Category Archives: law

High Court sheriffs confront Fujitsu Services

By Tony Collins

BBC One’s “The Sheriffs Are Coming” shows what happens when people and companies take a civil action over money they say are owed, win their case, and don’t get payment.

Last week’s broadcast showed a car dealer, a builder, a jeweller’s shop – and Fujitsu Services – facing high court enforcement officers, who are also known as sheriffs, over unpaid debts of thousands of pounds.

After sheriffs called on a car dealer and asked him to pay a debt of about £6,000 the police were called along with tow-away trucks to carry off cars to be sold at auction to pay the debt.

After three  hours of discussions the dealer paid up.  In the same programme the sheriffs seized items worth £28,000 from a jewellery shop in Kingston. A couple had won a case over a missold engagement ring.

The appointment of the sheriffs is the final stage of a civil legal action where the debt remains unpaid.  Armed with enforcement paperwork from the High Court, the sheriffs have a legal right to seize goods there and then. Whether it’s business premises or private property they have the power to force entry.

Fujitsu staff “shaken”

Which is where Fujistu Services comes in. A unnamed company had been to court and been awarded  £149, 481.93 against Fujitsu. As Fujitsu hadn’t paid, the company asked the High Court to collect payment – and enforcement officer Lawrence Grix went with a colleague Kevin McNally to Fujitsu’s Stevenage’s offices to collect the money.

That the sheriffs were dealing with one of world’s biggest IT services companies in Europe, Middle East and Africa, which employs 14,500 people in more than 20 countries, did not faze them.

The sheriffs in a black Ford Transit van pull up at the manned security barrier at Fujitsu Stevenage where the supplier has had a presence for 43 years.

The unexpected visit  leaves Fujitsu staff “shaken” according to the broadcast.

At first Fujitsu’s security staff refuse admission to the sheriffs’ van.

Sheriff: “You can’t actually stop me.”

Fujitsu: “I can stop you.”

Sheriff: “You can’t.”


Some time later, and still without access to Fujitsu Services Stevenage, Grix warns Fujitsu that he can call the police. He tells a Fujitsu security guard:

“To be honest I don’t think we have been treated particularly professionally or courteously so far. We have done the utmost to be professional and respectful to your situation here.”

“Ok,” says a guard at the security barrier. It appears that the guard has just come on duty and is unaware that the sheriffs have been trying to gain access for some time.

The sheriff continues: “We not looking to come storming round the place and see your latest technology. That’s not what we are here for. We are here to execute a high court writ and we are asking to be treated in a courteous manner.

“We have the right to enter. If you are not going to allow me to enter I am just going to park my vehicle here (at the entrance barrier) and go in on foot and if anybody tries to stop me I will call the police because it is an arrestable offence to obstruct an enforcement officer in the execution of a writ.

“We don’t want to go down that road. We just want to be treated with some courtesy.”

Eventually the sheriffs gain access – but still don’t get payment and so they seize on paper sufficient Fujitsu goods to cover the debt.  The sheriff listed property he could remove later if the debt remained unpaid. The programme’s narrator David Reed told viewers that the sheriffs now owned just about everything at Fujitsu’s head office.

In the end Fujitsu paid the debt in full, without having any of its goods actually seized and it gave a statement to the BBC saying the delay in payment was a genuine oversight on its part and that it took immediate steps which rectified the situation.


At one level it’s a trivial incident, perhaps an amusing one.

Yet it left some Fujitsu security staff and senior managers having to deal with high court enforcement officers who felt the company had been discourteous, who had to warn that they could force entry, who said at one point that they could call police if refused entry, and who ended up listing a large quantity of Fujitsu’s goods for seizure if the debt remained unpaid.  Much of the confrontation was filmed by the BBC.

It’s surprising that a company the size of Fujitsu – a company with the legal wherewithal to sue the Department of Health for £700m and carry on negotiations and discussions over the NPfIT-related money for five years – had such an oversight.

How was it that Fujitsu’s internal controls apparently did not prevent a court-endorsed business debt of £149,000 going unpaid until high court sheriffs were called in? Not a good advert for Fujitsu Services.

Sheriffs are coming – BBC’s Fujitsu debt episode in full

 BBC:  “Sometimes writs are issued against some of the largest companies in the world. Today Lawrence and Kev are enforcing a high court writ against one of the world’s largest IT services companies – Fujitsu.

