Tuesday 18 July 2023

How covid victims' families are being ignored by Baroness Hallett and how people with disabilities were failed during the pandemic

I haven't blogged for a while as I have been a bit unwell but I received an email yesterday from someone in Barnet who I admire immensely and I feel compelled to pass on his story. 

John  & Ida Sullivan had a daughter, Susan, who I met on a number of occasions at various campaigns and marches about the Barnet Council under the previous Conservative regime. Susan, who had Downs syndrome, was a very lively and cheerful person. I didn't know until I listened to the podcasts, just what a talent Susan had as a swimmer, winning numerous medals at the Special Olympics. Sadly she caught covid at the very start of lockdown in March 2020 and died shortly after. What is shocking are the details John reveals in two podcasts:



What I learned from these podcasts is how people with disabilities were treated differently and inhumanely during covid, how hospitals ignored the knowledge, experience and wishes of carers. According to research 6 out of 10 people who died from covid were disabled. John and his family discovered that because Susan had Downs syndrome and a pacemaker she was denied access to the ITU at Barnet General and deemed "not for resuscitation" even though her family had asked for her to be resuscitated and until covid she had been in excellent health.

John wants to give his evidence of how Susan was unjustly treated to the Covid Inquiry chaired by Baroness Hallett but sadly he will not be able to do so but instead a large amount of personal evidence will be 'amalgamated' by a research company into 'Every Story Matters' where "stories will be collated, analysed and turned into themed reports, which will be submitted into each relevant investigation as evidence. The reports will be anonymised". John doesn't want Susan's story amalgamated and anonymised. All Baroness Hallett was asked to do by the legal team for the bereaved families, was to hear the witness statement of just 20 families, and she refused. Making time for those 20 families seems entirely reasonable and fair in an inquiry where public hearings are scheduled to concluded Summer 2026. Surely there must be room to hear those 20 families in such a lengthy timetable.

At one point in the podcast John says "The only voice my daughter has got is me. I will, to my dying breath, fight to give Susan that voice, and all the other Susans, at the Inquiry."

I hope that Baroness Hallett thinks again and allows the victims' families to give their experience to the Covid Inquiry in person so that the real story of how so many disable people died during covid can be heard and lessons learned.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

Latest spending figures from Barnet and a 'blast from the past'

 Latest supplier payments are out and as the Capita Re contract draws to an end we see how much we are still paying Capita. In February we paid them £2.77 million on the CSG contracts and £503k on the Re contract. That brings the total to date to £641 million and we still have some payments to go. The Re contract has just ended so hopefully we will see the final payments at the end of the month when they are published. Barnet have extended the contract for a number of elements for the CSG contract so we will have a further three years of payments on that contract.

The spend on agency staff remains high and with one more month to go before year end it looks like we have already exceeded last year's spend at more than £17.3 million and are on course to hit the highest level since the peak in 2016/17. I hope someone is keeping a very close eye on this spend.

I was also interested to see a name I recognised from some while ago. Impower Consulting are, I believe, the same company that, alongside Agilisys, previously provided advice to Barnet on the mass outsourcing of services back in 2012 for the Capita contracts. They are definitely the same company who, in 2015, helped outsource the education services including school meals. Sadly the school meals ended up being sub-contracted out to another company so that the Council had no direct contractual relationship with the school meals provider and the education services contract was handed back to Barnet as soon as Covid hit in 2020, three years ahead of the planned contract expiry date. You can read about it here. This year to date we have paid Impower £133,692.96, a not inconsiderable sum. I hope it represents genuine value for money.

We have also spent £110,528 with a company called Peoplescout, a 'talent solutions' company which I think means recruitment. With all of the Re contract being brought back in house I suspect the cost of recruitment companies will be higher than normal but is something I will keep an eye on.

Finally is Brent Cross, where so far this financial year Barnet have spent £50.6 million. This follows on from £77.1 million spent in 2021/22, £70.8 million in 2020/21 and £45.5 million in 2019/20. I hope that all this expenditure is going to be worth it in the end.

I continue to keep an eye on Barnet's spending.

Thursday 2 March 2023

Latest Capita Spending

 Latest spending figures are out and the Capita contract continues to cost us a fortune. In January Capita billed an additional £3.2m on the CSG contract and £620k on the Re contract. The latest running total is £638 million.

The spend on agency staff continues at a worryingly high level and looks like it will hit £18.7 million by the financial year end (31 March).

Monday 13 February 2023

Capita continuing to disappoint in the death throes of the Re Contract

 Apologies for not having posted a blog for a couple of months but I am still monitoring Barnet and the Capita contracts.

The latest spending figures show that Barnet have now paid Capita £634 million which is £273 million more than the contracted value even though some services included in the contract value have already been brought back in house such as Finance.

I watched the Audit committee in January where Capita were requested to attend to talk about their performance. You can watch the Audit Committee meeting here and the part where the director from Capita participates starts at 27 minutes 20 seconds into the meeting. What is most disturbing is that now the contract for Re is coming back in house at the end of March Capita seemed to have given up on rectifying problems that already existed. Performance failure and the inability to meet deadlines was repeatedly raised. At 41mins 14secs, one of the independent members of the Audit Committee does some plain speaking about Capita's performance which has been poor and is definitely worth watching.

