The huge sum was paid to the company by officials running British aid’s biggest education infrastructure programme. The classrooms were eventually abandoned over design faults, meaning pupils were forced to be educated in tents or packed into current buildings during the coronavirus pandemic. This horrific situation first emerged last year, but The Times investigation claims officials at the Department for International Development (DFID) had been warned of problems long before that.
Ministers were kept in the dark for years, despite the independent assessment of the school plans triggering fears the buildings might not be structurally safe, according to the investigation.
Boris Johnson – who was unaware of design safety concerns – even laid a plaque at one of the schools as a mark of the UK’s investment in the education of Pakistani children. The girls’ school the Prime Minister inaugurated in Lahore has since been evacuated.
The crisis-hit building programme has been slashed to less than 8,000 classrooms, with the cost of each surging from £3,000 to £21,000.
Sarah Champion, chairwoman of the International Development Committee, told The Times: “I do not know of a worse example of aid misspend. It has shocked me to the very core that it went on for so long. This is a scandalous misuse of taxpayers’ money.
The UK gave £50million of taxpayers cash to build ‘unsafe’ classrooms in Pakistan
Pakistan has been devastated by huge earthquakes over recent years
“The lack of accountability all the way through — from procurement to health and safety to delivery — was genuinely shocking. Are there other projects like this that are going as catastrophically wrong?
“There were two large failings. One, it seems that civil servants kept the information from ministers. But two, the ministers have known about this and I do not believe that they have got a grip on the scale and the severity of the problem still now.”
Next month, the DFID is being merged into the Foreign Office, with the select committee subsequently being terminated, and as a result, Ms Chapman fears there will now be less parliamentary scrutiny of aid, warning this affair “may well be symptomatic of other large-scale projects that DFID is running”.
The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwestern region of Pakistan, where classrooms were being built, is a dangerous earthquake zone, with 6,704 school buildings suffering damage in 2005 and 815 in 2015.
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Pakistan was hit by a huge earthquake in 2005, which killed tens of thousands of people
The under-fire building programme was handed a budget of £184million, including £164million from the UK, but quickly began experiencing problems.
The investigation claims the Board of Investment in Pakistan, which objected to two respected Britons on the programme, cancelled IMC’s registration in June 2014, before this company withdrew from the country six months’ later.
Following intense pressure, Pakistan let one of the employees return but insisted the other, whose duties included weeding out corruption, must be dropped, meaning the Dfid could not sign its contract with IMC until the row was resolved in April 2015, it is claimed.
IMC then doubled the price of each classroom to £6,000 just weeks after claiming costs were on track to meet budgets, a move that saw the DFID slash the number of classrooms by almost half from 30,000 to 16,000, with construction beginning in September 2015.
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Priti Pate, who was International Development Secretary at the time, was never told about the problems
In October 2016, Halcrow Pakistan, a civil engineering firm hired by DFID for independent verification, sounded the first alarm British-built classrooms were potentially dangerous.
A Halcrow Pakistan source told The Times: “We confirmed these schools’ structure is unsafe primarily over the weak suggested construction model.”
Another two independent experts raised concerns, with the DFID warned about unsafe buildings, dangers around some building being used and the risk of them collapsing, but the Dfid continued paying IMC as checks continued and since the first warnings were made, nearly 3,000 classrooms have been built.
Priti Patel, who was International Development Secretary at the time, as well as her successors Penny Mordaunt and Rory Stewart, were never told about the problems.
The earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 killed around 87,000 people
Ministers were only alerted to the huge problems in June 2019 when the department had been taken over by current Business Secretary Alok Sharma, as University College London provided DFID with a draft review of design safety.
This sparked a furious response from MPs, leading IMC to assure it had provided children forced out of their classrooms with 541 “high quality tents”.
IMC was always paid – despite the DFID regarding the schools initiative in Pakistan as a “payment by results” programme, according to the Times.
Less than two-thirds of the income (63 percent) was spent on construction, with the remaining 37 percent spent on “technical assistance” such as fees and expenses for IMC staff.
Ministers were only alerted to the huge problems in June 2019 when the department had been taken over by Alok Sharma
IMC insisted the budget reflected the programme’s scale covering 1,300 locations over 130,000 sq km of challenging terrain.
The firm’s managing director Gavin English said: “Many newly constructed buildings develop some cracks, the majority of which are non-structural.
“Building designs were approved by engineering consultants registered with the Pakistan Engineering Council.”
DFID said: “The safety of children is our number one priority. It is completely unacceptable that schools, which UK aid commissioned IMC to build, have not been built to the necessary standards.
“IMC have committed to retrofit unsafe schools and classrooms to ensure these are fit for purpose.”