Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why I'll be voting Labour tomorrow - It's common sense

For the first time in many years we are faced with an election where there is a very clear difference between the two main parties. For me this is a choice between hope and despondency. It is now nine years since the global economic crisis, seven of those years under a Conservative government yet we are told that we face many more years of austerity, further cuts to services, tough working conditions and low pay.

In the past I worked with businesses that were failing. In some businesses it was necessary to make cuts to spending, in others it was pricing policy where they were covering marginal costs but not the underlying costs of the business. Often it was about growing the business out of trouble, typically by investing in the business to make it more effective and able to sell more products. In many ways this country is the same. In some areas there may be the need to make some savings but after so many years of cuts I doubt there is much left. If anything I think the cuts have gone too far restricting our ability to grow the economy and that has created a vicious circle from which we seem unable to escape without a radical change in policy. As such we need to invest in the country, building infrastructure, enhancing employment skills stimulating demand and positioning Britain as a forward thinking, effective and growing economy. Part of that is also about getting companies and the very richest in society to pay their fair share of tax to cover the underlying costs of our society, such as schools, hospitals and care for the elderly.

I looked at the Office of National Statistics figures for underemployment in the UK. Those are people who are willing and capable of working more hours. The latest figures show that there are 3.5 million in that group, a massive under-utilised resource that could be generating growth for the economy. However, the incentives to invest in new equipment and machinery seem limited if the growth of the economy is uncertain and if people have little spare money in their pockets to buy products.  I have spent the last three weeks looking for jobs. What continues to shock me is how many employers in central London still expect people to hold down responsible jobs for £7.50 and hour and for under 25s, even less (£5.60/hour for 18-20 year olds and £7.05 for 21-24 year olds). Given that the tube fare into London can be £47/week it leaves a minimal amount to survive on. Pushing the minimum wage up to £10/hr will help some of the very poorest, allowing them to spend some of that extra money buying goods and services. It will save on state benefits that will no longer be payable and generate additional tax income, both income tax and VAT on goods and services purchased.

Labour's proposals for investing in major infrastructure projects, building lots of new affordable homes and pushing up minimum wage all seem entirely sensible solutions creating jobs, creating demand for products and putting money into people's pockets. The construction sector reckon that around 90% of construction supplies are sourced in the UK. That is why it is such an effective economic stimulator as well as meeting the need of millions who are in cramped, expensive and insecure accommodation. In addition, the more people who are in work and spending money, the more tax is generated and the fewer benefits are paid out. Again it just makes sense.

Another Labour policy is the abolition of University tuition fees which also seems an eminently sensible idea. From my perspective the Student Loan scheme is one of the largest Ponzi schemes  ever conceived. The House of Commons Library analysis of student loan debt says; "The Government has projected that the outstanding cash value of publicly owned student debt in England will increase to around £100 billion in 2016-17, £500 billion in the mid-2030s and £1,000 billion (£1 trillion) in the late 2040s". The report also says that it estimates that 60% of post 2012 students(when tuition fees rose to £9,000 a year) will have some of their loans written off due to the failure to repay them in 25 years. This means the amount written off will run to hundreds of billions of pounds. In effect the government is lending money today and in 25 years time someone else will have to pick up the mess. At least a government paying for fees now is an honest way of treating this investment in growing our skills base.

Investing in the NHS is also an eminently sensible idea, There does need to be change to make sure patients get the best possible service, cost effectively, but closing A&E departments and running hospitals at 98% bed occupancy isn't the way to do it. The Conservatives will press ahead with the Naylor report which will result in NHS land and assets being sold off. The risk is that it will generate some cash in the short term but will limit the options for developing new treatment solutions such as polyclinics, and intermediate/ re-ablement care facilities in the future, something that seems to happen with depressing regularity.

There are lots of other reasons why voting Labour seems the only sensible option but probably more than anything else, it offers hope that things will get better. Another five years of austerity, low wages, declining public services and a growing inequity in society seems to be what the Conservatives are offering and that is not for me.





Friday, 5 May 2017

Barnet salaries May 2017

Below is a chart showing all the Barnet council employees paid more than an MP's salary (£74,000). For the full list of all senior salaries, you can find them here.


Friday, 28 April 2017

Barnet Year End Supplier Payments - as bad as anticipated

The March supplier payments are out today and I can now collate the entire financial year figures for 2016-17.



Let's start with Capita who in total this year have received £105 million on the CSG and Re contracts. Even though Capita were paid £26.9 million up front for 2017 charges last December they are still billing Barnet for reasons I cannot understand. In February it was £1.32 million and in March it was £1.54 million.


Since the start of the contract we have paid Capita £277 million and yet again I ask Richard Cornelius to show me the savings!

