I turned up slightly late for last night's Contract Monitoring committee meeting. Walking into the room I was shocked by the phalanx of men in suits. Capita were clearly keen to make a show of force. All I would say is that by the end of the evening Capita will have been left in no doubt that Barnet is going to be a challenging contract.
I only caught the tail end of public questions about Your Choice Barnet, asked by Janet Leifer. Sadly she did not get many sensible answers.
Next up was the Kier contract. They are the construction company who have built/rebuilt a number of schools in the borough. Everyone talked about what lovely buildings they were but I was surprised no one talked about value for money especially as Keir was one of the firms fined £1.7 m (reduced from the original fine of £17.9m on appeal) by the Office of Fair Trading back in 2008. This followed an investigation into what is called cover pricing where firms agree to inflate bids artificially and school construction was a specific sector where this practice took place. You can read more about it here.
Next up was HBLaw (London Borough of Harrow legal department), Barnet's outsourced legal services provider. Cllr Schneiderman asked why the key performance Indicators (KPI's) were not in place when the contract was signed. Good question but no sensible answer. Cllr Cook asked how the contract could be identified as operating well if it was running over budget and customers believed it was underperforming. No real response. (Just wait till they see that HB Law billed the Council £1,078,247.08 in July).
It was then time for questioning of Barnet Homes. There was discussion about placing people in accommodation out of the borough and the rising debt of tenants who have been on the wrong end of the bedroom tax. Cllr Ross Houston made the obvious statement that the elephant in the room was the lack of affordable housing supply. Yes, he was right but the Councillors simply closed their eyes, held their noses and carried on regardless. Reference was also made to the tough new placement policy (potential tenants get one offer take it or leave it) and how this was affecting their ability to achieve their targets. Sadly tenants who have been hit by the bedroom tax are now £50,000 in arrears. That is a disaster for families who already struggling.
Next up were the NSCSO and DRS contracts. It was quickly established that this related to the pre-Capita stage so there was little questioning. Cllr Brian Salinger did remark that he had called the council and asked to speak to the Leader but no one knew what he was talking about. "We will look into it" was the response.
Finally we came to the highlight of the evening, the presentation from Capita which you can read for yourself here. Right from the start there was a tension, an unspoken sense of impending trouble. Mr Mark Wyllie introduced himself and his team. He started by talking about wanting to build a new relationship with residents . Oh dear, it was bit like treading on a landmine, an explosion of jeers from the public gallery. He then went on to talk about the £16 million Capita were investing in the services "Lies" was heard from the back (or was that me). We of course now know that actually it is Barnet Council who are stumping up that £16m for investment as confirmed to me in writing by the Council's Chief Operating Officer. There were a number of questions from Councillors. Perhaps one of the most interesting related to the joint employment contracts. It relates to 82 staff who, for most of their time, will be Capita employees but for statutory duties will remain Barnet employees. When Mr Wyllie was asked how many other councils used these contract his reply was startlingly candid. "No other local authority has this type of contract, it is an entirely novel concept." He also disclosed that it was the Council's idea and the Council's legal advisors who had said it was legal so we know that when it all goes wrong Capita will take none of the blame. Capita then talked about all the proposals for increasing income. Oh dear tripwire coming up! "We are going to invest in Hendon cemetery and turn it into a green open space". Kerboom! Shouts of protest from the public gallery. Capita really do need to go back to tact and sensitivity classes. This was absolutely not the way to sell the idea of investment to the residents of Barnet.
Cllr Sury Khatri has obviously been reading my blog because he then asked about the £30 million that has already been paid to Capita. Oh dear, that really set off a grenade. Panic all round and lots of awkward looks. The council officer responsible said they would speak to Cllr Khatri outside of the meeting. I wonder how they explain that one away?
The meeting came to a close but I suspect Capita will have a debrief meeting to analyse just how badly the meeting went, why Conservative Councillors have at last woken up to the issues of One Barnet and are asking awkward questions and why so many of the council's officers who were responsible for this contract have now departed with no one around to blame except the leadership of the Council.
I look forward to the next meeting, sadly not until January, when the public will be able to start asking detailed questions about Capita's performance.