Tuesday 1 December 2015

Supplier Payments for October - Comensura still a problem in Barnet

October supplier payments are out and this month there a number of large unusual payments. For some reason Barnet have paid Harrow Council £7,167,500 under the heading of public health - not sure what that is for? In addition Bevan Brittan LLP was paid £2.45 million for IT services. Given that they are a legal practice I suspect that someone in Barnet has mislabeled what this payment is for.

Capita had a relatively light month receiving only £1.57 million but one old favorite, Comensura, received a whopping £1,815,572.53. That brings Comensura's running total for this financial year to £10,812,965.97 and, as I have mentioned before, there is no chance of Barnet hitting its target of £15.5 million for the entire year. It is also important to remember that Capita get a percentage of that spend under their gainshare clause so the more Barnet pay Comensura, the more Barnet have to pay Capita.

Another old favorite, Impower, was paid £82,912.40 for "other, professional and various services" but not consultancy fees so that's ok then - not.

CBRE Indirect Investment  Services Ltd were paid £120,000 and Network Rail Infrastructure were paid £416,808.66 both for "consultancy services".  In addition, Affinity Water received a single payment for £831,952.67 in addition to a number of much more modest payments. I suspect some of these large payments may relate to the Brent Cross Development and may or may not be reclaimed from the developer. It would be really helpful if we could have a clear designation of what is recoverable and what isn't so we can see exactly what this Brent Cross development is costing Barnet residents.

As always I will keep monitoring payments.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Two Nights, Two Committees, Two Fingers to Scrutiny - Part 2

If you wanted to witness mindless political dogma at work you should have attended the Children's Education & Library (CEL's) committee last Wednesday.

This committee is chaired by Cllr Thompstone and on this occasion was supported by a phalanx of consultants and officers.

Of particular interest to me is the plan to outsource the Educational Services, including the in house school meals service. To set it in some context Barnet’s Catering Service provides approximately 3.23 million primary schools meals each year and approximately 1.14 million secondary meals.  The service provides freshly prepared meals cooked mainly on site from fresh ingredients in accordance with Government Food Standards. The service also holds the Soil Association Food for Life Silver 
Catering Mark which means farm assured meat, free range eggs and some organic foods. It also makes an annual operating profit of £241,770.

I have blogged about this previously here and here and in summary the situation is as follows:
  • Barnet have tendered a contract for which there is only one bidder;
  • Barnet didn't know what margin they would achieve on the largest component of the business and are dependent on the sole bidder telling them;
  • The company Barnet are in dialogue with don't actually provide the largest component of the service being tendered;
  • Capita, who run the two large outsourcing contracts and have the best opportunity for economies of scale, have walked away, which may indicate that the contract isn't viable.
When the CSG and DRS contracts were tendered there was a business case which summarised what Capita had offered, including how much investment they were going to make (which never actually happened) and the net revenue they would generate by service line. This time we are not allowed to know. In fact we aren't even allowed to know what the potential savings or costs are in the last 3 years of the contract. All we are allowed to know is whether or not the contract meets the medium term financial saving target of £5.4 million between now and 2020. We absolutely aren't allowed to know how that will be achieved.

Cllr Thompstone announced that there were two people who had requested to speak. Up pop two head teachers extolling the virtues of Cambridge Education and how they had been consulted during the tender process. One was head of an Academy and used a contract caterer that was part of the academy package. Cllr Thompstone then announced that that was the end of public speakers. No, not again! This is not the first time that someone has accidentally forgotten to register my request to speak. Cllr Thompstone in an act of "kindness" said that I could ask my questions and maybe I could cover my point then. Luckily I am not a shrinking violet and told Cllr Thompstone that I had requested to speak and ask questions and that I intended to do both. Nervous huffing and puffing and then surprise surprise an officer discovers that, yes, I had requested to speak. It's not that I'm paranoid but these antics to try and stop me speaking are wearing a bit thin.

I gave my speech which I have set out at the end of this post. It made it clear that while I have no objection to outsourcing the majority of education services (although I think it is a somewhat pointless exercise as schools are free to purchase services from Cambridge Education already). Any questions from committee members? No not one.

I then had the opportunity to ask supplementary questions to the ones submitted and largely unanswered by officers. You can see the questions and the answers provided here . Critically the responses tell us that:

  • There was no catering expert on the evaluation panel, even though the school meals service makes up 77% of the current revenue.
  • Details of the last 3 years of the contract are secret and the public have no right to know the details.
  • We have no right to know what upfront investment is being made, how much revenue the company will generate, or where savings will be made.
  • We know that there is a gainshare clause on the contract but we are not allowed to know the upside of the contract and therefore how much gainshare is up for grabs.
  • The council will have no contractual relationship with the company supplying the catering service.

The topic was then opened up to councillors. A few questions from conservative councillors. One that particularly alarmed me was from Cllr Alison Cornelius asking whether there have been any problems with the proposed catering subcontractor. Well Cllr Cornelius why didn't you Google that before the meeting; did you ask anyone if the caterer serviced any schools in Barnet and why, for example, they lost the contract for school meals at a school in North Finchley in July this year? 

Don't get me wrong, I have no specific problem with ISS. I am sure they are a perfectly good caterer. My issue is that this £7.2 million a year contract has simply been handed to a company without any real competitive process - the decision to use ISS rests entirely with Cambridge Education and not Barnet Council. 