As for the other out of control contract, for agency and interim staff, it is, as predicted, within a whisker of £20 million. Barnet have consistently told me they are going to get this contract value down but it continues to rise. Four companies take a commission on the agency and interim staff spend which is money wasted. In addition having such a high proportion of agency and interim staff leads to a lack of consistency, new staff who have to be constantly re-briefed and who lack corporate memory of what has gone before. Agency and interim staff inevitably have less loyalty to Barnet which inevitably impacts on the quality of service residents receive.


Barnet spends a massive amount of money annually and I just don't get the impression someone is making sure every penny is wisely spent.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

My Submission to the Re Contract Review

Next week is a public meeting to take evidence from the Barnet residents about the Capita joint venture contract (Re) that runs Barnet's Development and Regulatory Services. I have prepared a detailed submission which I have attached below. Overall I get the impression that Barnet simply don't have a handle on contract performance.

I know Richard Cornelius and the other Tory Councillors keep saying this contract is saving us money but I genuinely cannot see any evidence of the savings promised. Unlike the other Capita contract (Customer Service Group) which is all about automating activities and moving staff to low cost areas, the Re contract is dependent on locally based, skilled staff: Planners, Environmental Health Officers, Trading Standard Officers, Highways Engineers etc. Indeed, in the original business case for this contract, the operating cost savings identified were minimal with the lion's share of the "savings" being generated by increased income from new contracts and additional charges.

 I will update you after the review meeting.

















Thursday, 30 March 2017

Is anyone monitoring Capita?

Barnet's supplier payments for February have been published and as usual I have gone through them in some detail. One set of payments jumped out of the spreadsheet which was to Capita. There were 14 payments and two small credits amounting to a total of  £1,321,887.55 which were designated as "CSG Services Contract Payment".

So what you may say? Well, on 15 November 2016 Councillors agreed to make an advance payment to Capita of £26.9 million to cover CSG contract payments for 2017 and this formed part of the £39 million paid to Capita on the CSG contract in December. This was supposed to generate a saving of £500,000 which is due to be paid on 3 April (based on a response to a specific question I asked in February).

So we have paid £26.9 million up front, we haven't had the savings payment yet but nevertheless we still paid Capita another £1.32 million. To my mind this is unacceptable. No further payments should have been made to Capita on the CSG contract until the entire £26.9m advance payment has been exhausted. It also rubs salt into the wound that we still haven't been credited the £500,000 saving yet.

I would also point out that within the Re contract payments, which are also made to Capita, there is a payment classified as "CSG Services Contract Payment" for £167,500. This should have either been included under the Capita payments or has been incorrectly labelled. Either way it is poor practice.

What I want to know is who is monitoring these payments (other than me) and why are these payments being made? Maybe one of the many readers within Capita or Barnet Council who visit my blog daily would care to give me an explanation.

So far Barnet have paid Capita £273 million on the two contracts. That is £102 million more than the contracted value yet everyone maintains these contracts are saving money. I can't find those savings!


The other long running sore is the contract for interim and agency staff with Comensura. In February Comensura billed £1.68 million bringing the year to date total to £18.3 million with a month still to go and an estimated year end cost of a shade under £20 million. That equates to £400,000 a week from which 4 separate organisations take a commission.


  Barnet have now conceded they can't run the council without all these agency staff as was disclosed during the budget setting meeting. Cllr Jack Cohen had put forward an alternative budget which included significant cuts to agency staff but had those savings capped by Council Officers at just £129,500 for the entire year or just 0.6% of the annual cost as he was told the council couldn't operate without those staff. That does not strike me as an efficient organisation.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Is 43p a week too much to ask?

In Barnet we are facing a 3% council tax increase specifically for social care which, as we all know, is in crisis. However, the council had the opportunity to increase the council tax by a further 1.99% to cover all the other services provided by the council such as street cleaning, refuse collection, libraries and children's services. The council have put forward a budget for 2017/18 which shows a shortfall of just under £20 million and that takes into account the 3% social care precept. To balance the budget the council are using reserves, increasing charges and making cuts to services.

As I am sure many people are aware, adult social care and children's services make up the majority of council costs. Whether local tax payers should be paying for what many see as a national problem is a matter of debate but in Barnet we have the highest number of residential/nursing homes of any London borough reflecting the borough's mature resident profile and that drives demand for social care.

Since 2010 Barnet Council have frozen council tax and in 2014 they cut the council tax just before the last election. In the early years there was money from central government to hold down council tax rises which Barnet took but they failed to grasp freezing council tax in one year means that rise is lost every year for ever.

At a recent Council Committee meeting I asked the council the cost of a freeze to council tax  this year over the next 10 years. In fact they calculated it incorrectly at £31 million (its actually just under £34 million) but it signifies the impact of a single year of council tax freeze. When you look at the impact over 7 years the difference is significant.



Some people, including Cllr Cornelius, may argue that council tax is a regressive tax but there is banding by property value and there are also approximately 30,000 households that receive some form of Council Tax discount or exemption.

