Friday 27 September 2013

Why have Barnet paid Capita £30 million in "management fees"

In July, Barnet Council paid Capita £14.7 million for "management fees". This was supposed to be a management fee to last until the end of the year, assuming the Judicial Review appeal would take months to be heard and settled. Almost immediately after that payment the court case was brought forward and the contract was awarded to Capita. I was waiting to see whether and when most of this money would be repaid.

Today the supplier payments for August have been published and low and behold Capita have been paid another £15,223,862 for "management fees". Bear in mind that Capita took over the NSCSO contract on 1 September so none of this £30 million relates to the contract. So in two months Capita have been paid just shy of £30 million in management fees which represents the anticipated savings for the first two and a half years of this contract.

Something here is very very wrong.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Barnet's Bailiffs Contract Part 2

Following up on the bailiffs fiasco I blogged about on Friday, I have been ploughing my way through the Capita contract. As a result I sent the following email to Cllr Richard Cornelius, Andrew Travers Barnet CEO, and the two opposition leaders on Sunday. So far I have had only one response and that was from Cllr Jack Cohen who is in no way responsible for this mess. I would have been happy to keep my email private but given that neither Mr Travers nor Mr Cornelius have had the courtesy to respond I have set out my email below for everyone to share:

I am aware that the Council has received a solicitor’s letter alleging a breach of contract with the Council’s bailiffs. These bailiffs were appointed through a framework agreement via the Eastern Shires Procurement Organisation and, according to the DPR, the contract was due to run until December. Following a request to novate the contract, it appears that Capita have summarily terminated the contract and appointed their own bailiffs. What particularly concerns me is that Capita have appointed Equita, a wholly owned subsidiary of Capita without any formal tendering procedure, DPR or any other open or transparent notification.

Having reviewed the CSG contract documentation which you published on Thursday, it appears you were complicit in this appointment as set out the Payment  Mechanism Appendix 2 Pricing Assumptions (5) where it states:

“That the Service Provider can deploy its own Bailiff Service as the exclusive provider of Bailiff services for Revenue and Benefits in order to facilitate more effective collection strategies.”

Frankly I find it shocking that your advisors, and councillors who assured me they had read this contract, could have condoned a matter which appears to fly in the face of contract procedure rules, encourages a breach of contract and raises massive conflict of interest issues. Indeed, it could be suggested that as the decision to appoint Capita’s own bailiffs was made in April 2013 there was never any intention to novate the contract and that all along a breach was anticipated.

I asked repeatedly for someone to independently review the contract but you failed to do so. I asked if Capita would be subject to the same procurement rules and I was reassured they would. I repeatedly asked about conflicts of interest and you reassured me this was covered in the contract. Perhaps you now understand why I was so concerned.

I would be grateful if you could tell me how this unfortunate and potentially expensive situation will be resolved or is this how the Council will be run now under Capita.

Subsequent to this email I have found in another of the contract documents, a further reference to Equita being appointed by Capita as their bailiffs. Indeed, the document is dated March 2013 which predates the contract signed with Newlyns and Phoenix on 16 April 2013. This simply reinforces the impression that there was no intention to fulfil the contract and which I suspect will undermine Barnet's case if/when this goes to court.

This is not going to end well.

Friday 20 September 2013

Threat of legal action just two weeks into Capita Contract

The Capita contract does not appear to have got off to a good start. I heard earlier in the summer that the bailiffs contract has been torn up even though it was mid term and that Capita had appointed Equita, their own bailiff company.  The original contract was with two companies, Newlyn Collections Services Ltd
and Phoenix Commercial Collections Ltd and you can read the authorisation of that contract here.

Today I have received news that, unsurprisingly, Newlyn and Phoenix are not very happy about the situation and they have issued a lawyers letter to the council employee who gave  notice of the termination, the chief executive of the council and every councillor. It is a four page letter which make some pretty serious points including the threat of injunctive relief if Barnet/Capita pass any further bailiff instructions to Equita - see below:

The lawyers not only allege that the council has breached the contract but they call into question the probity with which the contract has been handed on a plate to Equita. The letter goes on to state:

This is the real issue here. We have Capita who are administering Council Tax collection through the NSCSO contract  (now called Customer and Support Group or CSG) and if people fail to pay they send the demand straight to their own firm of bailiffs, Equita, who will also make money by receiving the instruction. Whereas in the past there may have been some attempt to come to an arrangement with late payers, there is now a massive incentive for Capita to pass all such problems straight to Equita.

Over the last two years I have asked many questions about procurement procedures that Capita will have to assume and about potential conflicts of interest. Ultimately it is our money they are spending therefore they should maintain exactly the some openness and transparency. In this case Capita seem to have fallen at the first hurdle.

Councillors cannot ignore this as it has been sent to every one of them and when  lawyers get involved it gets expensive. Barnet may have published the contract yesterday, albeit with many redactions, but who is actually checking to see if it is being properly administered.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

IBM throw in the towel at Southwest One - Are you watching Barnet

IBM who were the major shareholder of the Council outsourcing group Southwest One have sold their outsourcing business to the American Synnex Corporation. I am indebited to Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger for alerting me to the demise of Southwest One on his blog.

Southwest One has been a problem from the start Not only has it run up liabilities of £45 million but is has only delivered a small fraction of the intended savings. As always it there is lots of talk about future/forecast savings but actual savings delivered are small.

The latest accounts show that the company is only remaining solvent because of IBM's support.

 So now that IBM's shareholding has been sold to Synnex, what will happen to the on-going business? Mr Liddell-Grainger reproduces an email sent to staff this week which says:

"We are currently working through exactly what this might mean for Southwest One.  As soon as we are in a position to give you any more information about this situation, and any impact it may have on Southwest One, we will update you as soon as we can."

So the poor staff are left in limbo but what about the services they are supposed to be delivering? Synnexx will use their wholly own subsidiary Concentrix to run the business and let's hope for everyone's sake they can sort out this mess.

 What really worries me is Barnet have entered a similar style joint venture contract with Capita for the DRS contract. Could we in Barnet be exposed to the same sorts of risks that have befallen Southwest One? We don't know because we aren't allowed to see the contract or any of the legal advice Barnet have been given. We just have to hope and prey that Capita make a better job of running things than IBM did at Southwest One.

Friday 13 September 2013

£120,000 to find out Barnet residents' views - Just try talking to them!

Today Barnet have published a decision made back in July regarding the Residents' Perception Survey. This survey used to be undertaken once every two years but the Council have now decided to undertake this survey twice a year for the next two years. This will cost £120,000, a not insignificant sum. Now I'm not against the residents' perception survey, in fact I'm a great believer in research. However, I find it quite ironic that a council which seems so antipathetic towards residents should want to spend £120k finding out our views. Perhaps if the council made residents more welcome at meetings and some Councillors weren't so contemptuous they might find out some useful information. Perhaps if the council hadn't run residents forums into the ground by barring most subjects from discussion they might have learned more about which issues are important to residents - they have changed the rules again to allow residents to ask any question at residents forums but only if they submit them on line by 10am, 2 days in advance.

At the June residents forum I asked if the Barnet Council have a resident engagement strategy, something which many other council have implemented. The answer is, no they don't. The council are consulting on changes to the way the council is run but they won't be holding a public meeting until after councillors have made the decisions.

Perhaps the council would be more effective if they kept the residents perception survey to once every two years (£30k) and spent the other £90,000 on setting up resident engagement events where they actually listen to what residents have to say. There is a strong network of residents associations, try tapping in to them. Get our well paid Councillors to hold ward meetings on a range of themes that are important to people in that ward. £90,000 would facilitate a heck of a lot of dialogue. In fact they could spend £40,000 on hosting meetings in every ward keep the £50,000 they intend to plunder from reserves in the reserves. For a council that talks a lot about saving money they certainly know how to waste money.

Monday 9 September 2013

Lots of new recycling bins but nowhere to recycle the waste

Just published on the Council's website is  an urgent decision that will be taken at the Cabinet Meeting on 24 September. This decision is exempt from call in meaning that no one can challenge it.

Description: The council requires a reprocessing outlet for the recyclable materials to be collected from households and recycling banks from 7 October 2013, in readiness for the launch of new in-house waste and recycling collection services from 14 October 2013. A recent procurement exercise has not delivered the expected cost-effective options, and the report seeks agreement for the council to work with the North London Waste Authority to put in place arrangements for the reprocessing of recyclable materials.

So the Council have spent £3.7 million on new recycling bins yet the contract to process all the recycled waste they will generate is not in place because it doesn't save enough money. I did question the savings at the Chipping Residents Forum back in June but on that occasion mine and other residents's concerns were simply swept aside.

What a mess!

Sunday 8 September 2013

Barnet DRS joint employment contracts - are they legal?

Tomorrow is the General Functions Committee at Barnet Council. The agenda and meeting reports can be viewed here.

Right from the outset there has been a concern about outsourcing development and regulatory services because some of these duties are statutory responsibilities which cannot be delegated. The way Capita have wiggled round the problem is to set up joint contracts. These contracts mean that for part of the officers' duties they are an employee of the Joint Venture which then can mysteriously morph into a Council employment contract as they for example walk through a door or step into a witness box

On 5th August Capita wrote to the Council stating on the joint employment contracts:
"Due to the specialist nature of this situation, Capita Symonds & LBB are currently working through the practicalities of this model and therefore future measures will be confirmed in respect of the Joint Employees once both parties have had further discussions".

So what they are saying is this is a one off and they are not sure if Joint Employment contracts will work - and this is just one day before the contract with Capita was signed by Richard Cornelius. John Burgess from Barnet Unison has written to the GFC which includes the following:

I want to draw your attention to the GFC report section 4 Risk Management Issue No 3 states:
“Staff currently carrying out non-delegable statutory functions may choose not to sign the joint employment contract to allow them to carry out these activities post transfer.”
I can report that following the joint attendance workshops many staff were even more confused and concerned about the credibility of this as an option to enable staff to carry out their non delegable statutory duties or functions. It is now six weeks since these workshops took place and staff have still not seen any answers to the questions they raised.

The presentation included practical examples of how the proposes joint employment contract would work. This presentation was flawed as staff quickly spotted false assumptions about decision making. What didn’t help was that on each example it said “ILLUSTRATION ONLY - NOT FACTUALLY CORRECT”
This led staff to ask if legal advisors Trowers had been asked to give a legal view of something that was factually incorrect. 

A number of staff have said

“All it will take is for a clever lawyer acting on behalf of a business or resident to start to challenge whether the officer made the enforcement decision as a employee of the Council or Capita. If a challenge is successful then joint employment option will no longer be able to be used to carry out non delegable statutory duties or functions, and this would put the Council at risk of not being able to discharge its statutory duties and functions”

So there you have it. Richard Cornelius has rushed headlong to sign a contract which legally may be virtually impossible to operate or may be subject to legal challenge the first time staff try and enforce their statutory duties. The legal advice is unclear and untested. What a complete and utter mess. I shall be there tomorrow evening to see how the loyal but unwhipped Councillors try and talk their way out of this one.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Barnet outsources its homeless families

First all all thanks to Cllr Julie Johnson for asking a question at next week's Council meeting. They have published the questions and the written responses and this one in particular caught my eye (Question 41).

"How many homeless families have been placed outside the Borough since 2009? And for how long?"

The response is quite shocking. In the first three months of this financial year 477 households were placed in temporary accommodation outside the borough compared to 519 household for the whole two year period 2009/10-2010/11.

Looking at the table it is apparent that this problem started escalating after the last election and has shown a relentless rise. Based on the current trend, it looks like this financial year more than 2,000 families will be placed in temporary accommodation outside the borough compared to just 202 in 2009/10, a ten fold increase.

Cllr Davey's response looks incredibly complacent  - well most of those families have been accommodated in Brent, Enfield, Hackney and Haringey with 110 families have been rehoused further afield. No mention of why the problem has escalated so dramatically or what steps are being taken to resolve the problem.

