Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Barnet Pay £17.5 Million to Capita in June

On Monday night I gave evidence at the Performance and Contract management working group which is undertaking a 3 year review of the Capita CSG contract. One of the areas I covered was the increasing cost of the Capita contract specifically in areas such as special projects and contract variations.
The evidence I gave  included the table below:

This shows that we have spend £33.44 million more on the CSG contract than was originally envisaged. (It doesn't include the spending on the other Capita contract, Re). I was encouraged to hear  Cllr Zinkin say that this was an area they were looking into having heard my concern expressed about this previously.

However, yesterday the supplier payments for June were published and guess who was a massive recipient?  Yes Capita!

On the two contracts, CSG and Re, Capita were paid £17.5 million in June so, by the looks of it, a lot more special projects and contract variations.

In terms of Capita's performance, I also submitted some charts on telephone performance over the last 12 month. Whilst the average figures say they are meeting the target of answering calls within 20 seconds, I like to look into the detail of the figures. Some calls are automated where you say the name of the person you want to speak to and these calls are all classified as meeting the service level target at 100%. However, this offsets some poor performance on other calls.The charts below are for three specific service areas and shows, on a monthly basis, what percentage of calls are answered within the agreed target and how many calls are abandoned - that is residents give up after waiting too long for their call to be answered.

This shows that over the last year calls to Housing Benefit have only been answered within the agreed service level target once and that over the year more than 6,400 calls have been abandoned.

Calls regarding Council Tax have only hit the agreed service level target twice in the last year and more than 8000 calls have been abandoned.

Finally, in terms of Adult Social Care, the 20 second target is never hit and almost 4,800 calls were abandoned.  That is exceptionally worrying but worse, I seem to be the only person who is highlighting this problem. (Calls for April, May and June were not recorded in the performance figures).

I made the point to the working group that staff turnover and the failure to retain staff is a major contributing factor to both meeting these targets and to ensuring residents are getting the best quality service from knowledgeable and experienced staff. This runs throughout the contracts not just on answering telephones yet Barnet do not measure Capita against staff turnover Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), something which I hope they will address as part of this review.

I have also submitted my evidence on the 324 contractual commitments that were made by Capita which you can read (or not) here and have asked the working group to make sure that someone actually checks to see if they have been honoured.

I hope that the working group really scrutinise the CSG contract performance and, as I said at the meeting, several hundred hard working Barnet Council employees were made redundant to implement this contract. We owe it to those people to at least check that the promises made are being delivered.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Lack of transparency on the NLBP Redevelopment ignores residents' concerns

Guest Blog
Set out below is a guest blog from the residents of Weirdale and Asbourne Avenue next to the North London Business Park.

"The London Borough of Barnet are on a mission, to build on every conceivable piece of land including back gardens with little thought or consideration to local residents, the infrastructure, environment or the community it serves.

This is not a new strategy but it is strategy about to go in to overdrive with the proposed redevelopment of the North London Business Park (NLBP) by Comer Homes.

Despite significant opposition to the original plans by hundreds of local residents and without keeping residents informed the council march on with their close colleagues at Comer Homes and friendly management consultants Capita. All parties have done a great job in NOT keeping the community informed. Barnet’s philosophy on consultation seems to be a tick box exercise - information regarding the development and planning process has been very difficult to find and decipher, with residents not informed of a key event and decision.  As a lay person it seems Barnet want to intentionally exclude the public’s involvement and right comment in order to push through this development with minimal intrusion.

Comer Homes are no different, they started with fancy brochures and a consultation process that took place right at the beginning but I for one have never heard from the developer again despite signing up for regular updates,

Whilst we accept progress and understand the need for additional housing in the borough there is a way of doing so without so many controversial measures. The plans for the NLBP are a complete contradiction to previous Conservative views. Proposing residential Tower blocks at a time where most have or are being brought down in London is nonsensical.