Sheriff: : “Absolutely no doubt whatsoever they [Fujitsu] have the money to pay this. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what excuses they come up with and how big their company is. They have got a debt and we are here to collect it.”

BBC: “Fujitsu has over £30bn in revenues. Time for Lawrence to get the ball rolling.”

A black Ford Transit van with number plate smudged out pulls up to the manned entrance security barrier at Fujitsu Stevenage.

Sheriff, through an open van window: “We are here to execute a writ against Fuijitsu Services.”

Security guard says “no” – that they cannot come in until they have had the ok  from above.

Sheriff: “You can’t stop us coming in. I know what you are saying and I fully respect your position and I am quite happy for you to try and contact somebody who can deal with this but when it comes to a point of law you cannot actually stop us coming in.”

BBC: If necessary sheriffs can force entry to commercial premises but for the time being they decide to park around the corner and wait.

A sign at Fujitsu’s entrance says:

“Visitors – please report to security.

“Restrictions: Plerase declare all electrical equipment

“Please park as instructed

“All vehicles and hand baggage are liable to be searched on departure.”

BBC: “After 15 minutes at the side of the road Lawrence and Kev are finally approached by someone in authority.” A woman in dark clothing (and in the background a man in white shirt and dark trousers) talks to the sheriffs through an open passenger window.

Fujitsu: “Got any details of what this is about? Because I cannot get anybody for you unless we have more details.”

Sheriff: “They’ve have got a judgment for £149, 481.93.”

Fujitsu: “I can’t let you into the building. I am not allowed to let you into the building.”

Sheriff: “Right, unfortunately you can’t actually stop me.”

Fujitsu: “I can stop you.”

Sheriff: “You can’t.”

Fujitsu: “At the moment I can stop you coming into the building.until I get back.”

Sheriff: “You can’t. You can’t, whether you hear back – I am not trying to be awkward.”

Fujitsu: “We are not either.”

Sheriff: “We have been very cooperative at the moment. The security staff have asked us to wait here. I can understand the sensitivity of your business –”

Fujitsu: “My policy is that I don’t let you into this building. I am in control of this building and I am not allowed to let you in.”

Sheriff: “Unfortunately, as a high court officer enforcing a writ, I can force entry to a commercial premises if necessary. We do not need permission to enter your building.”

Fujitsu: “What do you need to enter the building for? Because we don’t know –”

Sheriff: “To seize goods. To seize goods. We are here to seize goods.”

Fujitsu: “Let me go and ring you back.

Fujitsu man in white shirt : “We’ll come back to you in as second …”

BBC:  “The shaken Fujitsu employees head off to talk to their superiors leaving Lawrence and Kev to continue waiting outside. After half-an-hour of sitting beside thew road, with no sign of any progress, Lawrence has had enough.”

He pulls up from a side road and stops at Fujitsu’s security barrier. A security guard comes out.

Fujitsu: “You want to come in do you?”

Sheriff: “To be honest I don’t think we have been treated particularly professionally or courteously so far. We have done the utmost to be professional and respectful to your situation here.”

Fujitsu: “Ok.”

Sheriff: “We are not looking to come storming round the place and see your latest technology. That’s not what we are here for. We are here to execute a high court writ and we are asking to be treated in a courteous manner. We have the right to enter. If you are not going to allow me to enter I am just going to park my vehicle here (at the entrance barrier) and go in on foot and if anybody tries to stop me I will call the police because it is an arrestable offence to obstruct an enforcement officer in the execution of a writ. We don’t want to go down that road. We just want to be treated with some courtesy.”

Fujitsu: “Some of us have just got here. We didn’t know you were coming.”

Sheriff: “I can appreciate that.”

Fujitsu: “Can you give me a couple of minutes?”

BBC: “Finally things seem to be happening. Lawrence is invited inside to discuss matters with someone in authority. It’s progress, but does it mean payment is on its way? … Lawrence is inside for nearly an hour before he emerges and in the chess game that is Lawrence Grix versus Fujitsu Lawrence has captured some major pieces.”

Sheriff: “He was quite insistent they were not going to pay today. So I have basically seized the entire contents of the building or as much as need be to cover the debt. If it doesn’t  get paid or resolved in a satisfactory manner we will be back and if necessary we will remove goods.”

