Sunday 28 December 2014

Barnet Spend on Interims & Agency Staff Continues to Rise

Supplier payments for November are out and yet again the fallacies of savings are cast into doubt. Back in July I blogged about a question Cllr Mark Shooter had asked at the full council meeting relating to the spend on interim and agency staff. The Council response implied large savings had been made but I knew the figures were utterly misleading and when Cllr Shooter queried the figures the answer was laughable.

Question 5 Councillor Mark Shooter
What was the trend in the last quarter of 2013/14 with regards to the council’s spend on agency

Answer by the Leader
There was a 12% reduction in agency staffing expenditure. Agency staff costs incurred during
2013/14 was £3.276m lower than in 2012/13.

Supplementary Question
Can the Leader confirm that these figures are correct?

Supplementary Answer
By one definition, these figures are correct. However, overall, they do not give the full picture and this will be communicated in writing.

In November Comensura billed Barnet a massive £1,630,620.33 bringing the running total for the financial year to date to £9,554,145.16 and running slightly ahead of the same period last year. What I want to understand is why, 15 months into a massive outsourcing contract, are we still spending so much on agency and interim staff. I also want to know why Capita were paid in advance over £360,000 in Gainshare payments for supposedly anticipated  agency staff savings which do not appear to have materialised and  what steps are being taken to recover that money with interest from Capita. At a time when further outsourcing is being planned it seems ridiculous that we are spending so much money on agency staff.

Other major payments in November were Capita who were paid a shade under £2 million, Barnet Lighting, our flawed and financially disastrous Street Lighting PFI was paid £451,028.56 particularly galling when having replaced all the lights to make them brighter they then dimmed over 90% of the street lights to save on electricity.  Barnet's car parking contractor NSL were paid £561,615.28.

We were also charged £143,750.84 by Facultatieve Technologies Ltd. This company installs and repairs crematoria, so this appears to be yet another bill for Hendon Crematorium where we have already been charged £856,081 in the last 18 months.

We also saw the reappearance of an old favourite this month. Impower Consulting, the partners with Agilisys in the One Barnet programme were paid £27,290.75. Perhaps they are trying to sort out the mess they left behind given that so many of the council staff involved with the project have left the council.

As ever I shall be keeping a close eye on Barnet's spending in 2015.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Barnet pay Capita £5.35 million in October

Barnet Supplier payments for October are out and the usual suspect feature large.

Capita were paid £5,353,300.61 on both the CSG contract and the Re contract. I still cannot understand how we can be paying so much money to Capita when this contract is supposed to be saving us money.

To add insult to injury, Specialist Computer Centres were paid £380,007.32 for software licenses and support. That is in addition to the £16.1 million we paid up front to Capita to install new computer systems.

Comensura who provide agency and interim staff were paid £982,152.64 in October, a huge amount given that so many staff have been made redundant and the latest plans are to make a further 2,500 staff redundant leaving only 332 staff to run the whole of Barnet.

North London Waste Authority were paid £1,887,386  which again seems a great deal considering the council spent £11 million last year to introduce the new Blue Bins.

Barnet Lighting Services, the street lighting PFI was paid £510,195.76 a shocking waste of money when you understand that the key driver was to improve street lighting yet 26,000 of the 28,150 street lights have been dimmed.

Conway Aecom who carry out road repairs were paid £977,453.13 in October. I don't know if it was them who resurfaced Crescent Road in East Barnet but whoever did it di a lousy job with recessed gratings and manhole covers meaning that when you drive down the road it is a bit like going down a cobbled lane. With a "thin client" where contractors monitor themselves poor service is perhaps an inevitability.

Eversheds, the lawyers were paid £167,029.83 so plenty of money for them but not for the libraries.

Almost 4 years ago in January 2011 I entered a pledge on the Barnet Council Pledgebank website which was as follows:

“I will pledge to give up 4 hours of my time every month to scrutinise and challenge all invoices over £10,000 to help the Council reduce unnecessary spending so long as five other people will make a similar time commitment to sit on the panel and that Barnet Council will genuinely participate in the process and listen to the advice and opinions given.”

The pledge still holds good - someone needs to scrutinize the payments if we are to drive down costs.

Sunday 30 November 2014

What Barnet Tories said about Libraries in their manifesto just 6 months ago

With the massive cuts to Barnet's library services I thought it would be interesting to see what they said just before the election earlier this year. Take a look for yourself here but this is what they said about Libraries in their manifesto:

Barnet’s Libraries are in good shape.
We have:

  • Kept Barnet’s libraries open – neighbouring Brent closed half theirs.
  • Established two community libraries.
  • Provided all libraries with free wifi.
  • Installed RFID technology e.g. self-service kiosks in many of our libraries

We will:

  • Pledge not to sell the Friern Barnet library building.
  • Deliver improvements to library buildings where required and have new buildings planned e.g. Finchley Church End library.
  • Examine the potential for libraries to expand their offer and become community spaces.
  • Look at community involvement and assist local people to actively support their libraries.

Yet six month on they are planning to decimate the libraries. Where was that in their manifesto? Just like the second phase of outsourcing they are planning, it was silent on the subject. They said that out libraries are in good shape - so why do they want to turn them into large living rooms just 20 ft by 27 ft?

It just shows that you should never believe anything a politician tells you. I was at the East Barnet Library consultation on Friday and the level of mistrust in the Council was off the scale. No one believes a word the Council says any more.

Friday 21 November 2014

Kerr-ching! More money for Capita on the One Barnet Contract

Back in October 2012 Cllr Hugh Rayner spoke some prophetic words:

"I let out contracts myself to various customers and what I learnt in the contract is the word change or variance, because I know they are tied into me for the contract and this where I make all my profit and make up for the low price at the beginning"

And so it is proving true for Capita's contract with Barnet. Buried away on the Council's decisions page is a notice of contract variation which states:

"This contract variation will increase the Contract Charges by £301,508 in Year 1 and £152,072 in Year 2 (Total £453,580) and will be reviewed after 2 years against the revised Contract Baselines in line with the Payment Mechanism set out in Schedule 4 of the Contract".

The variation includes libraries calls, along with children’s service duty rota and fostering calls, although I imagine that the vast majority of these calls are for libraries. The increase charges will fund:

  • Year 1 of the contract - additional 7 FTE to be put in place within the service.
  • From Year 2 this will reduce to 6.0 FTE

Although this decision was made in May 2014 it was only published on 10 November. This causes me great anxiety that we have to wait 6 months to find out what the council is doing.

More to the point what benefit does provide for the people of Barnet? Having called to ask about book availability I went through to the main Capita call centre. Could they help me with my enquiry - absolutely not. After much faffing around they put me through to East Barnet library who I had wanted to speak to in the first place where my enquiry was dealt with quickly and efficiently - no, the book was not in stock at East Barnet but there was a copy at Chipping Barnet library.

Was my experience a one off  - well no actually because according to the Capita call centre performance data for September 2014 only 29.8% of library calls dealt with by the Coventry call centre were resolved.  I have always questioned why so many library calls are routed through the Capita call centre in Coventry when actually the people I want to talk to are in the actual library. Now we know that it is costing us £453,000, including a nice mark up on the salary costs. To my mind that is money wasted that could have been used to support our libraries instead of closing them.

When will Barnet Councillors wake up and realise just how wasteful this One Barnet Contract really is and start questioning the underlying principles of outsourcing everything.

Monday 17 November 2014

Were all these cuts really necessary - Barnet's failed Council Tax policy

Since 2010 Barnet Council have had a policy of freezing Council Tax and this year, just before the election, a Council Tax cut. Sounds good for Barnet Council tax payers but it is simply not sustainable. Costs that the Council has to pay are still rising and many contracts have RPI increase clauses.