The independent charity Policy Exchange clearly advised Councils and Government back in 2013 that, "High-rise blocks should be knocked down and replaced with terraced homes to help tackle social problems and remove 'no-go' areas"

"The report by Policy Exchange claims terraced streets and low-rise flats could achieve the same density of housing as high rise."

How much of the housing will be affordable or in sustainable areas with a quality of life? This is currently a brown field site which has had some recreational playing fields yet the proposal is to turn the site in to a housing estate with a disproportionate amount of high rise buildings. It’s should not just be about building homes but also what they look like and the surroundings they exist in but this type of outlook only appears in developer’s brochures.

In reality the Developers in this case Comer Homes are looking to maximise their return from the land they purchased many years ago and it is the Councils role, elected by the people for the people to ensure that developers don’t get the best return on their investment but that the local community get the best additions to housing and services in their borough.

A good example of where this is NOT happening is at the North end of the NLBP site where plans are being agreed in outline to allow Emergency and Pedestrian access to the site via  Ashbourne Ave / Weirdale Ave. Now this access point has been closed / restricted for generations. The only access ever allowed was pedestrian access for those who worked on the site many years ago via a manned gate.

Since then the number of cars in the area has increased significantly and whilst the roads continue to be relatively quiet compared to main thoroughfares the sheer number of vehicles has forced many residents to invest in off street parking. Whilst this has helped the fact remains that most days and especially at weekends and evenings it is a difficult road to navigate with parked cars everywhere. So the idea of emergency vehicles plus additional cars parking in Ashbourne Ave / Weirdale Ave so that people can use the pedestrian access as a short cut is a ridiculous and dangerous suggestion and NOT in the current residents/ public’s interest and only in the interest of the developer.

There is a reasonable assumption that the Council should always remain completely independent. In Barnet there is a strong opinion amongst many residents that there is an unhealthy and not in the public interest relationship that has developed between Barnet Council, the Developer Comer Homes and the Consultants Capita. This relationship needs to be independently investigated before the NLBP plans are considered further. There is a significant conflict of interest between the three parties who share office space at the NLBP, in fact it is my understanding that Comer are the Councils landlords currently on the NLBP site.

The Residents associations won’t go quietly and are prepared to turn to the law if necessary to ensure that the development of the site is in the best interest of the people living in the vicinity of the NLBP.

The residents surrounding the NLBP are tired of being pushed around by the council who are happy to trade with developers as if there is no impact to local residents.

The local MP Theresa Villiers and Councilor Lisa Rutter are supportive of the residents’ concerns,

The Conservative MP said: “I will fight these plans. I accept the need for new homes but eight storey blocks of flats are completely unacceptable.

“That kind of development would be wholly out of character with the local area; it would disrupt traffic; and put real pressure on local services. If housing is to be built on this site, it must be far less dense in order to avoid impacting on surrounding streets.

“I also strongly oppose any proposed access through Weirdale or Ashbourne Avenue,  Villiers, as well as Councilor Lisa Rutter, have demanded urgent meetings with the council and developers to set out their strong oppositions to the plans."

For further information email

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

My Take on Brexit - Why Labour needs to stop in-fighting and come up with a credible industrial and employment strategy

As a Remainer I was desperately disappointed at the Brexit vote, but we are where we are and we have to get on with it. However, the issue that strikes me most now is how Labour have failed to address the issues that clearly resulted in so many Labour supporters outside London voting for Brexit and how there seems to be no clear strategy for moving forward.

In the run up to the referendum, the debate was entirely sterile, arguing around tightly defined topics with no real thought about how to plan for a new model that would provide an engaging vision of the future Britain within the EU.

If I start with immigration, part of the issue, as I see it, is the large number manual unskilled and semi skilled jobs that have attracted so many EU migrants. The root of this problem, from my perspective, is the failure of the UK education system to train up the UK workforce appropriately and the consistent failure of UK Governments to develop an industrial strategy that encourages the growth of skilled and semi skilled employment.

