Monday, 2 March 2015

Cutting Councillor Allowances - an alternative view

Barnet will be discussing Cllr allowances at the meeting on Tuesday, the same meeting where they will be receiving a petition on library closures.

Cllrs currently receive an allowance of £10,597 and, in addition, certain Cllrs receive a special responsibility allowance. These range from an additional £35,000 for Richard Cornelius as leader of the council down to an additional £2,368 for Chairmen (even women are Chairmen) of the Residents Forums and Vice Chairmen of 8 committees. 17 Chairmen of committees receive an additional allowance of £15,333. This ranges from committees which sit frequently such as the Planning Committee - 10/11 times a year, to those which sit just four times a year such as the Housing Committee or Community Leadership Committee. The Licensing Committee Chairman attracts a lower special responsibility allowance of £8,852 but in 2014 this committee only sat twice.

From what I can see, 26 of the 32 Conservative councillors receive some form of special responsibility allowance whereas only one Labour Cllr receives an additional allowance, Alison Moore, as leader of the major opposition group. Some Cllrs work hard for which they receive their main allowance and I understand why the leader and opposition leader receive an additional allowance as they have to devote a great deal of time to the running of the council but the rest of the special responsibility allowances seem to me like a way to reward loyalty within the Conservative group.

If we really want to make cuts, I would do away with all special responsibility allowances other than for Cllr R Cornelius and Cllr Moore. If committee chairmen didn't receive an allowance then maybe the council would rationalise the number of committees.

By way of example of how the current system isn't working is Danny Seal, the globe trotting Cllr for Hampstead Garden Suburb who has only attended 9 of the 15 meetings he should have attended, or just 60%, see the details here. However, in addition to his standard allowance of £10,597 he receives an additional allowance of £2,368 for his role as Chairman of the Finchley & Golders Green Residents Forum. Imagine an employee turning up only 60% of the time and asking for extra payment. They would be shown the door.

By cutting out special responsibility allowances it would reduce the allowances bill by approximately £300,000 a year and in addition would do away with the patronage system that buys loyalty with committee chairmanship roles.

Perhaps Cllrs should consider this before they go making cuts to the library and other essential services which residents value on Tuesday.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Only £1 million in January for Capita

Barnet's January supplier payments are published and there are just a few items of interest. Capita billed a modest £1,059,978.80 significantly down on the £16.69 million paid in December.

The bill for Comensura in January was £1,304,913.12 which shows no sign of reducing. In December Barnet made an advance payment to Comensura of £1.25 million something which I queried with the Council. In response to and FOI request they stated:

"The Comensura payment prior to Christmas was to ensure business continuity and cover payment to agencies for provision of a temporary workforce during the Christmas closure period. This was offset by a credit note in the first week of January by Comensura to LBB."

 Frankly this doesn't wash. The requirement for temporary or interim staff during the Christmas closure period is minimal specifically because the council is closed and the £1.25 million represents an entire month's typical payments. According to the January supplier payments the credit note was paid on 30 January. So for a month from 23 December till 30 January Comensura had an interest free loan of £1.25 million. I wish someone would be that kind to me because I reckon that is worth around £5,000.

On a few of the minor payments, I'm not sure why Re spent £2,374.98 with Evans Cycles. Perhaps they are getting staff out on their bikes? It looks like CSG are considering who they bank with as they have spent £3,276.20 with Focus on Banking who are consultants that specialise in reducing banking costs and work extensively with local authorities.

Barnet spent £11,925 with M.E.L. Research Ltd who help council with services like:

  • Residents Surveys
  • Budget Consultations 
  • Research on access to services

Just a shame that having spent all that money to consult with residents, Barnet consistently ignores what they say.

Parking contractor NSL was paid £278,495.62 in January but I wonder if we are getting value for money from this contractor - Any views Mr Mustard?

Penna Consultants were paid £19,500 for "Employee Expenses" for which I think it means payment to a consultant but commercial confidentiality prevents understanding any more.