BBC: “Lawrence has carried out a walking possession which means he has listed property he can remove at a later date if the debt isn’t paid. Thanks to Lawrence the high court now owns just about everything in Fujitsu’s head office.”

Soon after the visit Fujitsu pays the £149, 481.93.

Fujitsu gives a statement to the BBC saying that the delay in payment was a genuine oversight on its part and it took immediate steps which rectified the situation.

The sheriffs are coming.

Sheriffs set for TV stardom

The Sheriffs are coming – again.

BT gets termination notice on £300m outsourcing contract

By Tony Collins

Sandwell Council has issued BT with a 30-day termination notice on a 15-year £300m outsourcing contract that has yet to reach its half-way point.

The metropolitan borough council says there are various defaults BT needs to resolve. Based at Oldbury, West Midlands, about five miles from Birmingham, Sandwell has been an outsourcing reference site for BT.

The company quoted Sandwell Council in its presentations that formed part of the bidding for Cornwall Council’s planned outsourcing work.

The “guaranteed” savings in Sandwell’s contract with BT appear to be based on a level of spending the council is not maintaining. One point of contention appears to be the council’s wish for BT to reduce its charges to the council in line with the authority’s lower levels of activity.

In June 2012 Sandwell submitted a change request that asked BT to recalculate the annual service charge because the service volumes delivered through the contract had reduced significantly.

The council wanted the recalculation to be based on a reduction in the workforce from around 7,400 in 2007 when the contract with BT was signed to 4,688 in mid 2012.

Government Computing quotes a council document on the dispute as saying

“A reduction in the workforce should have a corresponding reduction in volumes such as the size of the ICT estate, the payroll, HR support and budget holders. There have been volume reductions in invoices, the number of contracts administered and calls to the contact centre for some services.”

Sandwell’s 30-day termination notice to BT was issued on 16 July so it will expire around that time next month. The council says it is prepared to take back staff.

Sandwell council leader, Councillor Darren Cooper, told Government Computing: “Cabinet has approved a recommendation to start the process of ending our contract with BT. That termination will take effect in 30 days’ time unless BT puts right various defaults we have asked them to resolve.

“If we have to, I am confident we will be able to bring the services BT currently supplies to us back to the council and run them in the most effective way in future.”


In 2007 BT and its joint bidder, outsourcing provider Liberata, had set out to run the council’s back-office functions at what was announced as a “guaranteed” reduced cost over the lifetime of the contract.

The deal was aimed at cutting costs and improving Sandwell’s IT infrastructure, HR, finance, payroll and customer services functions.

There was some success. The BT-led ‘Transform Sandwell’ team won the UK’s Best Customer Services Management Team at the National Customer Services Awards in December 2010.

BT built a 75,000 square foot office block for Transform Sandwell. It accommodated 400 employees of Transform Sandwell and a 300-strong customer service team working for BT.

Massive mistake?

Independent socialist councillor Mick Davies said “Someone somewhere has obviously made a massive mistake and the taxpayers of Sandwell will have to foot the bill… The writing seemed to be on the wall when BT’s partner in the project, Liberata, was dumped unceremoniously a couple of years ago.”

Sandwell Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for strategic resources Councillor Steve Eling said: “In view of the current climate and public expenditure reductions, the council is engaging with its partner to determine services that are needed over the medium term and to reduce the overall costs in light of public spending reductions.”

Technologies used in the Transform Sandwell contact centre have included Verint Impact 360, Siebel CRM and Nortel Contact Centre 6.0.

A BT spokesman told the Halesowen News

“BT continually looks at ways to improve the service it provides to its customers. The original contract was signed in 2007 and as is normal with long-term partnerships BT constantly looks at ways to service the changing needs of both the council and citizens of Sandwell.”

BT told Government Computing it “has throughout – and remains – fully committed to delivering the commitments it made through the Transform Sandwell Partnership.”

The European Services Strategy Unit which has carried out detailed research on outsourcing contracts lists some of the terminated and reduced local authority strategic partnership contracts.

Sandwell has 72 councillors, 67 of which represent Labour.


At some point in a 10 or 15-year outsourcing contract a major dispute seems almost inevitable because a supplier’s business objectives will rarely change when the council’s priorities change.

BT’s deal with Sandwell was signed in 2007 – as was Southwest One’s deal with IBM – at a pre-austerity period.