The Work Foundation generates some fascinating statistics about both employment and under employment and the skill levels of our workforce. The push for growth in the University sector suggests that by 2024 there will be 5 million more people with higher education qualifications yet only 2 million growth high skilled jobs. At the same time there are no signs of any growth in those people holding NVQ3 qualifications. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2014, 58.8% of graduates had jobs which did not require a degree. It strike me that some of these semi skilled and trades jobs are being filled by EU migrants simply because we haven’t trained enough UK staff with the correct skills to fill them. We have created the vacuum which EU migrants have filled. That is not their fault - they are fulfilling a need.

To my mind you can look at the situation we are in in two ways; welcome EU migrants and let the underskilled and underemployed continue to resent our EU and see vindication in the Brexit vote or set out a much more comprehensive plan to reskill our national workforce giving them a better chance to compete for those semi skilled and skilled jobs, something that will be essential if we opt for the "Norwegian" option/EEA membership which will still require free movement of labour.

In January this year Sir Michael Wilshaw roundly condemned the Further Education sector yet it is clear that government funding to this sector has been cut repeatedly, creating and perpetuating the shortcomings of the FE sector  An example of this is the skills shortage in the construction sector. Indeed back in January David Thomas of Barratt Developments described the skills shortage as “the number one challenge for housebuilders”. With a strong, vibrant FE sector producing skills workers for sectors that need them we could be filling that vacuum not making it worse.

I was discussing this with my sister, a retired teacher. Before retiring she was responsible for for NVQ courses at her secondary school. At its peak they were running 23 separate NVQ courses giving children recognised and  desirable qualifications and a direct gateway into good quality jobs. Change of government, change of policy and those courses disappeared denying many children an opportunity to succeed, an opportunity to enter a career path, an opportunity to earn and contribute to society.

There is also a massive problem of underemployment, people who are in part time work but who would like to work more. Again the Work Foundation provide statistics on this:

The table below summarises the main findings.
2015 - Q4 
Unemployment rate (%)
Under-employment rate (%)
 Young (16-24)
That suggests there is still a lot of slack in the economy. Short term underemployment has become entrenched as long term underemployment because the government has failed to address and allowed employers to exploit it with zero hours contracts. It may give employers some flexibility but it is a devastating waste of resources, especially young people who could be contributing so much more to the economy and reduce the burden on the social security budget.

To my mind we should be stimulating the economy to take up that slack, to take people out of low pay and benefits and to give them spending power that will in turn help stimulate growth. But this takes us to the second area where politicians have failed.

If you look at the Government’s Industrial Strategy page it sums up  that we don’t really have a proper strategy, just a few initiatives which don’t seem to address the underlying issues of British industry in a cogent and coordinated fashion. We need a coherent long term plan which sets out a clear path to growth and fuller employment with decent skilled and well paid jobs served by a well trained and well paid staff. Both Chuka Umumma and Vince Cable talked about the "deafening silence" of this government's industrial strategy

From a personal perspective, at a very micro level, I was pitching for a contract in Australia. To get round the red tape necessary to compete in the Australian market I rang up the UKTI team, a Government department to help exporters, and asked if they could help answer a fewer questions relating to employment and contract legislation. Having been put through to the Australia desk I was told they only supported defense contract bids. So no help there. As it turned out I won the tender but with no help whatsoever from this government. Maybe I was just unlucky but I suspect that departmental cutbacks and a lack of clear strategy were contributing factors to the lack of support.

The Tories have demonstrated over the last 6 years that they have no ability to deliver a new vision for Britain, just short term gimmicks and knee jerk reactions that have culminated in this disastrous situation we are now faced with. The Tory party are at war with themselves and that is all they are focused on at the minute.I have no belief that they will ever take a long term view about our economy and our role in th world market. It is all about short term tactics and point scoring off one another.