Finally the bill from Vodafone was pretty high at £166,630.05 in just one month and one I just can't reconcile. I think it needs a bit more attention for cost cutting rather than cutting the library services.

I will keep watching supplier payments - because someone has to!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Barnet Housing Commission - Do we need some radical solutions?

Last night Mrs Angry and myself were invited to give evidence to Barnet Labour Housing Commission. There were several other speakers including an very interesting and helpful speech about cooperative housing groups which seem to make a great deal of sense. Make sure you read Mrs Angry's blog here setting out her speech and I have set out below a copy of my presentation. The purpose of my presentation was not to come up with a final solution but to stimulate debate on some new ideas.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Christmas cheer for Capita as they bill Barnet £16.69 million in December

Barnet's supplier payments for December reveal £16.69 million paid to Capita even after two credit notes for a total of £1.5 million. Barnet keep saying these payments are in line with the payments schedule but I am at a loss to see how they can have billed so much in just one month.

It also brings the running total of payments to Capita of £102.9 million a staggering sum and one which I do not believe can be reconciled against the contract that we were all told would save money.

In addition, Comensura, the company that provides agency and interim staff to Barnet billed £2.66 million in December, a vast amount and more than double the average month spend. It includes a single invoice for precisely £1.25 million billed to the Customer Support Group run by Capita. Such a large round figure looks to me like a separate payment not the reconciliation of agency and interim staff invoices. Cllr Mark Shooter raised the issue of Comensura cost back in July and was told they were going down. Well Cllr Shooter they aren't - they are rocketing and something stinks.

I remain concerned that having handed over the running of the council to Capita  no one is actually keeping an eye on just how much money is being spent. Where is the scrutiny, where are the checks and balances who is actually checking Capita and Comensura?

Thousands of lost voters in Barnet at the general election

My son is 17 and will be 18 before the general election. Traditionally a household electoral registration form was sent out in the Autumn identifying those in the household  who were on the electoral register and allowing you to add in someone who was 16 or 17. In September/October 2013 I duly added my son's name to the form. In the Autumn 2014 they changed the system - this is not a Barnet idea, it is a Government change. This form omitted my son's details so I rang Barnet who said they were working through the new system and it would get picked up.

With less than 100 days to the election I rang them again and found that my son's details are not on the register - because he isn't 18 yet and he has to actively register on line with his national insurance number. Is he going to do that without prompting  - definitely not. Does he know where his national insurance number is definitely not.

I wonder how many other teenagers for which this will be their first general election are going to miss out on their vote. Are they told about the need to register their vote at school - no. Have we had any leaflets through the door about it - no.

Expect thousands of teenagers in Barnet and in every other constituency to lose their vote at this election, something which could alter the make up of our next government.

If you have a teenager who hasn't registered to vote and will be 18 by the time of the general election make sure they go here and register.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The latest outsourcing - a case study in political dogma

"Barnet’s Catering Service provides approximately 3.23 million primary schools meals each year and approximately 1.14million secondary meals. The service provides freshly prepared meals cooked mainly on site from fresh ingredients in accordance with Government Food Standards. The service also holds the Soil Association Food for Life Silver Catering Mark which means farm assured meat, free range eggs and some organic foods". It also makes an annual operating profit of £190,470.

Barnet plan to outsource the school meals service as part of a larger package of council educational services including Ed Psych Team, Educational Welfare Services, and the SEN Placements and Performance Team to name just a few. One of the drivers for the council's outsourcing strategy is "the changing educational landscape" in other words the introduction of free school and schools becoming academies.

The business case, unsurprisingly, says that the in-house team should not be allowed to bid because only a private sector organisation has the skills and freedom to make money. Now what I found most alarming is the causal attitude the people who write these business cases take to hard evidence. The business case that justifies outsourcing all these critical services can be read here. As is so often the case in these manufactured documents, they slant the findings to justify their decision. In particular this business case says that the private sector -  a "joint" venture will generate significant new revenues. Currently the schools meals service generates 79% of all the revenues from the proposed services at a profit margin of 2.7% an entirely reasonable margin on a school meals service.