Barnet could have increased the council tax by 1.99% without triggering the need for a referendum and in 2013 41% of Councils in England did increase their Council Tax. This year 43%  decided to have modest Council tax rises. Not Barnet. They insisted on cutting council tax just weeks before the election. Up to a couple of months ago it seemed that One Barnet was paying for this freeze but now the reality has hit home and we face massive cuts to key services like libraries.

Set out below is a chart which illustrates the impacts of the cuts

The Council has received a subsidy from the government to help take the pain out of the freeze but these grants are discretionary and will not last indefinitely. I have calculated the difference between what the Council could have collected with 1.99% annual increases and the current policy of freeze and including the central government subsidy the council have received. Based on my calculations Barnet has missed out on £38 million of revenue since 2010 and this year alone, including central government subsidy, the difference is approximately £12.9 million.

Nobody wants to pay too much council tax but ultimately people need to decide if they want to keep essential service like the libraries and pay a little more each year to ensure they are maintained or have lower council tax and poor services. Sadly residents were never given that choice and the political idealogues have pursued their low tax philosophy without any checks or balances.

The unsustainable situation it has created has led to cuts, cuts which many people say are unacceptable and the only people to blame are Barnet Conservatives. Let's have an open dialogue about the services people want and are prepared to pay for, not what we are told we can have by the ruling politicians.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Barnet Council's flawed library strategy - ideology trumps hard evidence and common sense yet again

Yet again Barnet have shown their complete adherence to a political dogma. They have started a consultation which I would urge everyone to read and give their views They start off with a question asking people to say whether you agree with their objectives which are set out below:

1. A library service that provides children and adults with reading, literacy and learning opportunities.
2. A library service that engages with communities.
3. A library service that makes knowledge and information easily accessible.
4. A library service that can withstand current and future financial challenges and safeguard services for vulnerable people.

Asking whether you agree or disagree  with the first three objectives is entirely fruitless. For example who is going to say  they want a library service that makes knowledge and information difficult to access or a service that doesn't engage with the community. Then you reach objective four, a carefully constructed statement which follows the classic "when did you stop beating your wife" format. Which ever way you answer this question the council will use it against you. If you agree because you want to safeguard services for vulnerable people it sends them a green light to cut the service to all but a few key libraries. If you disagree because you are concerned about the financial threats to the services they will say that people don't care about safeguarding services for the vulnerable.

Later on in the survey it asks which days of the week would you prefer libraries to be staffed, ranking which day is most important and which day is least important - surely every day is important.  

It then makes an interesting statement "Relocating the library would make it possible to rent out the existing site, generating income which could then subsidise the running costs of the services. Alternatively the council could generate income by redeveloping or selling existing sites". However Barnet don't exactly have a good track record at this. Remember the complete mess they made with the "Landmark Library" at North Finchley. After paying consultants to carry out a feasibility study they found out that the idea was immensely costly so it was scrapped. Also remember the Church Farmhouse Museum which the Council said they could sell or rent out for a profit, yet so far no one has taken up the lease and it has cost a fortune in security costs to keep it closed. Looking at my own local library in East Barnet, the space they propose to use for the new small self service library is less than a quarter of the ground floor space. But how much will it cost to convert and who one earth is going to rent the rest, especially as the library has a serious subsidence problem.

And this is where I have the biggest problem with the entire crazy project and that is the lack of proper financial and operational data. It sets out the reduction in staff numbers but says nothing about what the costs of library conversions would be, how much rent tenants would pay, what each site would realise if sold and, most importantly, how many library users would be lost by adopting each of the strategies. In fact the only financial numbers I have see so far is the £200,350 it will cost to undertake the consultation exercise and report back in April.

This is symptomatic of the council's approach. Spend a fortune on fruitless consultation exercises which they will ignore anyway and press ahead with ideological plans which have no detailed supporting evidence. I urge everyone to make their views known as silence on this subject will be interpreted as acceptance by the council.

Monday 10 November 2014

Hanging on the telephone - Coventry call centre not performing

Tomorrow is the Performance and Contract Management Committee meeting. One of the items relates to the performance of the Capita in answering the telephone. This is an area which has received significant scrutiny in the past (see Mrs Angry's post from June) with Capita admitting that they have used call capping to dump calls when the lines get too busy.

At this week's meeting the report says that Capita answered 78.1% of calls within 20 seconds for the quarter, below the KPI target of 80% but only just. As always I like to understand what is going on behind the figures and the raw data is now published here. What I found was quite a mixed picture. I have focused on September figures as they are the most recent.

In September 90.5% of calls to the Coventry switchboard were answered within 20 seconds and only 2.1% of calls were abandoned. By contrast, only 36.9% of calls to Adult Social Work were answered within 20 seconds and 22% of calls were abandoned. This equates to 479 people who simply gave up. Worse, the maximum queue time for calls to adult social work was 57 minutes 41 seconds - no wonder people gave in and hung up. Set out below are a few more examples from September:
  • For Housing Benefits only 56.4% of calls were answered within 20 seconds and 914 calls were abandoned with a maximum queue time of 25 minutes 23 seconds.
  • For Council Tax 54.6% of calls were answered within 20 seconds and 842 calls were abandoned with a maximum queue time of 31 minutes 53 seconds.
  • For School Admissions 63.5% of calls were answered within 20 seconds and 606 calls were abandoned with a maximum queue time of 53 minutes 19 seconds.
Did any of these figures make their way into the report  - I don't think so.

Now maybe I am being a bit negative. OK, so some people had to wait nearly an hour to have their calls answered but surely once they got through, their problems were resolved. Well actually when you look at the data on call resolution that doesn't make good reading either.

Set out below is a chart which shows the calls resolved, unresolved and outcome  not recorded.

What this illustrates is that in some areas more than half the calls are going unresolved and in Children's services 94% of calls are unresolved. It is unsurprising that 71% of council tax queries get resolved as this is a key performance measure which Capita are judged on and on which Capita have provided a guaranteed collection rate. 56% of Street Based Services and 59% of Adult Occupational Therapy calls are not being resolved.

Next I had a look at wait times at both Barnet House and at Burnt Oak Library. While Barnet House initial wait times are an average of just 1 minute 26 seconds, the average initial wait time at Burnt Oak is 26 minutes 27 seconds.  Indeed, pity the poor 144 people in September who had to wait at least 45 minutes at Burnt Oak Library including one person who had an initial wait time of a shocking 81 minutes.

Perhaps responding to emails is better? No. In fact in September 32% of emails were not responded to in 10 days, surely long enough for anyone to provide a response.

So do Councillors get a better service? Well in September only 58% of members enquires were dealt with within the Service Level Agreement time of 5 days, with Education & Skills and Adults enquiries fairing particularly badly.

Will any of this get discussed at the meeting on Tuesday. I doubt it especially if  Cllr Finn is chairing the meeting doing his best to suppress any criticism of Capita and the Council's failing and destructive policy of outsourcing everything.

It is about time somebody started holding Capita to account and if our Councillors won't do it then we need to get someone who will.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Another month another £6.7 million for Capita in Barnet

 September supplier payments have been published here showing that Capita were paid a whopping £6,691,280.30. The bill would have been just over £7 million but there is a credit of £313,479 I will have to see why so much was previously over paid.

Other large payments include Comensura who received £1,166,913.31, This is for a contract which is supposed to be reducing but which so far has cost Barnet £6.9 million in the first six months of the year.

The Barnet Group covering both Barnet Homes and Your Choice Barnet were paid £6.2 million in September. I would suggest anyone who is interested should read the papers for the forthcoming Audit Committee which has a limited assurance report on Your Choice Barnet.

Barnet Lighting, the hugely expensive streetlighting contract cost £704,141,41 in September and continues to represent a badly thought through contract.

City Suburban Tree Surgeons were paid £245,195.49. Given that last year they were paid a total of £593k this does seem a particularly high bill for just one month.