However, seem no better. If all those Labour MP’s were to stop messing about calling for votes of no confidence in Corbyn and actually come up with a clear plan of what Britain could look like, how we could rebalance the economy and generate well paid skilled jobs for well trained UK residents, then the issue of migration, and our lack of confidence in the EU would drop away much as it did in the early 2000's when the economy was storming along, would become much less of an issue. Indeed, they might actually start to win over a much greater majority of the electorate. Ignoring what 17 million people have said is pointless because it means you will never get re-elected. What we need are solutions that address those concerns but in a constructive and positive manner that benefits everyone not in-fighting that benefits no one.

Bill Clinton coined the phase, "It's the economy stupid" and that holds good today as it ever did. The Brexit vote has just made that more difficult but now more than ever Labour has to come up with a strong and credible industrial and employment strategy that will help get people back into good quality well paid jobs.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Barnet's Performance and Contract Management Committee - 20 Questions

On 31 May is Barnet's quarterly Performance and Contract Management Committee. The papers have been published in advance of the meeting  which you can read here. Having spent 5 hours reading all of the reports I have submitted a list of questions which I have set out below:

In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix H

  • Please can you clarify how the reduction in Single Person Discount is calculated to arrive at the net figure and, for example, is a saving made in 2015/16 treated as an on-going saving for the purposes of gainshare calculation or just a one off saving for that year only. 
  • Please can you clarify how the Additional Council Tax Income  is calculated to arrive at the net figure. To what extent is the additional income from the additional 2,732 households treated as part of the calculation and why is 100% of the net income paid to Capita in Gainshare. 
  • Can you clarify if Capita have achieved the 98.5% council tax collection rate and how that impacted on the Gainshare payment.  
  • Why did you set a guarantee target in 2015/16 that is £3.3 million lower than for 2014/15 when recurring savings on renegotiated contract continue to attract gainshare payments for Capita?
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix H(iii)
  • Please could you clarify of what the £242,615.87 true up payment comprises?
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix I
  • Who authorised the spend of £276,094 for an accelerated refresh of employee computing devices so all devices are refreshed after 18 months instead of 5 years. Was the procurement handled by Capita and did they generate a gainshare saving on this purchase?
  • Please can you clarify what the £9.7 million contract true up of third party contracts comprises?
  • For the library service call cost of £453,000 what does that work out per call?
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix J
  • How many letters of action have been received in the last 6 months and how does that reconcile with the risk - Resident Engagement - ORG0029 being rated as medium to low 
  • Risk  - Increasing costs of Adult Social Care - ORG0042  states that there is a risk that the pressure on Adults budgets caused by increasing demographics and complexity will not be contained within existing budgets and the risk matrix suggests the probability of this happening is “unlikely”. Do you think that is an accurate reflection of the current situation
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix J
  • Do you really think that extending the NSL contract till October 2018 sends the right signal to Barnet residents given the parking contracts scores so badly on the resident satisfaction survey
In relation to agenda item 12
  •  In light of the referral from Audit Committee and given that Internal Audit recently said:

a)    There is a lack of formal documentation held by the Council of the first line defence activities operating at Capita. For example, this may include access to procedure manuals to assess whether the control framework in place mitigates the Council’s key risks. This was highlighted as a finding in relation to the accounts payable process where there was no up to date procedure document in place.
b)    That currently Internal and External Audit activities provide the only evaluation of the design and operation of the controls in place within Capita processes to mitigate the Council’s key risks... These form part of the third line of defence in the assurance framework. This testing approach is generally retrospective and would only identify issues after they have occurred, possibly a significant period of time following the initial non-compliance. We did not see evidence of real time monitoring of the operation of Capita controls.
c)     Although some second line management oversight activities were found to be operating effectively, there are some second line activities which are currently recorded as the ‘first line’ of activities within the Commercial team’s analysis. These should be moved within the updated version of the assurance map.
They also noted thatperformance management information is not independently validated by the Council” and that “not all SRO’s have an allocated deputy. Placing reliance on one individual may result in contingency issues when officers leave the Council either permanently or for extended periods”
On that basis are you sure that the clienting arrangements are satisfactory?