I asked some questions about this at the committee meeting last week and the answers I received were alarming to say the least. The business case suggests that a joint venture would generate £1,847,000 in new income - but this is profit, not gross revenue. The business case suggests that the margin on this business will be 20% so that means they will need to generate £9 million of additional turnover  - a doubling of the current turnover. By generating this additional £1.8  million of profit the business case shows how a joint venture will mean that cuts to the service will not be necessary.

However, the key issue is whether the margin of 20% is a realistic one. For school catering it clearly isn't. So what happens if the margin is 10% - well that means the joint venture will have to generate £18 million of new revenues and if the margin is 5% - still better than just about any other school meal service, they will need to generate an additional £36 million of gross revenues. Now it may be that they can generate the additional from other services but they will have to work incredibly hard if they are to generate £9 million of non schools meal revenues - the equivalent of carrying out the services for four other boroughs the size of Barnet in the first year. The lack of business sense and the unflinching belief in outsourcing everything is terrifying especially when driven by zealots who accept everything they are told without question.

Your Choice Barnet was, in effect, outsourced to Barnet Homes - an arms length management organisation - with a business plan predicated on growing revenues, something it completely failed to do. This has resulted in staff  pay cuts of 9.5% along with with to services. It looks like the educational services are set to repeat exactly the same mistakes.

Barnet Libraries Consultation: A Sham

A Joint Letter from the Barnet Bloggers to the Leader of Barnet Council

Barnet Bloggers are appalled by reported plans to outsource libraries and make them available to commercial exploitation by companies such as Starbucks and Waterstones. The real purpose of proposals to cut and shut libraries in Barnet is now clear.

In April 2013, a High Court ruling found that Barnet Council had failed in its obligation properly to consult residents over the imposition of the whole scale privatisation of local public services, known then as ‘One Barnet’.

The Judicial Review which had reached this conclusion found that legal challenge had been brought too late, and therefore the two massive contracts with Capita, agreed by the Conservative administration, are now in place for a period of at least ten years.

After narrowly being returned to power the new administration has, as predicted, rushed ahead with new plans to outsource most of the remaining services, at the same time as launching plans to impose devastating cuts in budget.

As a result, we now face devastating plans to slash the funding of our library service by a staggering 60%, a disproportionate and punitive amount which is clearly agreed as a means of preparing the argument for yet another act of privatisation.
Councillors have been presented with a report with three equally damaging options for the future of Barnet Libraries, and residents encouraged to take part in what we believe to be a deeply flawed and subjective consultation process, one which an independent report has described as not fit for purpose:

Now we are faced with new information which, if true, would suggest that far from learning the lessons of the Judicial Review, the authority’s latest consultation process, as well as being deliberately designed to minimise opposition to the three options, is itself a complete irrelevance, and that the outcome of the council’s consideration of the three options is already agreed in principle, if not in detail.
And if this is dialogue is typical of the way in which potential business partners negotiate with the authority, it would also raise serious and wider questions over the integrity of the procurement process in Barnet, past and present.

Whatever the opinions of residents, it seems that there will be closure and sale of library buildings, and the outsourcing of our library service, engineered so as to provide opportunities for commercial exploitation by private contractors.

Such an outcome would be simply unacceptable, and indeed would be an unlawful decision taken in complete disregard of the democratic process.
We ask Councillor Richard Cornelius, leader of the Conservative administration, immediately to halt the discredited consultation currently in place, remove the library proposals from the budget cuts about to be imposed, and to launch an independent investigation into the alleged subversion of the due process of democratic engagement that should decide the governance of our borough, and hold the authority to account in a way that is fair, and transparent.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Notes for editors/background:
In April 2013, a High Court ruling found that Barnet Council had failed in its obligation properly to consult residents over the imposition of the whole scale privatisation of local public services, known then as ‘One Barnet’.

The Judicial Review which had reached this conclusion found that legal challenge had been brought too late, and therefore the two massive contracts with Capita, agreed by the Conservative administration, are now in place for a period of at least ten years.