Even setting aside the growing demand for adult social care, inflation alone adds over £4 million a year to costs and includes, for example, the automatic inflation clauses included in the Capita contract.

If the council had increased council tax this year by the 1.99% allowed by government (in addition to the 3% social care precept) it would have cost the average Band D household the princely sum of 43p a week. It wouldn't have stopped all of the cuts but if the council had taken modest increases of 1.99% each year since 2010, then there wouldn't be a £20 million shortfall this year.

One question I asked the committee was, "Do the council think residents would prefer cuts or a 43p a week increase?" to which Richard Cornelius said that was a political decision and that is undoubtedly true. I speak to many residents who would prefer modest increases so long as it is spent on frontline service but they are never asked that question. However, in Barnet, the council are happy to spent an extra £800,000 on additional PR staff. They are prepared to spend £400,000 a week on interim and agency staff.  They are prepared to pay Capita millions for 'special project' consultancy work. They are prepare to spend £360,000 a year on both a Chief Executive Office AND a Chief Operating Officer in a commissioning council where many of the services are outsourced.

In 14 months time we have another council election. I just hope the electorate see through this shortsighted strategy which damages council services in both the short term and the long term but then again some people my just read the headlines of council tax freeze and not give a damn about how that affects services.


Friday, 17 February 2017

Library reduction programme hits students at vital exam period

In its wisdom Barnet Council is downsizing most of Barnet's libraries. This will have  a massive impact for most residents on going. However, the programme of works to eviscerate the libraries is taking place during the key GCSE and A level period. No doubt some bod from Capita worked out how quickly they could implement the changes but, as usual, I don't think anyone bothered to check whether this made sense to users. As a result of both the downgrade works and the introduction of the Partnership Libraries, which will not operate unstaffed opening, it means that there are only three of Barnet's 14 libraries that are open throughout the exam period.


I have said before that Barnet's Conservative Councillors are out of touch with the reality of library usage. They think that children all have their own bedroom, a nice desk or dining room table to study at or as Cllr Davey mentioned at a recent meeting that they could go and study at their local Starbucks or Costa. The reality is that a significant number of children in the borough share bedrooms, have little or no study space and are dependent on libraries to carry out their revision. Children studying for their GCSE and A Levels study in libraries because they are quiet, they have tables where they can lay out their revision notes and they aren't obliged to pay £2.50+ for a cup of coffee each time they visit.  I speak as both a parent and someone who has spoken with children in East Barnet, currently forced to go up to Chipping Barnet library to study because East Barnet Library is closed for works.

To me, it seems like common sense to keep all libraries open during the exam period, but as is frequently the case, common sense is a scarce commodity in Barnet.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Is this evidence of Barnet's cuts to community based adult social care?

I like to explore the Barnet Council Open Data web portal. Often it is a source of interesting data which deserves a wider audience like how many senior council are paid more than an MP (and  the Prime Minister).

However, a recent data set (which you can see here) showed the number of service users in receipt of adult social care.  With all the current talk about the social care crisis, I had expected the numbers of service users to have grown steadily over the period which starts in the financial year 2008/09. Indeed it did grow until the year 2012/13 since which time it as declined so that the number of service users in receipt of social care is now lower than it was in 2008/09. I have summarised the data in a table below and in a graph but the key fall appears to be in the provision of community based services.



Given that I cannot believe that demand for community based adult social care has declined, is this evidence that cuts to the service provision are already taking place and does this mean potential service users are missing out on the care they really need?

Maybe the figures are faulty; maybe I have misinterpreted them; but to me it looks like community based care is being cut. I hope someone from Barnet Council can shed some light on this.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Capita get massive £45 million Christmas present from Barnet Council

I did wonder why the Barnet Council monthly expenditure figures weren't posted yesterday. Today I understand why. In December Capita were paid a staggering £45 million. Yes £45 million split £39 million on the CSG contract and £6 million on the Re contract. So far this financial year that brings the total payments to Capita to £96.5 million and there are still three months to go of this financial year.

I attended the evidence gathering session for the review of the Capita CSG contract back in July 2016, the only opportunity for the public to have any input to the review process. Six months later we get a report that says everything is coming up roses with this contract. Well Councillors, if you think that shelling out £96.5 million in just 9 months is acceptable then you clearly have lost touch with reality.

I understand that at last night's Council meeting Cllr Geof Cooke asked why the ruling group insisted on holding the review of the Re contract in secret. Apparently he was told by Cllr Finn it wasn't in secret, it was in private. I have absolutely no confidence in the working group doing anything other than giving the Re contract another clean bill of health.  Perhaps if these figures had been released before the meeting yesterday, the response to Cllr Cooke's question might had drawn greater criticism - or maybe not.

I call on all the ruling group Councillors especially Cllrs Finn and Zinkin who site on the working group to reconsider holding the Re contract review meetings in public, not in private, to explain why we are paying so much to Capita and to allow residents to understand what Councillors really feel about this contract.