Saturday, 18 October 2014

Transparency Downgrade - Barnet's Rotten Website

On Friday evening, after work, I was going through Barnet's website as a vigilant resident when I noticed that the open data page had changed. This is where you can usually find important data about the council's performance. It includes things like the supplier payments and freedom of information requests.

Below is a screen shot of what you used to see on the FOI page:
A clear summary with a button you could click on to see more information.

What you get now is this:
You can't click for more information and the downloadable file simply down loads the summary as shown on the screen. There was also a disclosure log where you could sort through previous FOI requests but now all you get is:

Moving on to supplier payments this has also changed. In addition to being buried away it is now only downloadable in CSV format whereas previously it was also downloadable in excel and PDF format which are more familiar to most people.

Interestingly the supplier payments for August 2014 which were previously published have now disappeared and it is very difficult to find previous years' supplier payments as there are no links on the current year's page. 

Some may say I am paranoid but I do get a feeling that the changes are being made so that it is much harder for residents like me, the other bloggers and engaged residents to challenge the council on their spending, especially under the Capita contract. 

I have contacted the council so time will tell if they actually do something about restoring the limited transparency we previously received.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Barnet, a Borough of Contradictions

At tonight's Policy and Resources Committee the main feature will be the report in to Governance failure and the departure "by mutual consent" of the Monitoring Officer. However there are a few other items on the agenda which I hope do not get overlooked.

In particular there is a report on the introduction of Area Committee Budgets. This plan proposes to give each of the three area committee a budget of £100,000 per annum to give away in grants. The total of £1.2 million over the four years of this scheme will come from reserves. The criteria for these grants is that they should be one-off and do not require on going funding. Therefore they cannot be used for revenue support. Applications should be made via councillors and they will act as 'gatekeepers' for applications. The indicative range for the value of awards will be between £200 and £9,999.

The priorities for the awards are set out in the report and are included below:

"As a starting point, each application must demonstrate that the proposal supports one or more of the Council’s priority outcomes, as set out in the Corporate Plan. Currently, these are:
• To maintain a well-designed, attractive and accessible place, with sustainable infrastructure across the borough.
• To maintain the right environment for a strong and diverse local economy.
• To create better life chances for children and young people across the borough.
• To sustain a strong partnership with the local NHS, so that families and individuals can maintain and improve their physical and mental health.
• To promote a healthy, active, independent and informed over 55 population in the borough to encourage and support our residents to age well.
• To promote family and community well-being and encourage engaged, cohesive and safe communities."

Now you may be saying this sound like a good idea. However, at a time when funding for essential services is being cut it seems bizarre to be giving away £1.2 million in small grants. For example the priorities state that these grants should support the objective to create better life chances for children yet this week Moss Hall Nursery is facing a 50% funding cut   It also states that they want  these grants to promote a healthy active and informed over 55 population yet the leisure budget is being slashed. They want to promote a strong partnership with the NHS yet they are doing their best to drive Your Choice Barnet into the ground by cutting staff pay and reducing services to those with physical and learning disabilities.

In my opinion if Barnet has £1.2 million going spare it would be better used supporting the essential service that are being cut than to come up with vanity projects in the hope of buying votes at the next election.

Monday, 13 October 2014

A Critical Week In Barnet

This week there are a number of meetings which may have an influence on who is running Barnet in the near future.
Tonight there are two committee meetings, the General Functions Committee and the Remuneration Committee. Both quite dull you might assume, but I think otherwise.

First is the General Functions Committee where they will be discussing a senior management restructure. The outcome of this restructure is a proposed saving of £100,000 a year, certainly not enough in my view. There is a great deal re-titling of posts but there are some new posts being created which, to my mind, are both flawed and indicative of the increasing remoteness of senior officers from the residents they are there to serve.

From my perspective we do not need both a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer especially now as so much of the council is outsourced. My recommendation would be to do away with the Chief Operating Officer role, and to make the Deputy Chief Operating Officer the S151 Officer. If the current CEO was made redundant and the COO promoted into that role but on their current salary of £158,464, it would save the council £231,702 per annum, more than double the proposed savings. I also see no need for a new Strategic Director of Commissioning to sit above the four Commissioning Directors. If that new post was deleted that would save a further £195,703 per annum. It would also get the Commission Directors reporting direct to the Chief Executive which to my mind would be a positive step.

There is also a proposal to create a role entitled Director for Strategy and Communications at an annual cost of £140,600 profligate in my view especially as this is in addition to the Head of Communications and Marketing with an annual cost of  £98,129. I think the council has reached strategy saturation - what it needs are people to do front line jobs. Think how many care staff could be employed or nursery funding cuts reinstated with the £568,000 per annum that could be saved if only a degree of common sense was used.

It appear that straight after the General Functions Committee the Remuneration Committee will talk again about this restructure although quite why it needs two separate committees to discuss the same matter is beyond me.