Now that councils have been making, and continue to make, radical savings, they want the flexibility to cut their outsourcing costs too. But it may not be in the supplier’s interests to take profits that are much lower than expected.

No such thing as a free lunch

How can the business interests of outsourcing providers and their council clients ever completely align and move in time like synchronised swimmers?

The growing number of disputes in local authority outsourcing deals suggests that councils are not properly weighing up the risks when they sign deals.

Perhaps small groups of ruling councillors – such as those at Barnet – are too easily persuaded by the “guaranteed” savings on offer at the start of a contract.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. But try telling that to council Cabinet councillors who have cartoon-character pound signs in their eyes in the Disney period before a big outsourcing contract is well underway.

Let’s hope BT and Sandwell kiss and make up. It looks like the lawyers are already in the middle of them, though; and at whose expense?

Sandwell and BT consider end of strategic partnership – Government Computing

Somerset County Council settles IBM dispute – who wins?

By Tony Collins

Somerset County Council has settled a High Court legal dispute with IBM-led Southwest One. It will bring some services back in-house.

The Conservative leader of Somerset council John Osman said, “This agreement will save Somerset residents millions of pounds and will make the contract fit for the future.”

Osman added that the agreement involves settlement of Southwest One fees, which the council had been withholding, for a mutually- agreed sum.

“Most importantly the cancelling of the gainshare agreement will save Somerset County Council residents millions of pounds in the future as those sums can now be kept by the Council,” said Osman.

But as the deal includes payment of an undisclosed sum by the council to Southwest One it is unclear which side is the beneficiary in the dispute. [See Dave Orr comment on this post.]

The council says the settlement will bring benefits for the council including securing “greater strategic control and capacity back with SCC  in terms of Procurement, Property and ICT”.

The agreement also “removes some barriers to ensure successful delivery of our Change Programme – with greater alignment to the operating model, commissioning capacity, service reviews, and technology enablers.”

And the settlement allows officers to focus on improving services rather than on a series of disputes.

Southwest One had issued a writ against the council – what the authority calls a “substantial claim” – and a date for a High Court hearing was set provisionally for November 2013.  Yesterday [March 27 2013] the council agreed to settle the High Court claim, and an unspecified number of other disputes.   

IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council, and Avon and Somerset Police set up Southwest One as a joint venture company in 2007.  IBM  owns 75% of the company.

Somerset’s officers said in a report yesterday:

“Following a series of discussions between the Council and Southwest One we are now in a position to settle the disputes and the Procurement legal proceedings against SCC will cease.

“The agreement includes a settlement payment to SWO which is substantially lower than the claim against SCC and releases payments to SWO that were held by SCC as part of the dispute.”

Somerset County Council will take back several services and about 100 people who had been seconded to Southwest One. The council says that taking back staff and services will “reduce the potential for further disputes and align those services much closer to the operating model the Council has adopted”.

Services returning to SCC include:

• Strategic and Operational Procurement
• Property Services
• Estates Management
• ICT Strategic Management including some web management posts
• Some business support posts for the above functions

The council says there will be little change in day to day activities and no changes to locations of staff. Somerset’s staff will have their secondments terminated and revert to the council’s terms and conditions.

The High Court action was because of a disagreement  about the quality of Southwest One’s procurement service and what payments Southwest One was entitled to as a result of savings made through the joint venture.


Whereas a High Court hearing would have been open to the public, the sum paid by Somerset to IBM as part of the settlement,  and the risks of bringing staff and services back in-house, are being kept confidential because of what the council calls “commercial sensitivity”.


Some of the settlement’s main risks for the council are listed in yesterday’s report:

• The confidential nature of the discussions held to secure an agreement has
meant that full consultation with a wide range of officers and partners has not
been possible.
• The transfers of staff and functions will take place during the new financial
year. The proposed transfers create some risk due to SAP changes required.
• There will be some risks in the hand-over of programmes of work.
• Despite all efforts to mitigate risks to services, it is possible that some
disruption may occur. Transition workshops are planned to identify and preempt such instances, which significantly reduces the risk.
• Implications for partners have also been estimated. It is possible that partners
may take a different view of the implications for them.


Osman blamed the previous Liberal Democrat administration for the problems which he said were owing to the way the contract was worded, the actions of the previous Lib Dem administration transferring services to Southwest One that should never have transferred and the failure to clarify the savings sharing element of the agreement. Osman said this was the “equivalent of the Lib Dems writing a blank cheque”.