There was one interesting supplier, a company called Crowd Technologies who received a modest £2,040 for 5 software licences when looking a little further at this company I found that they provide amongst other thing social media monitoring. Perhaps they are monitoring this blog.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Transparency Downgrade - Barnet's Rotten Website

On Friday evening, after work, I was going through Barnet's website as a vigilant resident when I noticed that the open data page had changed. This is where you can usually find important data about the council's performance. It includes things like the supplier payments and freedom of information requests.

Below is a screen shot of what you used to see on the FOI page:
A clear summary with a button you could click on to see more information.

What you get now is this:
You can't click for more information and the downloadable file simply down loads the summary as shown on the screen. There was also a disclosure log where you could sort through previous FOI requests but now all you get is:

Moving on to supplier payments this has also changed. In addition to being buried away it is now only downloadable in CSV format whereas previously it was also downloadable in excel and PDF format which are more familiar to most people.

Interestingly the supplier payments for August 2014 which were previously published have now disappeared and it is very difficult to find previous years' supplier payments as there are no links on the current year's page. 

Some may say I am paranoid but I do get a feeling that the changes are being made so that it is much harder for residents like me, the other bloggers and engaged residents to challenge the council on their spending, especially under the Capita contract. 

I have contacted the council so time will tell if they actually do something about restoring the limited transparency we previously received.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Barnet, a Borough of Contradictions

At tonight's Policy and Resources Committee the main feature will be the report in to Governance failure and the departure "by mutual consent" of the Monitoring Officer. However there are a few other items on the agenda which I hope do not get overlooked.

In particular there is a report on the introduction of Area Committee Budgets. This plan proposes to give each of the three area committee a budget of £100,000 per annum to give away in grants. The total of £1.2 million over the four years of this scheme will come from reserves. The criteria for these grants is that they should be one-off and do not require on going funding. Therefore they cannot be used for revenue support. Applications should be made via councillors and they will act as 'gatekeepers' for applications. The indicative range for the value of awards will be between £200 and £9,999.

The priorities for the awards are set out in the report and are included below:

"As a starting point, each application must demonstrate that the proposal supports one or more of the Council’s priority outcomes, as set out in the Corporate Plan. Currently, these are:
• To maintain a well-designed, attractive and accessible place, with sustainable infrastructure across the borough.
• To maintain the right environment for a strong and diverse local economy.
• To create better life chances for children and young people across the borough.
• To sustain a strong partnership with the local NHS, so that families and individuals can maintain and improve their physical and mental health.
• To promote a healthy, active, independent and informed over 55 population in the borough to encourage and support our residents to age well.
• To promote family and community well-being and encourage engaged, cohesive and safe communities."

Now you may be saying this sound like a good idea. However, at a time when funding for essential services is being cut it seems bizarre to be giving away £1.2 million in small grants. For example the priorities state that these grants should support the objective to create better life chances for children yet this week Moss Hall Nursery is facing a 50% funding cut   It also states that they want  these grants to promote a healthy active and informed over 55 population yet the leisure budget is being slashed. They want to promote a strong partnership with the NHS yet they are doing their best to drive Your Choice Barnet into the ground by cutting staff pay and reducing services to those with physical and learning disabilities.

In my opinion if Barnet has £1.2 million going spare it would be better used supporting the essential service that are being cut than to come up with vanity projects in the hope of buying votes at the next election.

Monday 13 October 2014

A Critical Week In Barnet

This week there are a number of meetings which may have an influence on who is running Barnet in the near future.
Tonight there are two committee meetings, the General Functions Committee and the Remuneration Committee. Both quite dull you might assume, but I think otherwise.

First is the General Functions Committee where they will be discussing a senior management restructure. The outcome of this restructure is a proposed saving of £100,000 a year, certainly not enough in my view. There is a great deal re-titling of posts but there are some new posts being created which, to my mind, are both flawed and indicative of the increasing remoteness of senior officers from the residents they are there to serve.

From my perspective we do not need both a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer especially now as so much of the council is outsourced. My recommendation would be to do away with the Chief Operating Officer role, and to make the Deputy Chief Operating Officer the S151 Officer. If the current CEO was made redundant and the COO promoted into that role but on their current salary of £158,464, it would save the council £231,702 per annum, more than double the proposed savings. I also see no need for a new Strategic Director of Commissioning to sit above the four Commissioning Directors. If that new post was deleted that would save a further £195,703 per annum. It would also get the Commission Directors reporting direct to the Chief Executive which to my mind would be a positive step.

There is also a proposal to create a role entitled Director for Strategy and Communications at an annual cost of £140,600 profligate in my view especially as this is in addition to the Head of Communications and Marketing with an annual cost of  £98,129. I think the council has reached strategy saturation - what it needs are people to do front line jobs. Think how many care staff could be employed or nursery funding cuts reinstated with the £568,000 per annum that could be saved if only a degree of common sense was used.

It appear that straight after the General Functions Committee the Remuneration Committee will talk again about this restructure although quite why it needs two separate committees to discuss the same matter is beyond me.

Then on Tuesday we move on to the main feature of the week and the report by Claer Lloyd-Jones and the complete and utter failure of the Monitoring Officer role to actually provide the governance required by the Council. I won't go into the report in detail as Mrs Angry has done a far superior job than I could ever do so I suggest you read her blog here.

All I will say is that evidence continues to percolate out and the more that is revealed the worse it looks for those in charge of Barnet Council, both Leader and Chief Executive. The "has she/ hasn't she gone" debate that went on last week in the press was unedifying made worse by the response from Dan Thomas that Barnet is a super efficient council. Was she the only candidate on the list or were others dissuaded from applying by the deletion of the need for a legal qualification?

The next big question will focus on the decisions that have been made by the former monitoring officer since she was appointed back in 2012 and whether she was sufficiently qualified to make them. Barnet have had some major problems recently with their legal advice such as the parking charge increases being ruled illegal and millions having to be refunded to residents. More recently Andrew Dismore's various complaints to the leaders panel which were ruled out by the former monitoring officer in spite of the advice of the independent person who sits on the panel.

The Council seems to lurch from one crisis to another and from my perspective that stems from weak leadership. A vote of no confidence in both the leader and the Chief Executive is next and that may see both occupiers of those roles seeking new opportunities before the month is out.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Another Million for Capita - August Supplier Payments

Barnet's supplier payments for August are out and as ever there are some big payments to the usual culprits.

  • Barnet Lighting billed £1,186,455.15 for all those new street lights that we actually didn't need.
  • The Barnet Group billed £7,245,939.88;
  • London Borough of Harrow £7,167,500 Health authorities - Third Party Payment whatever that means;
  • Comensura who provide agency staff to the council billed £1,331,152.06. Yet again the bill is very high regardless of what was said at the Council meeting in July. Given that the an Internal Audit report earlier this year said that "There is no requirement for the order of agency staff on the Comensura system to be approved by a more senior officer. There is therefore a risk that agency staff may be appointed without appropriate approval." It is also interesting when looking back to four years ago before outsourcing was forced upon us when in 2010/11 the total annual bill for agency staff was £8.99 million or an average of £750,000 a month, almost £600,000 a month LOWER than under the 'wonderful' efficient commissioning council model.
  • Saracens were paid £50,385.50 in rents. I do find this a little surprising given that Mr Mustard uncovered that in July Saracens owed the council £380,000 for parking permits. I hope that £380k has now been paid.
  • And so we come to Capita. They billed £1,113,319.01 a sizeable bill  and one for which we have no transparency.
I hope our councillors scrutinise the payments as rigorously as the residents. (Oh yeh!)