In relation to agenda item 12
  • Do you think it is appropriate for Council Senior Responsible Officers to be commissioned to assess delivery of the contract against outcome specifications, method statements and contractual commitments given that they are fulfilling this role already. While it will undoubtedly be useful to take their evidence surely it would be more appropriate for someone independent such as internal audit or an external body to make that assessment of delivery?
  • Please can you clarify the contents of the benchmarking survey and can you confirm that it will also include examples from private sector partnerships?
  • Will any members’ working group meetings be open to the public?
  • When will the public engagement take place and what steps are you going to take to ensure that the public are actively involved in the process?
  • Who will be responsible for reconciling whether the commitments set out in Schedule 35 of the contract have been delivered?
  • What contingency plans have been made to consider terminating part or all of the contract if the 3 year review is unsuccessful and agreement on changes cannot be reached?
  • When will you be taking evidence from the Leadership Panel?
  • Will you be publishing Capita’s proposals of new opportunities for improving service quality and reducing costs throughout the Contract Period?

I will update you after I receive answers to my questions.

Friday, 29 April 2016

£173.3 million paid to Capita - so where are the savings?

Updated below:
The March supplier payments have just been published and we now have a clear picture of payments for the whole financial year to Capita. Between the two contracts, CSG and Re, Capita have received a total of £66.3 million. That is up £14.5 million on last year's payments, a 28% increase.

The budgeted cost was £41.7 million so the extra £24.6 million is for other payments including special projects and gainshare.  At a recent committee meeting it was conceded that on some of the Special Projects we are paying consultancy rates for work that would have previously been done by salaried council staff. The core contract is cheaper but we pay for everything over and above that contract and that is where Capita make their money.

One of the other massive overspends is on the interim and agency staff contract with Comensura.

Back in 2012 the contract was costing us £12.5 million but it was at a time when the council was in the midst of the outsourcing process and staff were leaving to avoid being made redundant. With the appointment of Capita it was anticipated that the agency staff costs would fall but in reality they have done the opposite. This financial year they have hit an all time high of £17.9 million. Last year I said this was a contract out of control and sadly that has proved the case. To make matters worse Comensura is on of the contracts on which Capita are paid gainshare. They are supposedly saving us money for which Barnet pays them a hefty share, now in excess of £1 million.

In total, since the start of the Capita contracts in 2013, they have been paid a total of £173,384,365.48 Yes £173 million in just two and a half years.

Yet again, I repeat my challenge to Richard Cornelius in that I will pay £250 to the charity of his choice if he can show me how this contract with Capita is saving us money.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

East Barnet Library - A valuable community resource destroyed

I am sure everyone is now aware that East Barnet is one of the four libraries that has been designated a Partnership library. This means that it will be run by volunteers with a target of opening just 15 hours a week.   I was there last Saturday afternoon and it looked like Barnet had already abandoned the library. Of the six computers on the ground floor, four were out of order. Two are in the children's area and two of the four adult computers. The children's computers are of course turned off because of the IT failure as there is still no filter system in place - the system isn't fixed no matter how often Conservative Councillors say it is. The other two computers had been out of action for three weeks but because of the much bigger IT failure, they had been given a low priority for repair. Several people tried to use the automated issuing machines but couldn't because of course the IT system isn't fixed and librarians were having to deal with individuals to check their membership records and update the system with data that has been lost.

Roll forward a week and today I have just paid another visit to the library. The four computers that were out of order last week are still out of order - the filter system on the children's computer still isn't working SEVEN WEEKS after the IT failure. What I also noticed was how empty the shelves are looking; many had bookends to hold half a shelf of books together, other shelves were completely empty. It just feels like Barnet have walked away. I always used to go to the stand where the new library books are displayed but it was very sparsely arranged. As I understand the situation, because of the massive exercise to repopulate the database with all the existing stock they have stopped or slowed down new book purchases. Either that, or as is looking increasingly obvious, Barnet council have made a clear decision to stop investing in East Barnet Library now it is going to be transferred to another organisation, whoever that may be.