The 10-year joint venture, which started in 2007, will continue. 


As the terms of the settlement and the risks associated with transferring staff and services back in-house are being kept secret nobody outside an inner circle of the council can know how bad the joint venture and the dispute have been for Somerset council’s taxpayers.

If anything is clear it is that IBM held the dominant legal hand all along. It issued a High Court claim, and now it has received a payment from the council.

It seems to be a feature of big council outsourcing deals and joint ventures that councillors are easily swayed by promises of enormous savings, often upfront savings, and are not too concerned about the risk of things going wrong because they won’t be in office when or if any mud hits the fan.

Yesterday Cornwall Council’s Interim CEO, along with the Chairman of Cornwall Partnership Foundation Trust and the Director of Finance at Peninsula Community Health signed a contract for a joint venture with BT.

As Andrew Wallis, an independent councillor in Cornwall, says

“Lets hope the Council does not regret this day.”

The Southwest One joint venture was flawed joint venture from the time a rushed contract riddled with literals was signed in the early hours of a Saturday morning in 2007.  For years afterwards, Somerset Council has been trying to dig itself out of a hole. It is now near the surface – except that yesterday’s council report says there is a potential for further disputes. 

Will other councils learn from Somerset’s experiences? Cornwall’s deal shows that any learning will be very limited.

And the secrecy that tends to go with big outsourcing deals and joint ventures means that a small group of councillors can sign joint ventures and outsourcing contracts without proper accountability  – and can settle any legal disputes later without accountability, and indeed with impunity.

Whenever a  major supplier offers a council large upfront savings from an outsourcing deal or a joint venture why would the authority’s inner circle of councillors say no?

Thank you to campaigning Somerset resident and former county council employee Dave Orr who provided the links and information that made this post possible.

CSC criticised again in The Times

By Tony Collins

The Times has followed up its three pages of coverage of the NPfIT yesterday with an article in which the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, criticises one of the programme’s main suppliers CSC.

Hodge tells The Times she was surprised to learn that CSC was hoping for a revised NHS deal – worth about £2bn – after it failed to deliver fully functional software to any of 166 NHS trusts in England.

CSC has said in a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission that, based on events to date, it does not does not anticipate that the NHS will terminate its contract.

CSC gave a series of reasons in its SEC filing why the UK Government may retain CSC and its NPfIT contracts, though it conceded that the outcome of its talks with the Department of Health, is uncertain.

CSC also said it has cured or is in the process of curing the alleged events of default. It asserted that failures and breaches of contract on the part of NHS have caused delays and issues; and it said that if the NHS wrongfully terminated the contract on the basis of alleged material breach, CSC could recover substantial damages.

Hodge told The Times:

“Any private sector company that cares so little about the public interest that they are prepared to extract this kind of money from the public purse should not be given the right to work for the Government again.

“If they are going to take such a private sector attitude to it that they don’t give a toss about the public interest they should be treated like a cowboy builder.”

CSC says it has made a significant investment in developing systems for the NHS and has demonstrated a strong and continuing commitment to improving the quality of healthcare in England. It says it has a demonstrable track record of successful and widescale delivery to NHS within the National Programme and beyond.

The Times also reported that Christine Connelly, the Department of Health’s former CIO,  was bought a £416 first-class train ticket for a visit to a hospital at Morecambe, and was flown to San Francisco and Seattle at a business-class rate costing £8,278.80.

American “cowboys” blamed for NHS fiasco – The Times

CSC confident on £2bn deal says The Times

Why hospital IT needs airline safety culture

By Tony Collins

Earlier this month the pilots of a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” carrying 249 passengers aborted a landing at Okayama airport in Japan when the wheels failed to deploy automatically. The pilots circled and deployed the landing gear manually.

A year ago pilots of an Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane, made an emergency landing at Singapore on landing gear that they deployed using gravity, the so-called “gravity drop emergency extension system”.

In both emergencies the contingencies worked.  The planes landed safely and nobody was hurt.

Five years earlier, during tests, part of the landing gear on a pre-operational A380 failed initially to drop down using gravity.

The Teflon solution

The problem was solved, thanks in part to the use of Teflon paint (see below). Eventually the A380 was certified to carry 853 passengers.

Those who fly sometimes owe their lives to the proven and certified backup arrangements on civil aircraft. Compare this safety culture to the improvised and sometimes improvident way some health IT systems are tested and deployed.