Then on Tuesday we move on to the main feature of the week and the report by Claer Lloyd-Jones and the complete and utter failure of the Monitoring Officer role to actually provide the governance required by the Council. I won't go into the report in detail as Mrs Angry has done a far superior job than I could ever do so I suggest you read her blog here.

All I will say is that evidence continues to percolate out and the more that is revealed the worse it looks for those in charge of Barnet Council, both Leader and Chief Executive. The "has she/ hasn't she gone" debate that went on last week in the press was unedifying made worse by the response from Dan Thomas that Barnet is a super efficient council. Was she the only candidate on the list or were others dissuaded from applying by the deletion of the need for a legal qualification?

The next big question will focus on the decisions that have been made by the former monitoring officer since she was appointed back in 2012 and whether she was sufficiently qualified to make them. Barnet have had some major problems recently with their legal advice such as the parking charge increases being ruled illegal and millions having to be refunded to residents. More recently Andrew Dismore's various complaints to the leaders panel which were ruled out by the former monitoring officer in spite of the advice of the independent person who sits on the panel.

The Council seems to lurch from one crisis to another and from my perspective that stems from weak leadership. A vote of no confidence in both the leader and the Chief Executive is next and that may see both occupiers of those roles seeking new opportunities before the month is out.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Another Million for Capita - August Supplier Payments

Barnet's supplier payments for August are out and as ever there are some big payments to the usual culprits.

  • Barnet Lighting billed £1,186,455.15 for all those new street lights that we actually didn't need.
  • The Barnet Group billed £7,245,939.88;
  • London Borough of Harrow £7,167,500 Health authorities - Third Party Payment whatever that means;
  • Comensura who provide agency staff to the council billed £1,331,152.06. Yet again the bill is very high regardless of what was said at the Council meeting in July. Given that the an Internal Audit report earlier this year said that "There is no requirement for the order of agency staff on the Comensura system to be approved by a more senior officer. There is therefore a risk that agency staff may be appointed without appropriate approval." It is also interesting when looking back to four years ago before outsourcing was forced upon us when in 2010/11 the total annual bill for agency staff was £8.99 million or an average of £750,000 a month, almost £600,000 a month LOWER than under the 'wonderful' efficient commissioning council model.
  • Saracens were paid £50,385.50 in rents. I do find this a little surprising given that Mr Mustard uncovered that in July Saracens owed the council £380,000 for parking permits. I hope that £380k has now been paid.
  • And so we come to Capita. They billed £1,113,319.01 a sizeable bill  and one for which we have no transparency.
I hope our councillors scrutinise the payments as rigorously as the residents. (Oh yeh!)

Monday, 22 September 2014

One Barnet and Why Capita's £75 million Doesn't Add Up

We have been told repeatedly that the Capita One Barnet Contract will save residents millions of pounds. The two main contracts and the forecast savings are as follows:

NSCSO (now called CSG)
Baseline (at December 2012) costs £38.8 million
Forecast costs savings £7.01 million
Procurement savings £4.69 million
Improved council tax collection £0.84 million
Total guaranteed saving £12.54 million
By my reckoning this means that Barnet should pay £26.26 million per annum
(Source: NSCSO Business Case Cabinet Meeting 6 December 2012)

DSG (now called Re)
Baseline (at June 2013) costs £14.2 million
Forecast cost savings £0.53 million
Increased income £3.38million
Total guaranteed savings £3.9 million
By my reckoning this means that Barnet should pay £10.3 million per annum
(Source: DSG Business case Cabinet Meeting 24 June 2013)

So if we look at the figures above this means that we should be paying Capita £36.56 million assuming they deliver all of the guaranteed savings. It may therefore surprise you that in the year 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 Barnet paid Capita £75,008,840.49. Yes £75 MILLION,  £38.44 million more than we should be paying.

Even setting aside the £16 million of up front investment Barnet have paid to Capita (which should be factored back into the annual cost savings)  that still means we paid £59 million when the cost of providing the service before outsourcing was only £53 million. Also bear in mind that Barnet have shelled out millions in redundancy payment, £8 million on Agilisys/iMpower, millions for agency staff as well as causing distress and heartbreak to hundreds of families that have suffered redundancy to push through these contracts.

At tomorrow night's Council meeting, Richard Cornelius will once again be selling the myth that Capita are saving Barnet residents a fortune in his response to a question from Alison Moore. I hope some of the Councillors present start asking whether these figures are real or just smoke and mirrors. The number don't add up Cllr Cornelius.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Barnet Council's Clap-o-Meter tactics to push through more outsourcing

Over the years Barnet Council have produced some highly suspect and biased reports to support their political ideology of outsourcing the entire council. The One Barnet Business Case reports are the most obvious examples and I blogged about the DSG report back in March 2011. In that business case there was a lack of evidence to support many of the assumptions and a series of what I can only describe as entirely untruthful statements about investment and who was going to make it. At that time they said that all of the investment was going to be made by the outsourcing company and the only exception would be the cremators at Hendon Crematorium. Roll on two years and Barnet Council sign a cheque for investment for £16.1 million for all of the investment.

