Friday, 14 June 2013

Barnet and the Art of Tautology

On Tuesday I attended the Budget & Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting. I had submitted 30 questions well in advance of the meeting so I was looking forward to some detailed answers. Well that was not to be. Before I go through just a few of the answers I want to make it clear why I asked them. Some people have branded me an "activist" or "troublemaker" or "lefty". Personally I don't think I am any of those. I come from a business background and have dealt with contracts  and contractors over the last 27 years. Barnet is where I live and I want to make sure that the Council are not messing up mine and my children's future. That's all.

So coming back to the questions.

My first question was asking how much additional gross revenue would be required to generate the net income growth of £33.8 million that Capita are promising. The reason for wanting to know that is to understand how much additional business Capita are going to need to generate and what the ,margin is. If the margin is high, say 50% then Capita will need to generate an extra £67 million of gross income which might be achievable. However, if the margin is lower, say 10%, after you take into consideration all of the staff and overhead costs of providing these additional services, that would mean that Capita would have to generate an additional £334 million and that stretches the bounds of possibility. So a logical reason for asking the question and if I was a Councillor it would be critical to my assessment of their proposal. The answer back from Barnet was significant additional gross revenue. In other words we aren't going to answer your question.

Second question asked what circumstances have changes between March 2011 and today to justify a tripling in net income. The answer came back that the March 2011 business case was very prudent. Now this is important because back in 2011the council may decisions about how they would outsource these services based specifically on the business case and it has now been proved to be wrong by a factor of three. To my mind this entirely undermines the credibility of the original business case and the people who put it together as if may have ruled out other options which should have been considered.

The third question related to the cost savings that Capita are promising. In the original business case carried out just 2 years ago Barnet's consultants estimated that cost savings would be £19.7million whereas now Capita are only promising £5.3 million of cost savings. So I asked what reason has been given for savings that are only 26.9% of that originally forecast?  The Council's answer  to why the savings are so much smaller is "The bidder has identified a more modest saving". Now I think that must rank with one of the most useless answers of all time.

Now many of the other responses displayed similar tautological dexterity, however there were a few nuggets of information which came out as follows:

  • Capita will receive £18.5 million in profit and overhead recovery
  • 30% of the staff will be on joint employment contracts, i.e. employed by both the Joint Venture and Barnet Council. How that will work in practice is anyone's guess!
  • The Council can veto any director of the Joint Venture being paid more than £150,000 - so that will mean a bunch of unelected people will sit on the board of a JV company running Barnet and as long as they are paid salaries of £149,999 or less then there will be absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.
  • The extended opening hours at Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium and pre-purchasing of graves which Capita are saying will generate additional revenue, are actually in operation now before the contract has been signed.
  • Capita will not have any contractual requirement to hold open meetings with the public to explain what they are doing but they will "provide Community Liaison Officers to attend Town Centre Forums  - sorry but don't council officers do that already?
My last question asked if the chairman would consider separate workshop meeting so the public could ask more questions to which the response was:

"It is not appropriate for Scrutiny members to hold workshops with members of the public on matters that are the domain of executive decision making". 

As it so happens I was reading just yesterday about a Scrutiny Camp run by the Centre for Scrutiny Studies. Take a look and see examples of best practice where local authorities engage with and involve local people, something that simply does not happen in Barnet.

I would add that actually there were 77 questions in total asked and the answers do make interesting reading which you can see here. Barnet is fortunate in having a very inquisitive and questioning resident base and that should be something the Council embraces not evades.

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