Routinely hospital boards order the installation of information systems without proven backup arrangements and certification. Absent in health IT are the mandatory standards that underpin air safety.

When an airliner crashes investigators launch a formal inquiry and publish their findings. Improvements usually follow, if they haven’t already, which is one reason flying is so safe today.

Shutters come down when health IT fails 

When health IT implementations go wrong the effect on patients is unknown. Barts and The London NHS Trust, the Royal Free Hampstead, the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust and other trusts had failed go-lives of NPfIT patient administration systems. They have not published reports on the consequences of the incidents, and have no statutory duty to do so.

Instead of improvements triggered by a public report there may, in health IT, be an instinctive and systemic cover-up, which is within the law. Why would hospitals own up to the seriousness of any incidents brought about by IT-related confusion or chaos? And under the advice of their lawyers suppliers are unlikely to own up to weaknesses in their systems after pervasive problems.

Supplier “hold harmless” clauses

Indeed a “hold harmless” clause is said to be common in contracts between electronic health record companies and healthcare provider organisations. This clause helps to shift liability to the users of EHRs in that users are liable for adverse patient consequences that result from the use of clinical software, even if the software contains errors.

That said the supplier’s software will have been configured locally; and it’s those modifications that might have caused or contributed to incidents.

Done well, health IT implementations can improve the care and safety of patients. But after the go-live of a patient administration system Barts and The London NHS Trust lost track of thousands of patient appointments and had no idea how many were in breach of the 18-week limit for treatment after being referred by a GP. There were also delays in appointments for cancer checks.

At the Royal Free Hampstead staff found they had to cope with system crashes, delays in booking patient appointments, data missing in records and extra costs.

And an independent study of the Summary Care Records scheme by Trisha Greehalgh and her team found that electronic records can omit allergies and potentially dangerous reactions to certain combinations of drugs. Her report also found that the SCR database:

–  Omitted some medications

–  Listed ‘current’ medication the patient was not taking

–  Included indicated allergies or adverse reactions which the patient probably did not have

Electronic health records can also record wrong dosages of drugs, or the wrong drugs, or fail to provide an alert when clinical staff have come to wrongly rely on such an alert.

A study in 2005 found that Computerized Physician Order Entry systems, which were widely viewed as a way of reducing prescribing errors, could lead to double the correct doses being prescribed.

One problem of health IT in hospitals is that computer systems are introduced alongside paper where neither one nor the other is a single source of truth. This could cause mistakes analogous to the ones made in early air crashes which were caused not by technology alone but pilots not fully understanding how the systems worked and not recognising the signs and effects of systems failing to work as intended.

In air crashes the lessons are learned the hard way. In health IT the lessons from failed implementations will be learned by committed professionals. But what when a hospital boss is overly ambitious, is bowled over by unproven technology and is cajoled into a premature go-live?

In 2011, indeed in the past few months, headlines in the trade press have continued to flow when a hospital’s patient information system goes live, or when a trust reaches a critical mass of Summary Care Record uploads of patient records (although some of the SCR records may or not be accurate, and may or may not be correctly updated).

What we won’t see are headlines on any serious or even tragic consequences of the implementations. A BBC File on 4 documentary this month explained how hospital mistakes are unlikely to be exposed by coroners or inquests.

So hospital board chief executives can order new and large-scale IT systems without the fear of any tragic failure of those implementations being exposed, investigated and publicly reported on. The risk lies with the patient. Certification and regulation of health IT systems would reduce that risk.

Should health IT systems be tested as well as the A380’s landing gear? – those tests in detail

Qantas Flight 32 was carrying 466 passengers when an engine exploded. The Airbus A380 made an emergency landing at Singapore Changi Airport on 4 November 2010. The failure was the first of its kind for the four-engined A380.

Shrapnel from the exploding engine punctured part of the wing and damaged some of the systems, equipment and controls. Pilots deployed the landing gear manually, using gravity  – and it worked well. Despite many technical problems the plane landed safely.

Five years earlier, tests of a manual deployment of the A380’s landing gear failed initially. It happened in a test hangar, more than a year before the A380 received regulatory approval to carry 853 passengers.

The story of the landing gear tests is told by Channel 4 as part of a well-made documentary, “Giant of the Skies” on the construction and assembly of the A380.  Against a backdrop of delays and a budget overspend, Airbus engineers must show that if power is lost the wheels will come down on their own, using gravity.