While the Capita Re contract will come back in house on 1st April there are still significant elements of the Capita CSG contract will continue to be operated by Capita for another three years and that fills me with serious concerns. Barnet is a case study in how not to outsource services, with overly complex contracts and weak monitoring. I will keep watching Capita's performance.

Monday 28 November 2022

Looking back almost twelve years - the pledge I made that was never accepted

 I was going through Barnet's supplier payments for October 2022 (£71.7 million) and I cast my mind back to January 2011. At that time the council implemented something called Pledgebank where residents could pledge to carry out some activity on behalf of the council/community. My pledge was as follows:

“I will pledge to give up 4 hours of my time every month to scrutinise and challenge all invoices over £10,000 to help the Council reduce unnecessary spending so long as five other people will make a similar time commitment to sit on the panel and that Barnet Council will genuinely participate in the process and listen to the advice and opinions given.”

Strangely, the council never took me up on my pledge although, rather than decline it, they left it hanging, "undecided" as they put it. You can read about it here.

Why I raise it now is that when costs are so tight and we potentially face serious cuts to services due to the impact of the crazy mini budget of 23 September, every penny spent must be carefully watched and if necessary challenged.

This month, excluding redacted payment, we paid 1,021 suppliers £69.27 million. The top 20 suppliers were paid £48.83 million or 70.5% of the total spent. Looking at individual payments there were a total of 14,811 of which 521 were for £10,000 or more, around 3.5% of the total invoices. Excluding payments to statutory authorities, that number falls further. Maybe now is the time to revisit that pledge?

Barnet also spent just over £2 million on agency staff in October which brings the year end forecast to £18.2 million, up on last year and set to be close to the peak year of 2016/17.

And just to update you on Capita, the running total is now £622.74 million. Scrutiny is more important than ever.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Capita still costing us a fortune

 I was a bit worried that the supplier payments still had not been published for September 2022 so I dropped a quick email to Barnet yesterday. Almost by return, they came back saying thanks for pointing it out but they had been published the figures somewhere else on the website by error and that had now been corrected. Since the finance function has come back in house they have always been helpful and very responsive.

What the figures do reveal is the bill for Capita continues to mount even though the end of the contract is in sight. In September we were billed £5.13 million on the Capita Re contract and £3.39 million on the Capita CSG contract, both chunky numbers.

The running total since the start of the contract is now £618.61 million, £257.73 million more than the contracted value.

It is also important to remember that the contracted value includes the cost for services that have already been brought back in house such as finance so the true cost is even higher.

Other noticeable costs include the running total for agency staff at £8.5 million with a forecast year end cost of £17.1 million.

It is also worth noting that, in the first six months of this year, Barnet have paid out £28.57 million on the Brent Cross project. I remain concerned at the level of risk Barnet is exposed to on this massive redevelopment project.

Listening to what is happening at other local authorities, I think we are in for a serious financial squeeze with the impact of inflation on pay rises, increased energy and construction costs, and contracts which include indexation clauses (such as the Capita contract). Now more than ever it is essential that there is a high level of scrutiny on every pound spent within Barnet. 

As always, I will keep monitoring the spending at Barnet.

Thursday 22 September 2022

What we are paying Capita

 Even though large parts of the Capita contract will finish next year, they continue to bill Barnet for their charges. The running total is now £607.7 million, £246.8 million more than the contracted sum.

As readers will know, I also review every single invoice Capita have submitted during the Inspection of Accounts period which give residents the right to inspect bills, invoices and payments. This year it was 381 invoices for a total sum of just under £50 million.

Within that figure there are some interesting numbers. £4.49 million was for 'indexation' of their fees. I have raised this with the council on numerous occasions saying that no other council service is guaranteed to get RPI increases every year so why do Capita? This will be a major issue over this financial year when RPI in August was 14.2% (significantly higher than the more accepted CPI rate).

£805,261 was paid to Capita for 'E Test & Trace' work. I just hope we are able to recover that from central government. We were billed £979,727 for the 'Network Recovery Programme' for which read road repairs. Now my understanding is that this figure is not for things like tarmac and pneumatic drills but simply staff to manage the programme.

Brent Cross is a major project to which Barnet has already made a massive investment including £77 million last year alone. The project management of the new Brent Cross Thameslink station was taken away from Capita and given to Mace but Capita still managed to bill £815,880 in fees.

There remains the infamous gainshare clause whereby Capita get to keep a proportion of any savings they make. It was phased out on procurement after many years of me complaining that it was a flawed system (you can read some of the old examples here) but it is still in operation of some other areas. This year we paid £300,015 gainshare on Council Tax and Housing benefit overpayment recovery. Given that Capita administer both these services one would have hoped they got it right first time. A further £221,160 gainshare was paid for reducing council tax single person discounts.

Capita also set thresholds for the number of council tax and benefits enquires they deal with. If the number is exceeded, we get billed an additional charge known as a volumetric charge. This year that amounted to £122,075, less than in previous years but still a lot of money.

In special projects, £2,749,758.83 was paid to Capita on various elements of the Hendon Hub project, one which has drawn very significant opposition and legal challenges. They also billed £1.66m for various IT projects.

In today's Barnet Times (22 September 2022) we see yet another example of poor performance in the Capita contract and that the representative from Capita refused to attend the Audit Committee to answer any questions. While a decision has been made to end the Capita contract, some elements will be continuing for another 42 months. The need to monitor and challenge the performance and cost of the Capita contract continues until the very last day.