substantial funds remain available for further investment. These Funds are currently raising £50m on an annualised basis to invest into NES’ projects via NERR."

He explained that the fund's long-term business model was to provide up to 25% of the capital requirements of NES’ projects. Mr Whitaker continued: "However, given the current financial climate and the Funds’ impressive performance, NERR is prepared to adopt a flexible approach to funding NES’ projects whereby it is willing to provide 100% of the funding to deliver projects, with the intention of refinancing assets within the first three years or so of operation".

The letter added that NERR had a target rate of return of 15%, which reflecteds the fact that NERR was neither a bank nor a venture capital investor. NERR was an infrastructure investor that provided gap funding.

At the conclusion of the letter Mr Whitaker grants consent for a copy of his letter to be given to SBC.

It is unclear whether Borders councillors and their paid officials attempted to verify the claims made in that NERR letter or the similarly bullish contents of a so-called funding update in March 2013 from NESG finance manager Shaun Gomm.

He explained how NERR funds had raised over £166 million in cumulative subscriptions since its launch in 2008. And NERR had raised £30 million in the last five months with "significant new business being generated in the UK, Europe and Asia".

The letter to council project director Ewan Doyle, which is marked strictly private and confidential, includes a current cash balance for NERR as of March 2013.

But for some reason Scottish Borders Council blacked out the figure before release of the document even though NERR is in the hands of liquidators. The increase in the balance from December 2012 has also been redacted

The fund may have had a nominal value of £166 million at one point. But the hard truth is that 3,250 investors, along with SBC, have lost all of their money.

This latest portfolio of information made public for the first time indicates that NESG and NERR were both telling SBC in 2013 that there would be no difficulties in funding the Borders project. Yet by the time the entire contract was torn up and abandoned two years later the money was not - and had never been - in place.