Monday 22 September 2014

One Barnet and Why Capita's £75 million Doesn't Add Up

We have been told repeatedly that the Capita One Barnet Contract will save residents millions of pounds. The two main contracts and the forecast savings are as follows:

NSCSO (now called CSG)
Baseline (at December 2012) costs £38.8 million
Forecast costs savings £7.01 million
Procurement savings £4.69 million
Improved council tax collection £0.84 million
Total guaranteed saving £12.54 million
By my reckoning this means that Barnet should pay £26.26 million per annum
(Source: NSCSO Business Case Cabinet Meeting 6 December 2012)

DSG (now called Re)
Baseline (at June 2013) costs £14.2 million
Forecast cost savings £0.53 million
Increased income £3.38million
Total guaranteed savings £3.9 million
By my reckoning this means that Barnet should pay £10.3 million per annum
(Source: DSG Business case Cabinet Meeting 24 June 2013)

So if we look at the figures above this means that we should be paying Capita £36.56 million assuming they deliver all of the guaranteed savings. It may therefore surprise you that in the year 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 Barnet paid Capita £75,008,840.49. Yes £75 MILLION,  £38.44 million more than we should be paying.

Even setting aside the £16 million of up front investment Barnet have paid to Capita (which should be factored back into the annual cost savings)  that still means we paid £59 million when the cost of providing the service before outsourcing was only £53 million. Also bear in mind that Barnet have shelled out millions in redundancy payment, £8 million on Agilisys/iMpower, millions for agency staff as well as causing distress and heartbreak to hundreds of families that have suffered redundancy to push through these contracts.

At tomorrow night's Council meeting, Richard Cornelius will once again be selling the myth that Capita are saving Barnet residents a fortune in his response to a question from Alison Moore. I hope some of the Councillors present start asking whether these figures are real or just smoke and mirrors. The number don't add up Cllr Cornelius.

Monday 15 September 2014

Barnet Council's Clap-o-Meter tactics to push through more outsourcing

Over the years Barnet Council have produced some highly suspect and biased reports to support their political ideology of outsourcing the entire council. The One Barnet Business Case reports are the most obvious examples and I blogged about the DSG report back in March 2011. In that business case there was a lack of evidence to support many of the assumptions and a series of what I can only describe as entirely untruthful statements about investment and who was going to make it. At that time they said that all of the investment was going to be made by the outsourcing company and the only exception would be the cremators at Hendon Crematorium. Roll on two years and Barnet Council sign a cheque for investment for £16.1 million for all of the investment.

With the election out of the way, the council zealots now have another four years to push through their commissioning council agenda, one dictated entirely by political dogma and lacking in both financial rigour and common sense. Tonight we see yet another of these  fallacious reports which is supposed to dupe any stupid, ignorant, lazy or unquestioning councillors on the committee. Luckily, I think (hope) that today we have some rather sharper councillors who aren't going to put up with this utter tripe and who are going to ask some probing and challenging questions.

I have read an excellent report by Dexter Whitfield which sets out those deficiencies concisely and I would urge as many people as possible to read it here. However, I believe that the report will not be allowed to be taken at the meeting nor are the unions who represent the staff that will be impacted by the decision allowed to speak.  Barnet Council don't believe is balance, in evidence or in alternative view points so any report which seeks to challenge the Council's view point must be suppressed. This means that council officers employed by Capita are promoting another outsourcing project of whom the most likely winner will be Capita. No conflict there then.

I have included one example from the council report  that incensed me as follows:

"The in house option is the representation of the service continuing to operate broadly as now, but on the basis that budgets are to be reduced significantly. This option would therefore require significant service reductions to meet budget targets."... "The in house model cannot meet all the objectives for this service, as the level of service cannot be preserved and it would not actively involve schools in the development process."
The report then lists out the potential risks of an in house team as follows (my comments in red):
  • Limited experience in trading outside the Borough - but what if there aren't any buyers outside the borough. We have seen this with the Your Choice Barnet (YCB) contract which having been outsourced on the basis of winning external business is in massive financial difficulties because there are no external buyers of the service
  • Limited ability to generate new income - but the successful schools catering service run by an in-house team already makes a profit of £190,000 a year which is ploughed back into Barnet coffers
  • Over time, non-DSG services will be reduced to a statutory minimum, with potential impact on services to schools and on children and young people - and who says that won't happen with an outsourced provider exactly as is happening with YCB
  • Less ability and freedom to innovate - an entirely groundless and unsubstantiated assumption based on a prejudiced view of "public bad private good"
  • Delivering savings will limit the capacity to generate income - again an entirely unsubstantiated and false statement. The in-house team have already had to cope with budget cuts every year for the last four years and at the same time generate £9.1 million of income per annum.
  • Potential gradual reduction in strategic influence * - and the asterisk denotes a footnote which say this applies to a "number" (and in my opinion all) of the options
  • Redundancies will be required, the cost of which are retained in house - and all the staff redundancies paid when the two main contracts were let to Capita were paid  for in full by the Council so again an entirely misleading and erroneous statement
  • Cannot secure additional private funding - so what happened to Invest-to-Save?
  • No sharing of risk with schools or third party - who says the schools can't share some of the risk?
The council have also fiddled the option evaluation scoring scheme so as to load it against the in-house option. No one is answerable for the scores given, and as far as I can see they are entirely made up and without substantiation, simply a personal view of the officers involved.
Set out below is the scoring chart:
Strategic direction is given 30% of the marks whereas performance - what they actually deliver -get only 20% of the marks. This illustrates perfectly how dogma trumps how the service is actually delivered and why the officers are completely out of touch with reality.

Don't let anyone believe that just because there are lots of numbers it is a scientific or rational mechanism. It isn't. I would liken it to Hughie Green's Clap-o-Meter - unscientific, driven entirely by the amount of noise made by the audience and for amusement only.  (Any resemblance between Hughie Green and Richard Cornelius is entirely coincidental). I hope that at the meeting tonight the Labour Councillors make plenty of noise, and ensure this report is consigned to the rejects bin where it belongs.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Barnet supplier payments - another £675k for Capita

This month the overall supplier payments were £35.5 million. Aside from the usual suspects such as TFL, Barnet Group and Barnet Lighting there were a few payments which deserve a little more examination

Capita  billed £675,137.58 the majority of which related to the CSG contract. Discovering specifically what it is for shall have to wait until the inspection of accounts next year and even then I don't hold out much hope of getting any real detail on the figures.

Councillor Shooter asked at a council meeting back in July about agency staff cost with  the response that the costs are falling. This month the bill from Comensura, the council's agency and interim staff provider was   £1,268, 836.97, down slightly on June but still higher than May. Given the council has spent many millions on redundancy costs it seems ridiculous to be spending an average of £1.3 million per month temporary staff. A few others were as follows:

Paul Winter & Co billed £112,469 for what I suspect is legal advice on Brent Cross
NSL  billed £561,943.35 which looks like two payments instead of one.
Hags Play Ltd  billed £387,858.28 they are suppliers of playground equipment
Facultatieve Technologies Ltd who have been installing new Cremators at Hendon billed £185,288.

Apologies to readers for my prolonged absence from blogging but I will pull my finger out and get back into the swing of things now the summer holidays are over.

Thursday 31 July 2014

Another day another £10.68 million for Capita - The cost of Barnet outsourcing continues to rise.

The supplier payments for June have just been published and at £45 million they are up considerably on the previous two months.

Capita received £10,687,650.86.  £4.23 million was for the Re contracts (planning trading standards, environmental health etc) and £6.45 million was for the CSG contract (call centre, finance, council tax collection, housing benefit administration etc). I am assured that Capita payments are thoroughly checked by Council staff, but when dealing with so much money to just one supplier I think a greater degree of public transparency is vital.

Comensura, who Cllr Shooter was asking about at the last council meeting were paid £1,329,285.59 in June, a rise of £271,477.11 on May's payments. So any suggestion that this is a reason for back slapping and congratulations seems a bit premature.