The film shows an Airbus A380 suspended in a hangar while the undercarriage test gets underway. The undercarriage doors open under their own weight and a few seconds later the locks that hold up the outer wheels release. Two massive outer sets of four wheels each fall down through a 90-degree arc. Something goes wrong.  At about 45 degrees, one of the Michelin tyres catches on an undercarriage door which looks as if it has not opened as fully as it would have if powered electrically. Only after 16 seconds does the jammed wheel set slip free. Engineers watching the test look mortified.

Simon Sanders, head of landing gear design at Airbus, tells Channel 4: “We need to understand and find a solution.”

An engineer smeared some grease (Aeroshell 70022 from Shell, Houston) on a guide ramp where the A380’s wheels are supposed to push the door open in an emergency loss of power. This worked and the test was successful: the left-side outer landing gear doors opened under their own weight; a few seconds later the wheels fell down, also under their own weight, and this time the tyre that had jammed earlier hit the grease on the door and slid down without any delay. But a permanent solution was needed.

A month later Airbus repeated the undercarriage “gravity” test. Sanders told Channel 4: “We have applied a layer of Teflon paint which is similar to the Teflon coasting you have on non-stick flying pans. This will reduce the friction when we do the free-fall [of the undercarriage]. We are now going to perform the test to demonstrate that with this low-friction Teflon coating we have solved the problem.”

This time the A380’s chief test pilot Gérard Desbois was watching. If the wheels got struck again Desbois could refuse to accept the aircraft for its first test flight, which would mean a further delay.

The loss-of-power test began. The outer landing gear doors opened … the wheels fell down under their own weight … and jammed again. This time they freed themselves quicker than before. After some hesitation Desbois accepted the aircraft on the basis that if power were lost and the left outer landing wheels took a little longer to come down than the right outer set this would not be a problem.  The gravity free-fall backup system was further refined before the A380 went into service.

The importance of the tests was shown in 2010 when an exploding Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine on an Airbus A380,  Qantas Flight 32 from Singapore to Sydney, caused damage to various aircraft systems including the landing gear computer which stopped working.  The pilots had to deploy the landing gear manually. The official incident report shows that all of the A380’s 22 wheels deployed fully under the gravity extension backup arrangements.

If a hospital board had been overseeing the A380’s tests back in 2005, would directors have taken the view that the test was very nearly successful, so the undercarriage could be left to prove itself in service?

For the test engineers at Airbus, safety was not a matter of choice but of regulation and certification. It is a pity that the deployment of health IT, which can affect the safety of patients, is not a matter of regulation or certification.


Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust postpones major IT go-live.

Giant of the Skies – Channel 4 documentary on manufacture and testing of the Airbus A380

A webinar on legal, procurement and contractual issues around public sector staff mutuals

By David Bicknell

This Thursday, 20th October, Local Government is hosting a webinar on procurement and contracts issues arising out of the government’s encouragement of  the formation of staff mutuals by public sector employees to take over the running of services from their employers.

The course will cover the following:

•    Outline Government policy towards transfer to mutuals
•    Explain the provisions of the Community Right to Challenge under the Localism Bill
•    Outline issues which may arise under Public Contract Regulations
•    Consider  the ability of such a body to discharge a statutory function
•    Look at possible contractual issues  to be considered
•    Examine potential Governance issues which may arise

Understanding the impact of the Teckal Test on procurement and competition for mutuals

By David Bicknell

I recently wrote about the impact on procurement for mutual and social enterprises of the Teckal Test, which tests whether contracts and the contractor are under the public authority’s direct control.

Broadly speaking, the Public Contract Regulations (2006) apply whenever a contracting authority seeks offers in relation to public contracts. The Regulations give effect in UK law to Council Directive (2004/18/EC) on the co-ordination of  procedures for the award of such public contracts.

This has implications for mutuals, because case law of the European Court of Justice has developed an exception from the normal application of the procurement rules, known as the Teckal exemption, where contracting authorities award contracts for providing services or works to an “in house” provider.

The exemption works on the basis that the contract being awarded is not a “public contract” for the purposes of the Directive and, as a result, the Regulations do not apply and EU law will not require the  contract to be put out to tender.

If you’re interested in Teckal, these links may be useful: