Tuesday 30 April 2013

Barnet Judicial Review - is this justice?

Yesterday, the judgement on the Maria Nash's judicial review was published. I would urge as many people as possible to read this judgement because it illustrates just how unfair the justice system can be at times.

The judge, Lord Justice Underhill is critical of Barnet and is quite clear that they failed to consult with residents. However, the law believes that ordinary residents without a law degree, need to do things like study the Official Journal of the European Union  (OJEU) with great rigour, to read between the lines on council papers, even when they are not explicit and to seek legal redress at the earliest possible opportunity even though they don't know what they are objecting to.

Barnet failed miserably to consult - and in  the judges words;

"Although I have, out of deference to the attention given to it in the evidence, and to some extent also at the hearing, summarised the nature of the consultation about the 2010/11 and 2011/12 budgets, there is no real dispute that it did not constitute consultation about outsourcing as such.  “Alternative service provision” was mentioned in the materials supplied, at least for the latter year; but no relevant information was supplied, and the exercises were plainly not designed to elicit views about it".   He went on to say:

"It is clear that in the present case the Council did not make any attempt to consult on the specific question of whether the functions and services covered by the NSCSO and DRS contracts should be outsourced", and in summary he said:

"It follows that if the application for judicial review had been made in time I would have held that the Council had not complied with its obligations under section 3 (2) of the 1999 Act in respect of the decisions taken in 2010/11 to outsource the performance of its functions and services, covered by the proposed NSCSO and DRS contracts".  

BUT...   the case is out of time so tough luck!

I believe it was Lord Hailsham who coined the phrase "elective dictatorship" and that is exactly what we have in Barnet, a weak group that fails to represent the broad views of the residents but is able to drive through whatever policies it wants aided by the weaknesses of the democratic system we have in place. If this judgement stands it will send a green light to Barnet to be even more secretive about what they are doing, to completely ignore meaningful consultions, to ignore the broad range of views of the 356,000 residents and to go ahead with whatever it wants, because it can. 

I understand that Maria Nash is going to appeal and I hope for everyone's sake she is successful.

Friday 26 April 2013

The One Barnet Consultant's bill hits £6.3 million

In February our dear friends Agilisys, who are helping Barnet Council implement One Barnet  billed a rather modest £55,244.55. At the time I wondered if we had seen the end of their huge six figure bills. Today Barnet have published (early) the supplier payments for March and surprise, surprise Agilisys have come back with force, billing the grand sum of £460,228.20 for the month, Interestingly, only one invoice for £990 is allocated to the One Barnet programme. Perhaps that is how certain councillors can get away with saying One Barnet hasn't cost that much but it fools no one.

In the financial year 2012-13 Barnet Council have paid Agilisys £3,513,760.99 - yes £3.5 million in one year to one firm of consultants and it brings the total paid to Agilisys to £6,324,366.68 since the start of the One Barnet implementation contract.

Back in July 2012 I raised the issue of Agilisys costs with Barnet’s external auditors, Grant Thornton. This included:

That councillors had been led to believe this contract was going to cost around £2 million and that it looked like on present spending it was going to cost £6 million. As such, were officers legally allowed to exceed this budget by so much without getting further approval for the spending by Councillors and did this make that spending ultra vires.
On the first point the auditor said, 
“With regard to your point on the level of spend, it is clear that the £2 million figure is an indicative one.  The Council's 2010/11 budget estimates costs of setting up the programme and projects at £3 million. The spend to date on the contract is approaching £4 million. Although ongoing spend and value for money is monitored by the Council's Corporate Directors' Group, there is nothing in the Council's constitution that requires the reporting back to members for this contract on the basis that there is no maximum contract value set. From the review of working papers, I am satisfied that there is no need for me to take formal legal advice as to the legality of the £4 million contract as I have not seen evidence that the council has acted outside of its powers. Based on these findings, I have concluded that the Council has followed its own rules in terms of the nature and level of spend under this contract and that there is no legality issue that would impact on my ability to certify the 2011/12 audit closed.”
The Auditor added as a footnote,

“I have discussed your second point around the governance of the level of spend on the contract and the Council agrees that it would be good practice to take an update report to the Cabinet Resources Committee. The Council is drafting this report which will update members on the level of spend to date, revised projections for level of spend over the three year period of the contract, value for money considerations (including an update on improved terms negotiated by the Council this year) and plans for the procurement of further support when the current contract ends next year. The report is planned to go to Cabinet Resources Committee at the end of September.”
Well Mr Hughes, was that September 2012 or September 2013 because as far as I can see no report on this matter has as yet been sent to the Cabinet Resources Committee.   12 months on and we have gone way past the £6 million mark yet not one councillor has formally raised the issue of such a massive overspend. 
Personally I think that this is nothing short of a scandal. How a £2 million contract can hit £6.3 million and no one, other than members of the public, asks any questions, is beyond me.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Does Free Speech Exist in Barnet?

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Constitution, Ethics & Probity Committee when the Council were proposing to stop people asking questions at Overview & Scrutiny Committee Meetings. I talked about whether the Council viewed residents as a valuable resource or an adversary. In my opinion the Council definitely put residents in the latter category.  However I was somewhat heartened that at the follow up meeting of this committee the council dropped the proposal to stop people asking questions at Scrutiny Committees.

Cllr Jack Cohen had suggested that allowing people to speak informs the debate but that asking questions shuts down debate. My view then and now is that we need both. There are times when a question will elicit a specfic answer whereas other times, talking to a committee allows resdients to provide qualitative evidence.  So for Scrutiny both will remain in place. There was also a subtle  shift in the stance of  cabinet meetings where rather than expressly forbidding speakers it would now be at the Chairman's discretion.

And so it comes to tonight's cabinet resources committee. An expert on procurement and value for money had asked to speak on the topic of CCTV that the council wish to introduce. This expert had benchmarked the proposed contract and believes that it may not represent good value for money. Now if I was the Leader of the Council I would welcome someone who has valuable information to offer with open arms. "Please come along and give us your views. Help us be more efficient and save  money".

Well not in Barnet. The Chairman of the Cabinet Resources Committee, Cllr  Dan Thomas has declined to allow this expert to speak at the committee meeting tonight. I wonder why? Is it because he doesn't believe this person - unlikely as this person has a track record of identifying poor procurement and waste. Is it because this subject is controversial - not really it is just a CCTV contract. Is it because CRC simply don't want to listen to anyone because actually this is a rubber stamping meeting - almost definitely. Finally, is it because this expert is none other than apolitical Barnet Blogger, Mr Mustard, who has relentlessly identified problems with council contracts - ah well there you go.  Cllr Thomas actually believes that public question time is "adequate for public participation during the meeting".

So in Barnet we can on have free speech if it adds little and doesn't have any impact on what the council does. Anyone with good ideas, good business sense or an eye for detail are definitely not welcome. Cllr Jack Cohen said that questions shuts down debate. Well tonight that is precisely what Cabinet and Cabinet Resources want - no debate.

Friday 12 April 2013

Barnet is a top performing Council - So why are they making 397 staff redundant?

In questions and answers for Barnet's Council meeting on Tuesday we see the following:

Question 14    Councillor Reuben Thompstone
 How does Barnet Council compare with other London boroughs on measures of efficiency?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas
Barnet compares favourably to other London authorities when comparing the Value for Money of all council services. We benchmark our performance and financial information each quarter, in arrears. In Quarter 2 2012/13, Barnet was ranked in second place in London for the total number of ‘high performing and low cost’ services. This indicator measures the total number of council services rated as high performance and low cost. Only the London Borough of Bexley had a higher proportion of services rated as high performing and low cost (70%), with Barnet in second place (54%).

Question 46 Councillor Hugh Rayner
Has there been any movement on the average time it takes to process a new housing benefit claim? 

 Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas
In September 2012 the average time taken to process a new housing benefit claim was 19 days. Through the introduction of the new face-to-face process in Burnt Oak Library and Barnet House, this figure was reduced to 10 days by the end of February 2013 (the latest month for which figures are available). This performance is one of the best in London and is in the top 10 of all local authorities in Great Britain

Question 60 Councillor Joan Scannell
Could the Cabinet Member inform us of the current collection rates for council tax and business rates?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas
The final in-year collection rates for 2012/13 were 96.6% for Council Tax and 95.8% for business rates. The equivalent figures for 2011/12 were 96.0% and 94.9%. 

 So there you have it from the pen of Cllr Dan Thomas. Out of the 32 London Boroughs, Barnet is second in place for efficiency, delivery of housing benefit claims is the best in London and Council Tax collection continues to improve. This is BEFORE One Barnet Outsourcing. Yet the Council want to make 397 staff redundant and ship the jobs off to the the rest of the UK. The Council should be thanking the hard working council staff - who scored so highly in the residents perception survey - not making them redundant. Only in Barnet.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Important Meeting Tonight - Your Choice Barnet

Bring “Your Choice Barnet” back in-house

Thursday 11th April 2013, 7pm at the Greek Cypriot Centre, Britannia Road, N12

Barnet Council created the Local Authority Trading Company “Your Choice Barnet” to provide social care for adults with learning and physical disabilities.  After only a year the company is in trouble and planning to reduce the quality of services, and Barnet Homes is preparing to pay a £1 million bail-out.
Find out more about this scandal and why we are calling for Barnet Council to bring “Your Choice Barnet” back in-house at our public meeting.
Confirmed speakers include:
  • John Sullivan, parent and carer of a service user of the Your Choice day centre;
  • Roger Lewis, social worker and disabled, Disabled People Against the Cuts & Social Work Action Network;
  • UNISON representative;
  • Cllr Sachin Rajput, Cabinet member for Adults Social Services was invited but declined; we hope he may still change his mind and be part of the panel.
Panel to be followed by open discussion.
Come and have your say on bringing this vital service back in-house, as promised by councillors before they outsourced it.
What you can do: Forward this to your networks or print the leaflet and invite your neighbours; sign the petition and spread it among your friends and participate in the e-mail campaign.
  • Download a copy of the leaflet here.
  • Sign the petition here.

Friday 5 April 2013

Audit Committee Papers Reveal Shortcomings of One Barnet Outsourcing Advisors

Barnet's Audit Committee will be considering Internal Audit work on Monday. In the Exception Report Internal Audit give a "Limited" Assurance rating on the client side of outsourced legal services (page 18). The three Priority One findings they identified are as follows:

Contract Management - The review identified areas where the client side management of the Joint Legal Service (JLS) contract could be strengthened. There is currently no Contract Manager in place. The Contract Manager post for the JLS will form part of the Commercial arrangements, as part of the retained organisation. However this recruitment process has been delayed since September 2012.

 Risk Management -The review found areas where the client side risk management controls could be improved. The Inter Authority Agreement clearly sets out the risk management procedure which the JLS should maintain in the delivery of the service. However, the absence of a Contract Manager may result in this process not operating effectively in practice. Risks noted within the project prior to go ‘live’ were not transferred internally for those retained risks identified.

Benefits Realisation - The review found that there was no documented process in place for ensuring that the cost, quality and effectiveness benefits, set out in the original business case, were regularly monitored and managed to ensure that they are fully realised. The review was unable to identify a nominated person responsible, in the absence of a Contract Manager, for the ongoing monitoring, management and realisation of benefits. The review also found that there were no documented baseline figures for the benefits to be monitored against.

Personally, I find it unacceptable that a service which was outsourced last September still has such fundamental client side short comings. Where were the advisors and why didn't they flag this up as an issue? Getting the client side functions in place is critical to the successful management of  any outsourced service. The fact that Barnet cannot measure whether benefits are being realised appears to undermine the entire rationale for outsourcing.  If these mistakes are repeated with the NSCSO and DRS contracts it could be an absolute disaster. But hang on a minute....

It is also interesting to note that while not an "Assurance Reports" and therefore no receiving an "assurance" rating there were two management reviews undertaken; one into the KPI's of the NSCSO contract and one for the DRS KPI's.We do not see copies of these reports however, the following summary is included on page 24 of the exception report:

NSCSO and DRS key performance indicators – a number of key performance indicators included to measure the success of both contracts were not robust in terms of data quality. For example, policies and procedures governing the collection of data were not in existence, some targets did not have baseline data, some data was inaccurate, and some of the source data was not adequately
protected from data loss or data error. These reviews were a proactive audit requested from the projects to ensure that any issues could be rectified pre-contract sign. 

Given that the only reason these contracts haven't been signed yet is because of the Judicial Review, perhaps Barnet should be thanking Maria Nash for helping them to avoid yet another cock up.  However, I am also left wondering how such fundamental shortcomings can arise on such a heavily resourced project that has paid millions to consultants an lawyers to avoid exactly these sorts of problems. Frankly I think this demands a an immediate independent review as it may expose many more shortcomings in these two massive outsourcing projects. Richard Cornelius may brand people like me "whingers" but when you read reports like this it is hardly surprising people are concerned.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Urgent - Spread your council tax over 12 months instead of 10

Barnet residents may not be aware but you can now spread your council tax payments over 12 months instead of the usual ten months. This change was introduced by Eric Pickles but many councils have not made this rule change widely known. In Barnet you only have until Friday 5th April - yes this Friday - to request to pay your council tax over 12 instalments. For someone in a Band D property that will reduce your monthly outgoings by approximately £23.60 per month. You still pay the same amount but you just spread it over 12 months instead of 10. To have a look at the details you can download the booklet from the council's website here the details are on page 9.

Monday 1 April 2013

Is Mr Reasonable Being Bugged?

Over the weekend I was doing some works to my humble abode. Whilst drilling through one of the walls there was a large bang and I suffered a mild electric shock. I knew that there were no electricity cables in that particular wall so after a few minutes with a hammer and chisel I managed to uncover a rather strange object.

I am concerned that someone may be trying to listen in to my alternative proposals to the One Barnet strategy. I have been working on an innovative new tool which will take channel shifting to a new level. I have developed a software programme which can replace Councillors with computer avatars and based on technology similar to Siri in Apple iPhones. It is capable of dealing with residents questions quickly and efficiently and saving over £1million a year in councillor allowances. The programme can deal with the most complex problems and decisions quickly and logically. The only problem I have found so far is that whenever I feed in the One Barnet outsourcing data, it simply keeps coming up with the phrase, illogical, illogical illogical.