It looks like, along with the Councils services, they are now outsourcing homeless families too, convenient in the run up to the elections.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Tail wags dog in Barnet

We are only a few days in to the contract with capita and already decisions are being made because of the contractual relationship.  At the Planning & Environment Committee next week they are discussing the changes made to the planning application process.

To set this in some context, previously there were three planning committees which were delineated on parliamentary constituency boundaries, Chipping Barnet, Finchley and Golders Green and Hendon. That worked fine until some bright spark said let's cut costs and reduce the number of committees down to two. As a results committee meetings were stuffed and often overran. Rather than go back to three committees they decided to make it harder for people to object so that more applications could be dealt with by officers under delegated powers. Instead of three objections being required to trigger an application to be considered at committee, it now requires five objections.  These changes were made subject to a review and it is this review that is being considered next Wednesday.

In the papers they state that by maintaining this change it will save £60,000 a year. However I would point out that due national planning fee increases and some increase in volume of applications the Council has already forecast an increase in INCOME from planning of £1.7 million over the next ten year. I would have thought that maybe we could afford a better system that we had previously.

But here is the rub. At paragraph 9.9 in the report it says:

"The Planning Service forms part of the Development Regulatory Service (DRS) which will shortly be an outsourced delivery unit in the commissioning council. The successful bidder is fully aware that the costs associated with processing planning applications dealt with under delegated powers are significantly less than those costs associated with applications presented to Planning Committees. If the Committee did not agree to maintain current delegated powers then the successful bidder could have a case to ask the council to meet those extra costs".

Hang on a minute. What were all those statements about guarantees we were given. This is not about what is best for residents but what is best for Capita. I said this would happen but to happen so quickly is quite a shock. This is now the new world we live in where everything is considered not by its merits but by the contractual handcuffs of the contract. Welcome to the London Borough of Capita.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

The Kafkaesque world of Barnet Council

Last week there was a Group Leaders Panel to investigate a complaint made by me and at least one other person. It related to comments made by Cllr Brian Coleman in a Council meeting where he said that Conservative councillors attending overview and scrutiny meetings were entirely whipped, especially in relation to One Barnet matters. Now failing to declare whipping arrangements at Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meetings is a breach of the constitution, a very serious matter, all the more so because Scrutiny is there to provide checks and balances on the executive, the ten members of the cabinet who make all the decisions in Barnet. According to the rather brief minutes which have been posted on the Council's website this morning.
  1. That there was no evidence before the Panel that the Conservative Group where (sic) subject to the whip at Overview and Scrutiny Committees.
  2. That there appeared to be some difference in the understanding of the whipping process and that Groups should clarify this to their Members at their Group meetings.
Digging a bit deeper it transpires there is a report, prepared by the solicitor from Harrow (where Barnet's legal services are outsourced) you start to see a fascinating picture that borders on the Kafkaesque.  Let's start with the investigation.
 "The focus of the investigation is whether there was a failure to declare whipping before Overview and Scrutiny Committees. A point made by Councillor Coleman to me has been that this is a political matter and not suitable for standards investigation. I take Councillor Coleman’s point to some degree and have made redactions to some appendices where I feel appropriate including details of discussions at Conservative Group meetings". 
Well hang on just a minute. Failing to declare whipping arrangements before a OSC is a breach of the constitution it is therefore not a political matter it is a constitutional matter so why treat it with kid gloves.
And what were these investigations? my comments are in RED.
"The email at Appendix 6 was sent to 19 Councillors. I received 9 responses. So more than half the councillors concerned simply ignored the investigating officer completely. One member did not respond directly to me but had responded to the Monitoring Officer following notification of the allegations and so I have included this response in my considerations. The responses did not always address the specific questions asked but did comment to some degree on the issues raised.  Sorry but if they don't answer the questions ask them again. A summary of the responses is below:

a. Nine respondents said that they had never been whipped in relation to overview and scrutiny. One member referred to being whipped in relation to the Budget in the sense that it was automatically Group Policy;
b. One member stated that where an issue was declared policy the whip only applied in relation to group policy at full Council meetings. Another member said that it ‘usually’ only applied at full Council in relation to declared policy;
c. Conservative group policy is determined at group meetings;
d. It is rare for a matter to become group policy other than the Budget (see below); and apparently not One Barnet. "Apparently"! Is this an investigation or a cosy fireside chat? It either is or isn't; apparently just will not do.
e. The Budget automatically becomes Group policy;
f. One member stated that they presumed One Barnet to be group policy but was not sure. Three other members stated that it was not group policy. All others did not address the question; So only 4 out of 19 councillors answered this question and one made a presumption that was wrong.
g. There were some differences in the answer to the question whether the whip is applied on declared policy. This may be because the rules state that a member may not vote or speak against group policy and this may not be understood as whipping; Well if Councillors don't understand the rules how the hell do they expect members of the public to understand them and given they are paid £10k a year then perhaps they ought to make it their business to understand.
h. The whip is communicated either in writing or orally; so if orally there is, rather conveniently, no paper trail.
i. One member stated his understanding that there are no pre-meetings of the group prior to overview and scrutiny meetings and therefore felt there was no mechanism for whipping; oh so whipping can only take place at a pre-meeting I don't suppose people use the telephone or email then.
18. In relation to a. above, I sought further clarification from the member concerned who stated that he had been whipped. He could not recall a specific instance of the whip being declared at the Budget and Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee but his understanding is that the chair of the committee (currently Cllr Finn) would declare the whip on behalf of the Group. Which is wrong as surely it is the responsibility of individual members if they have been whipped to say so otherwise what's the point of having scrutiny.

Cllr Finn was interviewed during this process as he is chief whip yet amazingly, he also sat as a member on the Group Leaders Panel, although he didn't vote. Surely good governance would require that he should have been excluded from the panel altogether. 

On the issue of group policy it transpires that once a matter has been declared "group policy" no member can speak or vote against it. As such this appears to render the OSC entirely impotent on any matter which is directly, indirectly or tangentially policy in which case just scrap the whole scrutiny system rather than give the entirely false impression that ruling group councillors actually have any independent thought.

The conclusion of the investigation is:

23. There does appear to be some difference in the understanding of the whipping process amongst those Conservative members responding.
24. However there is no evidence that One Barnet was declared policy of the Conservative group and therefore subject to the whip.

Run that one by me again, One Barnet was not policy and therefore not subject to the whip. That is nothing short madness. 

I made the complaint because Overview and Scrutiny is an essential mechanism to provide checks and balances to way the council operates. I have, for a very long time, felt that the committees are a joke with the ruling group out voting any concerns raised by the opposition members irrespective of the seriousness of the matter.  This investigation underpins all my worries and suspicions are born out by this result. Governance in Barnet is morally bankrupt and bereft of any sense of decency and morality. The scrutiny system is entirely discredited and soon to swept away yet I suspect that any replacement will be equally deceitful, devious and devoid of democracy because that's the way politics works in Barnet.

Monday 2 September 2013

Hello Capita - please take £14.7m

Barnet Council's supplier payments for July have been published this morning. Amongst the payments is one on the 1st of July to Capita for "NSCSO Management Fee" of £14,739,960. Now I did know that this was taking place but I can't for the life of me understand why it has been paid. Yesterday, Capita took over the running of the NSCSO service so it appears that Capita have been paid £14.7 million for two months management fee.

Originally, my understanding was Capita were being paid this fee because the Judicial Review Appeal, at that time, was scheduled for October with a decision that might not come before the end of the year and that Capita would help to run the services in the interim. However, circumstances changed, the case was brought forward to mid July, an early judgement came out at the beginning of August upon which Richard Cornelius immediately signed a contract. What I want to understand is have we been ripped off, will this payment be returned in part of full or will it be offset against future payments? However, given the Council lost a shed load of money to 2e2 through large prepayments I would have thought they would have been a bit more cautious before handing over £14.7m in advance payment to Capita.

Every singe council tax payers should be asking their councillors very serious questions as to why such a huge advance payment was made and what precisely it was for.