Other payments included £3.66 million to Transport Trading a subsidiary of TFL, £676k for Barnet Lighting for all those new street lights many of which were replaced entirely needlessly. Ridgeland Properties is the company owned by the Comer Brothers and is for rental on Barnet's offices at North London Business Park. A further £186,250 was paid out to a company called Dancastle Ltd which represents the rent on Barnet House in Whetstone.

£866k was paid out to Fremantle for the care some of our elderly residents, a company who have been the subject of blogs by the formidable Mrs Angry

NSL the council's outsourced parking contractor received £320k this month. I wonder if Barnet really are getting value for money on that contract?

The top 25 payments by value are below:

The council also paid out £18,777 in subscriptions to CIPFA Business Limited the business arm of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy. It may be that this is for subscriptions to services such as benchmarking but these days of austerity should mean that all subscriptions come under the closest scrutiny.

It is also interesting to see that Barnet Council paid Saracens £3,819 especially as in today's Barnet Times it say that Saracens owe several hundred thousand pounds to Barnet.

I still think that there needs to be much greater external and independent scrutiny when signing off over £45 million of payments in just one month but this is Barnet where proper scrutiny remains a wish not a reality.

Friday 25 July 2014

So how much is this Capita contract costing us in Barnet?

As you may know, I like to exercise my right to inspect the accounts and in particular to review invoices. This year my focus was on Capita invoices given that in 2013/14 they amounted to £62,743,081.83. Yes you have read it correctly £62.75 million and that isn't even for a full year.

At the very outset of the 2013 financial year Capita billed Barnet £340k to pick up the pieces when 2e2 went into administration and to maintain the IT systems through till 15 June 2013. A not insubstantial sum but definitely embarrassing given that Barnet had paid 2e2 their fees in advance so this was paying a second time for the same work.

On 27 June Capita invoiced Barnet for £14.74 million for "Interim measures to provide critical services". According to the annotation on the invoice this also included elements of capital. Now bear in mind this payment was made 6 weeks before the main contract was signed. Interestingly when I asked where the contract for this interim support existed I was pointed to the main contract where it had been neatly written in. So to me this looks like the main contract was signed in Augiust to include a contract for an interim service that had already taken place. Very curious and swiftly followed up with a further invoice for "Interim measures to provide critical services" for another £125k for the period 17-28 June or an extra £10k a day.

We then had a tranche of invoices on 6th August (the very same day the contract with Capita was signed) for capital investment - remember the capital investment that previous councillors said Barnet did not have and could not fund. Those invoices amounted to £10.478 million for various IT systems.

At the end of August and the first couple of days of September Capita invoiced Barnet £11.7 million for "Periodic Service Payments". From what I can understand these are the payments for actually delivering the service and relate specifically to the NSCSO (CSG) contract.

On the 30th September Capita under its "Re" contract (DRS) invoiced Barnet £5.18 million for the contract that started on 1st October.

From then on to the end of the year there are a number of payments including two periodic payments for the CSG contract each of £6.89 million and a further Re contract payment of  £3.4 million.

What intrigued me were a couple of comparatively small invoices,one on 27 November and one on 9th december for a total of £417,007. What this payment relates to is a clause in the contract called "Gainshare" where Capita get a cut of any savings made. Although the contract is redacted it is apparent from the numbers on the invoices that Capita receive 40% of any savings made.

I felt deeply uncomfortable about these savings and have been trying to understand how such savings could be made so quickly. Following a great deal of correspondence with the council and having several subtly different version of how the savings are justified I have been  told that these savings are the estimate of savings to be made over the next year, that Capita invoice Barnet upfront and then at the end of the year if the savings are not as great as Capita forecast then Capita have to return some of the money.  Frankly I was staggered that the council should be sharing out quite so much of the savings of our money and paying out forecast savings as much as a year before they are realised.

Personally  I cannot believe that any commercial organisation would countenance such a one-sided deal but this is Barnet Council we are talking about. Transparency on these savings is absolutely zero. I have asked repeatedly for evidence and it has been promised as recently as Tuesday but it still has not materialised. Indeed one of the largest elements of this saving relates to an area which I believe is virtually impossible to audit which should make everyone very uncomfortable.

So what you may say. It's £417k out of a massive budget. However this week Barnet signed off approval for contracts worth £594 million to be procured. Most of these are existing contract so will Capita be entitled to 40% of the savings on all those contracts? Let us say that they realise 10% savings possibly by squeezing residential and nursing homes who will in turn squeeze staff wages in exactly  the same way that Your Choice Barnet have cut the wages of staff by 9.5%.

 If that were the case would Capita be entitled to £23.76 million of "Gainshare" which they will bill upfront?
Do any of the councillors who signed the contract know? Was the matter raised by councillors on Tuesday evening when the approved the procurement exercise? There was no debate on the subject and Dan Thomas did not allow any scrutiny from Cllr Paul Edwards who wanted to asked questions.

Barnet have signed up to a contract which increasing appears immensely complex and entirely one sided with not one councillor bothering to query why so much money has been paid to Capita in such a short period of time.
At the Audit Committee this week one of the independent committee members said quite firmly " I am not prepared to sign off accounts I have not read". What a shame Conservative councillors did not take the same approach before they signed off this massive Capita contract.

Monday 14 July 2014

Is Councillor Shooter Getting a Straight Answer - or are Barnet Fudging the Figures?

At tomorrow's Council meeting there is a section for questions to the Leader which you can read in full here.
Question 5 is asked by Councillor Mark Shooter and says:
What was the trend in the last quarter of 2013/14 with regards to the council’s spend on agency
Answer by the Leader
There was a 12% reduction in agency staffing expenditure. Agency staff costs incurred during
2013/14 was £3.276m lower than in 2012/13.

As I take a great interest in how much things cost at Barnet Council - because it is our money being spent - I knew this did not seem correct. Set out below is the email I have sent to Cllr Shooter and I genuinely hope he bothers to ask some more probing follow up questions. We will have to wait and see tomorrow. If not it will demonstrate that these questions are simply about showboating and not about genuine scrutiny.

Dear Cllr Shooter,

I see that you have asked a question at the Council meeting tomorrow regarding the trend in use of agency staff. I am however puzzled at the response you have received as these figures do not appear to concur with the figures produced in the supplier payments system.

The response you received states that agency staff costs fell by 12% in the last quarter. I am not clear what they are judging that against and I have set out the figures as stated in the supplier payments below:

Agency & Interim Staff – October, November, December 2013 -                 £2,933,778.80
Agency & Interim Staff – January, February, March 2014 -                          £3,061,789.21
That represents a rise in the last quarter of approximately 4.3%

There may be anomalies in those figures relating to the designation of interim staff so I also looked at the amount paid to Comensura who are the Council’s main agency staff provider. Their figures are slightly lower but are as follows:
Payments to Comensura – October, November, December 2013 -                £2,801,445.26
Payments to Comensura – January, February, March 2014 -                         £2,799,054.12
This represents a decline of £2,391.14  or 0.08% and definitely not 12%

In addition I would point out that whilst the response says that agency staff costs fell by £3.276 million in 2013/14, the supplier payments system suggests that agency and interim staff costs in fact rose by £1.249 million compared to 2012/13 (2012/13 £12,526,942.66 versus 2013/14 £13,775,545.95).

Perhaps someone will be able to explain why there are such massive anomalies between what you have been told and what the supplier payments system states. Either way there is a major error. I would also point out that I did discover an £8.4 million error in Supplier Payments in April 2014 which led to the figures being re-issued. I would also point out that since April 2014 it is no longer possible to make comparisons of activity type for payments as many are now simply classified as “various” significantly reducing the transparency of the supplier payments system.

If you wish me to provide the evidence supporting my figures I would be more than happy to do so.
Kind regards

Mr Reasonable

Thursday 10 July 2014

Waste and Bureaucracy at Barnet Council

Papers for the forthcoming council meeting set out, amongst other things, the members allowance scheme and the responsibilities of key committees.