With the election out of the way, the council zealots now have another four years to push through their commissioning council agenda, one dictated entirely by political dogma and lacking in both financial rigour and common sense. Tonight we see yet another of these  fallacious reports which is supposed to dupe any stupid, ignorant, lazy or unquestioning councillors on the committee. Luckily, I think (hope) that today we have some rather sharper councillors who aren't going to put up with this utter tripe and who are going to ask some probing and challenging questions.

I have read an excellent report by Dexter Whitfield which sets out those deficiencies concisely and I would urge as many people as possible to read it here. However, I believe that the report will not be allowed to be taken at the meeting nor are the unions who represent the staff that will be impacted by the decision allowed to speak.  Barnet Council don't believe is balance, in evidence or in alternative view points so any report which seeks to challenge the Council's view point must be suppressed. This means that council officers employed by Capita are promoting another outsourcing project of whom the most likely winner will be Capita. No conflict there then.

I have included one example from the council report  that incensed me as follows:

"The in house option is the representation of the service continuing to operate broadly as now, but on the basis that budgets are to be reduced significantly. This option would therefore require significant service reductions to meet budget targets."... "The in house model cannot meet all the objectives for this service, as the level of service cannot be preserved and it would not actively involve schools in the development process."
The report then lists out the potential risks of an in house team as follows (my comments in red):
  • Limited experience in trading outside the Borough - but what if there aren't any buyers outside the borough. We have seen this with the Your Choice Barnet (YCB) contract which having been outsourced on the basis of winning external business is in massive financial difficulties because there are no external buyers of the service
  • Limited ability to generate new income - but the successful schools catering service run by an in-house team already makes a profit of £190,000 a year which is ploughed back into Barnet coffers
  • Over time, non-DSG services will be reduced to a statutory minimum, with potential impact on services to schools and on children and young people - and who says that won't happen with an outsourced provider exactly as is happening with YCB
  • Less ability and freedom to innovate - an entirely groundless and unsubstantiated assumption based on a prejudiced view of "public bad private good"
  • Delivering savings will limit the capacity to generate income - again an entirely unsubstantiated and false statement. The in-house team have already had to cope with budget cuts every year for the last four years and at the same time generate £9.1 million of income per annum.
  • Potential gradual reduction in strategic influence * - and the asterisk denotes a footnote which say this applies to a "number" (and in my opinion all) of the options
  • Redundancies will be required, the cost of which are retained in house - and all the staff redundancies paid when the two main contracts were let to Capita were paid  for in full by the Council so again an entirely misleading and erroneous statement
  • Cannot secure additional private funding - so what happened to Invest-to-Save?
  • No sharing of risk with schools or third party - who says the schools can't share some of the risk?
The council have also fiddled the option evaluation scoring scheme so as to load it against the in-house option. No one is answerable for the scores given, and as far as I can see they are entirely made up and without substantiation, simply a personal view of the officers involved.
Set out below is the scoring chart:
Strategic direction is given 30% of the marks whereas performance - what they actually deliver -get only 20% of the marks. This illustrates perfectly how dogma trumps how the service is actually delivered and why the officers are completely out of touch with reality.

Don't let anyone believe that just because there are lots of numbers it is a scientific or rational mechanism. It isn't. I would liken it to Hughie Green's Clap-o-Meter - unscientific, driven entirely by the amount of noise made by the audience and for amusement only.  (Any resemblance between Hughie Green and Richard Cornelius is entirely coincidental). I hope that at the meeting tonight the Labour Councillors make plenty of noise, and ensure this report is consigned to the rejects bin where it belongs.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Barnet supplier payments - another £675k for Capita

This month the overall supplier payments were £35.5 million. Aside from the usual suspects such as TFL, Barnet Group and Barnet Lighting there were a few payments which deserve a little more examination

Capita  billed £675,137.58 the majority of which related to the CSG contract. Discovering specifically what it is for shall have to wait until the inspection of accounts next year and even then I don't hold out much hope of getting any real detail on the figures.

Councillor Shooter asked at a council meeting back in July about agency staff cost with  the response that the costs are falling. This month the bill from Comensura, the council's agency and interim staff provider was   £1,268, 836.97, down slightly on June but still higher than May. Given the council has spent many millions on redundancy costs it seems ridiculous to be spending an average of £1.3 million per month temporary staff. A few others were as follows:

Paul Winter & Co billed £112,469 for what I suspect is legal advice on Brent Cross
NSL  billed £561,943.35 which looks like two payments instead of one.
Hags Play Ltd  billed £387,858.28 they are suppliers of playground equipment
Facultatieve Technologies Ltd who have been installing new Cremators at Hendon billed £185,288.

Apologies to readers for my prolonged absence from blogging but I will pull my finger out and get back into the swing of things now the summer holidays are over.