Talking to someone last night they were saying not as many people use East Barnet library these days but frankly I'm not surprised if it is being run into the ground. Exactly the same thing happened before the Capita contract was let - the existing service was allowed to collapse so that Capita could come in and tell everyone what a wonderful job they have done to improve the service.

But what a great resource the library is for the local community. People reading newspapers, children reading books, people using the working computers, people borrowing books. As a small business owner I can't afford, nor have the space for, an A3 colour photocopier. But there is one at East Barnet Library which I often pop in to use.  Some Conservative Councillors measure a library's success simply by the number of books they lend but libraries are so much more than this.

What also upsets me is the lack of a visionary strategy for Barnet Council which could have seen libraries become community offices of the council. Barnet have commenced work on building a new 90,000 sqft council office in Colindale at a cost of £34 million. The parking will be very limited not just for the staff but for visitors to the offices so getting from East Barnet to Colindale will be a real problem. The library strategy identified 47,000 sqft of "spare" space across all 14 libraries, more than half of the total space being built at Colindale. Why couldn't the council have embraced a localised strategy with as many customer facing services co-located in libraries as possible and with a much smaller core service in the main building. Big savings on construction, less issues with parking as staff could park at the libraries, services accessible to local people in their local community. Decent technology means that staff can work in dispersed locations comparatively easily and it certainly would exemplify the council's "single point of contact" strategy but in person rather than on an automated telephone system.

Saving money on libraries only to spend it on new council offices is not what I, nor I suspect what most people, voted for. But then again when has this council worried about what local people think.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Contract Variations - The One Barnet moneyspinner predicted by by so many including a Tory Councillor

Back in 2012 I remember attending a critical meeting in the run up to the decision to award the CSG contract to Capita. What was so memorable was how Cllr Hugh Rayner actually vocalised what everyone was thinking - when you have a contract how do you avoid being ripped off by the supplier with contract variations.

"I let out contracts myself to various customers and what I learnt in the contract is the word change or variance, because I know they are tied into me for the contract and this where I make all my profit and make up for the low price at the beginning"

A response was given saying we have to be robust.... blah blah blah, yet everyone at the time knew that this is exactly what was going to happen.

Thanks to the Barnet Bugle who recorded the meeting and this particular statement from Cllr Rayner

Since the start of the contract there have been a number of variations but buried in the papers of the latest Performance and Contract Monitoring committee there is a schedule of the contract variations to date. The report notes that nine contract variations were approved during the quarter. Six have a financial impact accounting for an increased cost of £1,933,025. 

But look a bit closer in a separate appendix  (p69) and that is a net figure offset by some savings. One of the largest contract variations  was as follows:

Contractual third party contracts true up in line with clause 7 of the contract and update Schedule 24 with final list of suppliers and the charges paid Financial impact of the life of the contract £9.7 million

Well that's fine you may say they are making savings as well but actually some of these are savings linked to fewer staff having to be made redundant at the time of handover because so many had already left the council and from reduced pension contributions. Indeed the largest offset was an amendment to schedule 1 and 4 to reflect the return of the Repairs and Maintenance budget for the Civic Estate to the Council in line with all other managed budgets which amounted to £6.5 million.

You may recall but back in 2014 I drew attention to one such contract variation to do with calls for libraries being directed to the Coventry call centre instead of direct to the libraries at a cost of £453,000 for the first two years of the contract. I estimated that this worked out at just over £8 per call which seems pretty expensive to me especially as so many of the calls were unresolved.

The rights and wrong of the various contract amendments is almost irrelevant. The key issue is that this contract is proving more expensive than originally envisaged because of contract variations and that extra money we now have to pay could have funded other services such as the meals on wheels or reduced the cuts to the library service. As I keep saying "Show me the savings"