When the Council was considering changing from a cabinet system to a committee system there was much talk about how it would give backbench members more of a role. The reality appears to be giving more Conservative councillors the opportunity to gain a special responsibility allowance. This is the allowance paid on top of a basic councillors allowance of £10,597.  The Leader Cllr Richard Cornelius receives an additional allowance of £34,000 which is probably fair enough given that the role does take up a great deal of time. The deputy leader Cllr Dan Thomas receives an extra £27,000 which does seem excessive but that has always been the practice. Where I start to have a real objection is the number of chairmen (they are all called Chairman regardless of actual gender) and vice chairmen who now get an allowance.

  • 17 Chairmen receive a special allowance of £15,333
  • 5 Chairmen receive a special allowance of £8,852
  • 3 Chairmen of the residents forums receive a special allowance of £2,368
  • In addition the Vice Chairmen of 8 committees also receive an allowance of £2,368

Given that the Conservative group have always held all the Chairman  and Vice Chairmen posts, this means that it will be possible to allocate a special allowance to every single one of the 32 Conservative councillors.

Looking at what councillors have to do for this special allowance, the work load does seem to vary. For the Residents Forums the Chairmen have to chair 4 meetings a year which means that for each meeting they receive £592 for a committee which lasts a maximum of 2 hours. The area sub committees also meet 4 times a year immediately after the residents forums. The chairmen of these committees, Cllrs Sowerby, Old and Gordon therefore receive £2,213 for each meeting they chair. That strikes me as completely over the top.

We then look at the highest paid chairmen. For example, Cllr Davey chairs the Housing Committee which meets 4 times a year. While accepting that there is some work to be done outside the committee meetings, £3,833 per meeting does seem completely out of proportion given that it is on top of the £10,597 basic allowance.

From my perspective this entire exercise has been about jobs for Tory councillors and exceptionally well paid jobs to boot. These councillors may claim they are running the council but in reality there is a team of highly paid senior executives earning six figure salaries to do that job.

What also strikes me as bizarre is the fact that for all the committees holding meetings most are simply talking shops with virtually all the power resting in just one committee, Policy and Resources details of which you can read here.

On a day when local authority workers are striking over low pay, it does seem rather offensive that so many Conservative councillors are planning to reward themselves with so much for so little.

Sunday 22 June 2014

How Accessible is Your Barnet Councillor?

Yesterday I saw a tweet from Phil Fletcher which I found utterly disheartening.
It was particularly galling as I had been at the Chipping Barnet  Residents forum earlier this week when Phil was trying to ask some perfectly reasonable questions and to which Cllr Lisa Rutter kept chanting the mantra "go and ask your councillor". Subsequently Cllr Longstaff replied that they had moved the surgery to the Conservative Party Headquarters at 163 Barnet High Street a year ago. It is just a shame that no one bothered to change the details on the council website which still shows surgeries are held at Chipping Barnet Library where Phil had attended.

Being the sort of person that I am, I thought I would look into this a bit further and look at the surgery details of all councillors. A few of the new councillors have yet to set out their surgery details but my analysis did reveal something else quite interesting and that is the amount of time councillors devote to surgeries. Set out below is a graph showing the number of minutes each month (assuming 4 week months) councillors host their surgeries.
One thing jumps off the page at you and that is minimal time Conservative councillors devote to surgeries (with the exception of Mill Hill Cllrs). The general trend is that Labour councillors allocate 90 minutes every week whereas Conservatives allocate either 60 or 90 minutes once a month. Some councillors may claim that they are always available but the whole point of surgeries is that councillors make themselves easily accessible.

It is all very well Lisa Rutter saying going and speak to your councillor but not all Conservative councillors are as conscientious as her (she holds a one hour weekly surgery). If your councillor is only available between 6pm and 7pm on the 4th Monday of each month (Garden Suburb)  or 6pm to 7pm at Hendon Town Hall on the first Monday of the month, but none at all in October (Hendon) there is a pretty good chance you will miss the opportunity to visit them.

Some Conservative councillors may say that there is no need/demand for more surgery time but if you make it difficult for people to visit their councillor and don't keep your contact details up to date, it is not surprising that residents do not attend. At a time when the council is talking about the importance of resident engagement to take up service that the council will no longer provide, I would have thought that the starting point for that engagement would have been councillor surgeries.

By the way, Councillor Brian Gordon's details should be updated as they are still showing his surgery for the old Hale Ward from where he jumped ship, not the Edgware ward where he is now councillor.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Chaos at Chipping Barnet Residents Forum

Last night's Chipping Barnet Residents Forum started badly and only got worse. The "Chairman" was Lisa Rutter who, I think, took entirely the wrong tone and as a result steered the meeting into a rigid and inflexible format that left many residents completely disengaged.

We started with a presentation on the new Area Forums and the £100,000 budget they will be allocated. Sounds good? Yes except that although residents can come up with ideas, they will then be reviewed by officers and councillors to see if they are "viable". Give it with one hand take it away with the other. The framework is not clear in what they want to achieve other than it has to be a capital project and cannot require on-going funding. Another council officer gave a breakdown of the population profile in the constituency - how that is meant to help decide what sort of projects will be chosen is unclear. On one of the slides was a reference to timebanks and when someone asked what they were, the officer said they didn't know and asked the audience. Luckily Green candidate, Poppy, was able to explain.

Then onto the main part of the meeting. We started with a petition from residents on Pollard Road. The person who brought the petition was told immediately that the petition was being referred to the Environment Sub Committee and did he have anything else to add? He looked a bit flabbergasted and said that he had expected to talk about the issues. Again Lisa Rutter told him he had 3 minutes to speak (not an official time limit as there is no such rule for residents forums). I should have mentioned that there was a large contingent of residents from Pollard Road and you could sense their frustration. The petitioner started asking questions of the chair who batted them straight back by saying they could discuss then at the Environment Sub Committee. Lisa Rutter then suggested that all the residents would be able to raise these points at the sub committee which is untrue, that is not how the subcommittees work. I told several of the residents that this was untrue and that if they wanted to speak they should do so now. When one of the residents then asked again if they could discuss the issue at the sub committee they were told that no they couldn't. Oh dear, not a smart move and a large number of dissatisfied residents.

At this stage the former chair of the residents forum, Kate Salinger - who I always found to be fair in the way she chaired forums - suggested that all the residents move to a room across the hall to discuss their concerns with Brian Salinger, Councillor for the ward, and who could then reflect their views more accurately at the Sub Committee. A smart move and one which seemed to take some of the heat out of the situation.

There were a number of similar tussles throughout the meeting where sensible suggestions from residents seemed to be met by refusal or complex solutions by the council. Parking on Friern Barnet Lane, parking on Sellwood Drive both problems that could be resolved with some common sense but Lisa Rutter's continual chanting of the mantra you should be speaking to your local councillors about these issues just seemed to anger the audience even more. The issue with Sellwood Drive revealed the level of friction between the new labour councillors for Underhill Ward and the ruling group. Residents were told that there is a list of road across the Borough where councillors have agreed that parking on the pavement will not be ticketed. However since the election residents in Sellwood Drive have been ticketed, albeit with warning notices. The three new councillors had not been consulted on the change in ticketing policy nor had they been c=given the list and this seemed to anger Cllr Paul Edwards.

Eventually the meeting ran out of time with a number of questions including three from Mr Reasonable left unanswered. I must note that I was originally told (as were a number of other residents) that my questions were not admissible as questions had to relate to "local" matters, a term entirely undefined in the constitution. A robust response from me and suddenly they weren't inadmissible but better dealt with by other committees or by our local councillors! so what's the point of forums then.

I think you could sum up the evening as shambolic with many residents who had not been to a forum before left feeling entirely frustrated at the restrictive and unhelpful attitude and council procedures. Lisa Rutter successfully managed to reduce what should be a channel to access residents views, to listen to their concerns and to find collaborative ways to work together, into a heated confrontational battlefield where standpoints were simply hardened.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Chaos in Barnet - Did outsourcing legal services lead to this mess?

At the start of last night's Assets Regeneration and Growth Committee Andrew Travers, the Barnet CEO, announced that, based on legal advice, all decisions made by committees since the election are not legal.  This is because there is a dispute as to the proportionality of committees. Although Richard Cornelius strenuously denied this was a Conservative ploy one has to wonder who else would have raised this challenge. Geof Cooke asked whether legal advice had been taken before the council meeting and if not why not. Barnet outsourced its legal services to London Borough of Harrow a couple of years ago and one has to wonder if this was the best of decisions given that we now face another four weeks on inactivity before the next full council meeting can resolve the issue. I hope that a full investigation is undertaken to make sure the person or organisation responsible for the duff advice get held to account. It cannot be allowed to pass without holding someone to account.

Friday 13 June 2014

Supplier payments and the missing £8.4 million - good job they have armchair auditors in Barnet

On 27th May Barnet Council published their supplier payments for April, a few days before the deadline. Now you have to know your way around the Council website to find these payments but I always schedule in time at the end of every month to review them. Initially I was a bit wary as the file size was enormous 56MB when it is typically around 100 KB. Downloading the file caused my computer to go into a flat spin but eventually I opened the file only to find a rather modest £22.489 million of payments significantly less than I would have expected.

I immediately emailed the council on the 27th May to ask them what the problem was, why was the file size so immense and where were the missing payments.

On 30 May this was the response I received.

Thanks for the query – I’ve set out the explanation below.

The guidance from the DCLG advises that we should be disclosing payments made by the authority during the period greater than £500. Up until March 2014 the Council had been disclosing all payments and their various posting details (directorate, service area etc.) where the payment was made during the period and the individual posting line was greater than £500. This was slightly different in approach to the guidance provided by the DCLG which refers to invoices over £500 rather than ledger postings over £500.

For example, in the April 2014 disclosure we have disclosed three invoices paid to Comensura Limited for the net amount of £788,192.47 (£354,22.65, £219,437.08 and £214,442.74). During the period we have only paid three invoices to Comensura Limited, each of which has been coded in the Council’s general ledger accounts over multiple codes. Some of these individuals lines will be less than £500 and some over. Previously the Council hasn’t disclosed the total invoice value paid, however the individual lines within the invoice greater than £500. This isn’t in line with the guidance and explains the variance in the number of lines on the April disclosure, rather than the fact that we have missed some invoices. Those marked with various are therefore where the invoices have been charged to more than general ledger account.
Comensura is probably the most significant example, but there are a number of others, care providers predominantly.

If it would help, I am happy to ask a colleague to send you the general ledger account breakdown for the invoices marked with ‘various’ and we shall look at including this in future periods either within the disclosure or as a separate attachment. At the same time I shall ask for a colleague to see if there is a reason why the file size is so different.

Now it is a good job I am not easily fobbed off because I knew that irrespective of the consolidation of suppliers payments into a few larger invoices there were still a significant number of payments missing so again I immediately emailed back the following:

Thank you for your response. I think you are saying that rather than listing individual entries you are only listing actual invoices paid which may cover a number of entries and that means there are fewer payments listed. I could accept that if there weren’t a large number of companies missing who you typically pay every single month without fail. For example starting at the beginning: Affinity Water are consistently paid every month. In April no payment. Same for Agudas Israel Housing Association Ltd; Anchor Foster Care Services Ltd; Barnet Lighting Services; Baytree Community Care; Blue 9 Security; Brent Couriers; NSL; the list goes on and on. I am sorry but I simply do not believe this suppliers list. The fact that the total payments in April is only £22.5 million when I would typically expect it to be at least £31-32 million (the average for 2013/14 was £39.4 million but it did have all those advance payments to Capita) and in April 2013 was £31.3 million suggests that a large number of invoices have been omitted.

I therefore would ask to look into this again and to send me a full and complete list of payments next time.  I also look forward to understanding why it is such a huge file size.

And then I waited until the 4th June and having found the person dealing with it was now on holiday I chased someone more senior. A couple of days later I got a response acknowledging that there was a problem and that they would let me know when the problem was sorted. That was a week ago. Today I checked again and saw that the file was now showing as being much smaller (only 99KB). However clicking on the link it downloaded the massive old file crashing my computer again. Eventually at 4pm I checked again and this time it downloaded the new file.

So what are the differences? The original file had payments of £22.5 million. The new file has payments with a value of £30.9 million from an additional 514 invoices including all the missing names I had mentioned plus two invoices from Capita Business Services Ltd for a total of £248,203.82

So what you may say? Well the issue is the supplier payments are suppose to help with transparency and are a requirement of central government. If I had simply accepted the payments on the face of it there would be a massive gap of £8.5 million in just one month. Also if I had been prepared to be fobbed off with a supposedly informed response from a senior officer those payments would still be missing. But here is the cruncher - who prepares these figures - Is it CAPITA? I think it is since they took over the finance function last September.

Where were the quality assurance checks, where was the attention to detail and why wasn't it picked up when I first challenged it. It seems to me that the only people holding the council to account are the few engaged citizen who get paid absolutely nothing unlike Capita and the senior officers who get paid a fortune.

I am logging this as yet another Capita contract failure.

Monday 2 June 2014

Barnet Inspection of Accounts in case you missed it - Starts Tomorrow

Notice is hereby given that the accounts of the London Borough of Barnet, in respect of the financial year ended 31 March 2014, will be available for public inspection as set out below:
1. From Tuesday 3rd June 2014 to Monday 30th June 2014, inclusive (between 9.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. (weekdays only), any person interested may:
(a) Inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them; and
(b) make copies of all and any part of the accounts and those other documents; for which the council may make a charge for costs incurred. Any person wishing to exercise the rights, set out at (1) above, must make application in writing to the council’s Chief Operating Officer at:
Building 2, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP or
2. The council’s External Auditor has appointed the date of Tuesday 1st July 2014, until the completion of the audit, for any local government elector for the area to which the accounts relate, or any representative of his/her, to question the auditor about the accounts and/or to make objections to the auditor as set out below:
(a) any, relevant, local government elector wishing to be provided with an opportunity to question the auditor about the accounts and/or or to object to the accounts, must send notice in writing to:
Paul Hughes, Director, Grant Thornton UK LLP, Grant Thornton House, Melton Street, London, NW1 2EP or
(b) any notice of proposed objection(s) must set out, clearly, the grounds on which the objection is made. A copy of the notice to the auditor, dealing with proposed objection(s) must be sent, at the same time, to the council’s Chief Operating Officer:
Chris Naylor, Chief Operating Officer
Building 2, North London Business Park, Oakleigh
Road South, London N11 1NP
Email for notices:

Your Choice Barnet - Driving low paid staff into poverty.

I received notice today that there has been a strike ballot by Your Choice Barnet care staff. Your Choice Barnet (YCB) is part of the Barnet Group, a 100% owned trading arm of Barnet Council. The Council decided it would be a good idea to outsource adult social care. As a result they handed responsibility for the service over to the Barnet Homes who already run the Council's social housing. We were told how the new company was going to save council tax payers a fortune by getting lots of other authorities and other social care providers. Surprise surprise it didn't happen and now YCB are in a financial mess having had to borrow £1 million to get then through the cash shortfall when the new business didn't materialise. Rather than stand back and see that this was a flawed strategy they decided to cut wages, not of the most senior staff but of the front line care staff whose numbers have already been cut. So more work and a 9.5% pay cut has led to a strike ballot. many people are anti union claiming they are unrepresentative. Well in this case the strike ballot was 100% in favour of strike action something which is exceptionally rare and which indicate the depth of feeling amongst staff.

We all know someone who is elderly; a relative, a friend, a neighbour. We expect them to receive decent care from staff who are trained and are consistent. Unsurprisingly the pay cut and more hours has led to a number of staff leaving, replaced by agency staff who may only do the job for a few weeks before they move on elsewhere. This is a desperate situation and entirely of the Council's making. Some services cannot be privatised as they are both uneconomic to a profit driven organisation and critical to the welfare of vulnerable individuals. Driving low paid staff into poverty is not the solution

Barnet Council need to do the right thing and quickly. They need to bring the service back in house and run it properly, treating staff fairly and ensuring the vulnerable get a consistently good quality service. That is the only way this situation will be resolved satisfactorily.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

One Day Till the Voters Decide - Where has the £55 million gone?

Tomorrow is election day and Barnet residents must decide who is worthy of their vote. Over the last week I have been looking back at what has happened over the last four years in order. I wasn't sure which issue to focus on today. Should I look at the seven key principles that should apply to all aspects of public life as set down by the Committee for Standards in Public Life. Have councillors shown: 
That is very much a matter of personal opinion so I'll leave that for you to decide. However, as someone who I respect a great deal said very recently "nothing catches my attention more than finding out people are spending my hard earned money unwisely and without consulting me" so I thought for my last blog before the election I would focus on the money Barnet have handed over to Capita.

According to the Supplier payments system  in the financial year 2013/14 Barnet paid Capita (including the Re joint venture controlled by Capita) £55.3 million. Bear in mind that the contract wasn't even signed until August and didn't commence until September/October so that represents just over 6 months where Capita have been running services. Bearing in mind that the total value of the two contracts should be no more than £36 million per annum (when all the alleged savings are taken into account), I can't understand why we have shelled out £55 million for just six months worth of contract.

So how come Barnet have paid so much? Firstly, Barnet residents have paid millions of pounds to make hundreds of council staff redundant even though councillors repeatedly denied this when questioned about it before the contract was signed. Redundancies impact many people. Directly it impacts the person made redundant especially those who are older and may struggle to get another full time job. It impacts their families - if they are unable to secure a new job quickly it may mean they have to move out of the area to somewhere their housing benefit will give them even the most basic of accommodation. Their children will have to move schools and all of their friends. They will lose the support network of family and friends so vital when you have young children and/or elderly parents and we, as residents, are paying to make that happen.

Then there is the unresolved matter of who funded the capital investment in IT. Barnet paid £16.1 million to Capita to fund investment in IT. The council tried to explain this away by saying this wasn't the council investing in IT it was just bringing forward some of the money it would have to pay to Capita over the next 10 years.  Yet when the council rejected the possibility of investing in an in-house team it was because they had no money for investment.

The council also paid Capita £14.7 million as part of a management fee for Capita to assist the council while awaiting the outcome of the Judicial Review. Cabinet members approved a contract of up to £14.7 million yet one week later the council paid Capita the entire £14.7 million in full. As it transpired the Judicial Review took place quite quickly thereafter and the actual value of work carried out by Capita during this interim period was only £700,000 leaving £14 million paid unnecessarily, in advance, which had to be clawed back against future payment. I blogged about this in October last year.

So when you are standing in the voting booth tomorrow with your pencil poised to make your cross, think very carefully to yourself. 
Will the candidate safeguard my money carefully and responsibly or will they hand it over when asked without understanding what it is for? 
Will they challenge officers and ask for clear evidence? 
Will they scrutinise closely and make sure they are fully satisfied with why so much money is being paid out or will they just roll over and do as they are told? 
These are critical questions and any candidate deserving of our votes should have a very clear view on all these points. Make sure you ask them.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Two days till the voters decide - It's all about the money

In the run up to the elections on the Thursday I thought I would revisit so of the key issues that have cropped up over the last four years. Today I want to focus on the issue of money and in particular how Barnet have spent our money.

As readers may be aware, I pay close attention to the supplier payments over £500 which the council are required to produce by law every month. Over the last four years this has been a source of very valuable data and an insight into how the council operates. Back in 2010 I raised the issue about the cost of supplying councillors with new and very expensive tablet computers which with all the add ons cost £1600 each - entirely unnecessary for the activities of 99% of councillors - but deemed easier to have the same posh tablet computers than buy cheaper ones. This is because the Council had already purchased 2450 of these tablet computers for staff to be able to work from home overlooking that fact that many of the basic desktop computers used by staff every day were out of date and inadequate for the job they were supposed to do.

I also managed to ascertain that the council spent £22 million on a computer system that was originally budgeted to cost £2.5 million (the costs continued to rise after my blog post in 2011). It demonstrated how the council had started with a modest but entirely functional idea but after listening to consultants and being driven by the supplier had ended up with an incredibly complex and expensive system that actually didn't give the council a lot of the functionality is actually needed. This was a very clear early warning sign of the risk that the One Barnet project might follow exactly the same course.

Over the last four years the council have spent a fortune on temporary staff and consultants and which the council have done their best to keep secret from the Bloggers. For a number of years the council have employed senior officers on longer term contracts as consultants paying them up to £1,000 a day, a strategy which in my view is both excessively profligate and leaves the council with a lack of continuity when their contracts expire. In 2013 I blogged about the excessively high salaries of people at just one meeting where I totted up their salaries of just 8 people amounted to over £1 million. Now with such highly paid talent in the council's senior management team you would not have thought there would be a need for more consultants. But that's where you would be mistaken.

When Barnet embarked upon the One Barnet outsourcing programme they brought in a firm of consultants, Agilysis and iMPOWER to act as the council's "Implementation Partner". At the time I raised concerns about how they had been selected and the budget for their fees. Following the submission of a Freedom of Information request by the Barnet Bugle it was disclosed the budget for these consultants was "circa" £2 million. In reality this firm has billed Barnet over £8 million in fees. When I challenged the Council's external auditors on this and the fact that councillors had only approved a budget of £2 million I was told that because officers had used the word "circa" it meant no upper limit had been set and any amount of money could be spent without reference back to councillors. That was the day I lost all confidence in the council's auditors to protect the interests of council tax payers.

There have been many other examples of waste over the last four years such as spending £27 million replacing perfectly sound street lights with new brighter lights only to spend a further £4 million on a glorified dimmer switch to save electricity.

More recently has been the massive spend on the new blue bin recycling system. I am the first person to want greater levels of recycling but the council have achieved higher levels by flinging vast amounts of money at the problem. First of all they spent £3.7 million on new bins and having them delivered (they did get a small rebate due to the problems with delivery). the council then spent £150,000 on adverts about the new bin system and a similar amount on doorstep staff to go round and ask people if they had any questions about the recycling system. The council then bought a new fleet of recycling bin lorries at a cost of £7.3 million. So all up the council spent approximately £11.3 million on the new recycling system. I did discuss this with senior officers at the council who said they had no alternative as they were bringing the recycling contract back in house. I had a different perspective. We had a good recycling system already in place. Kerbside sorting generate high quality recycled material but not enough people were using the system. I would have spent some of the money on a pilot study trying to educate and encourage more residents into recycling - to see how that worked first rather than just splurge money. As it happens recycling rates have gone up but so has the charge made by the North London Waste Authority to sort the waste. In fact it has gone up by over £1 million a year.

Then we come on to the waste associated with the entire parking mess. We started with pay & display meters which took cash and which residents wanted. Cllr Coleman decided that the way to go was to pay a company (without a contract) £80,000 to take out 408 working parking meters  (a further 43 meters were taken out separately). Two years on and the council spent £200,000 to install 50 new meters capable of taking debit & credit cards. A complete and utter waste.

There are many many more examples of waste from a council that is supposed to be on a "relentless drive for efficiency".

When candidates come knocking on your door asking for your vote ask them how they will spend your money and what they will do to eliminate financial waste.