All of the important financial details, I was told are in a separate secret report for Cllrs' eyes only so I was expecting that at some point during the meeting the committee would move into private session and interrogate the details. However, Cllr Hutton asked if the contract could be amended to take school meals out of the contract package. No absolutely not said the lady from Capita. Cllr Thompstone said that if Cllr Hutton wanted to propose an amendment if would have to be to the recommendation of acceptance of the report. A form of words was agreed and then it was put straight to the vote. Defeated on party lines 5 votes to 4 and that was the end of it. No questioning of figures in the secret report, no challenge, no questioning. Frankly every single Cllr should be utterly ashamed of their performance. Why bother having a committee when nobody challenges or questions what officers are doing in their name. But this is Barnet and that is the norm.

My speech to the CELS committee:

Tonight you’re being asked to approve a tender which is fundamentally flawed. I want to make it clear from the outset that I am not opposed to the outsourcing of the Education services but I am concerned about the subcontracting of the school meals service. Barnet has a school meals service providing 4.3 million meals a year, which is successful, has won external work and is profitable. It was originally included in this business case to sweeten the deal for the other services as it currently contributes 78% of the total revenue.

You started with six companies and you’ve ended up with just one bid from a company that does not operate a catering service. Catering will be subcontracted to ISS with whom Barnet council will have no contractual relationship. I’ve asked how much additional revenue ISS are promising to  generate but I am not allowed to know that. Bear in mind that the key driver for including catering in this contract was forecast £963,000 of net profit it would generate.

If this project was about efficiency and cost effectiveness, the logical option would have been to market test the catering service separately where there is a very healthy competitive market.
However I am sure you are also aware that in the Department of Education Survey from January 2015  it noted that school meal prices charged by private catering companies are on average 6.5% higher than in house or local authority catering services.

You had no catering expert on the tender evaluation panel for a contract that may last up to 10 years so I hope you have read appendix B thoroughly. Unlike the CSG and Re contracts where there was a reasonable amount of disclosure this will receive no public scrutiny and the assumption will be that you have read and understood the implications of Appendix B. For example  are you clear on the VAT status of this contract bearing in mind it became a significant issue in the Your Choice contract.

I’m concerned that actually the biggest saving here is the removal of Barnet’s central overhead charges and it’s debatable whether that is a true cashable saving.

I ask you to reject the contract as proposed and to withdraw the school meals service from the contract unless you are entirely satisfied it will deliver savings identified without affecting the quality of the service or cost schools more money. And if you really feel it will benefit the service carry out a separate school meals market testing exercise. In that way you will get a much greater level on transparency on what this service is costing and how realistic the savings really are.

Friday 20 November 2015

Two Nights, Two Committees, Two Fingers to Scrutiny - Part 1

This week I have attended two Barnet Council committees. The first on Tuesday night was for the quarterly Performance and Contract Monitoring Committee chaired by the avuncular Cllr Finn.

This is a very broad ranging committee covering a large number of services. Although the Officers' report and separate appendices ran to a mere 126 pages, there were an additional 13 reports comprising a further 272 pages of charts and analysis. I would be surprised in any Cllr on the committee had read every page of every report.

In addition, Barnet are supposed to publish a set of raw data which underpins the Customer Service report. As usual I had to chase officers for publication but, surprise surprise, it wasn't published until after the deadline for submission of questions. You can see the data here and it makes interesting reading especially is you need to contact the council about housing benefit, council tax or adult social care.

What the  main report and appendices revealed is that whilst everyone would like to believe that everything is hunky dory it isn't. As a resident you can request to speak and ask questions of which I did both.  The text of my speech is below:

Complaints are at a record high. Only 40% of users said they were satisfied with their website experience, response to emails failed to meet the target timeframe.  CSG’s performance in managing cases on behalf of the Commissioning Group, Education & Skills and Family Services was particularly poor due to staff shortages in Coventry.  Average housing benefit wait times at Barnet House in September 22 minutes with average 2nd floor wait time 34 minutes and no wait time figures were provided for Burnt Oak Library. Call centre performance for Adult Social Care, Council Tax and Housing benefit consistently fail to meet the service level targets and almost 10,000 calls were abandoned in the quarter.

Some of the report figures simply aren’t credible. According to this report we now have 4,552 Total Established Positions yet 6 months ago we only had 3,080 and in March 2014 we only had 2,002. We also have 300 more occupied posts than 6 months ago. I don’t believe these figures.

No one seems to be questioning why payments to Capita for special projects and true up are so high and you are likely to pay them £80 million this year.

The situation in adult social care shows no signs of improving and the announcement of outsourcing that department  will only make a bad situation worse – exactly the same thing happened when you announced the CSG and Re outsourcing with key staff leaving in droves before they were made redundant. You requested a recovery plan to be shared at this meeting – where is it?

There are the same problems cropping up each quarter yet I don’t see any evidence of performance tracking or problems being resolved.  There are 13 ancillary reports running to several hundred pages but they are not listed on the agenda for this meeting. Has every member of this committee read them all?

The problem is this committee isn't holding anyone to account, it isn't doing any serious analysis of the figures and I think that is because you have a huge remit and are swamped with data. As such you seem to simply rubber stamp what you are told by officers.  I noted that in the constitution and ethics committee survey councillors were questioning what this committee is for and I think they are right to question that. As a committee you either need to step up your game in terms of monitoring maybe by allocating tasks to individuals or you need to rethink the role and remit so that your focus can be effective.

Here is some of the data relating to call handling for key services but as the data was only published after the questions deadline I wasn't allowed to ask questions about it.

Thanks to Cllr Kay who asked a couple of questions I was allowed to elaborate a little more and Cllr Geof Cooke noted that there was a discussion about pushing more of the performance monitoring back to the theme committees but that was it.

There was then a rather awkward situation. Cllr Geof Cooke had submitted a members item but it had been ruled out of order, not by the chairman, but by the  Monitoring Officer. Even Cllr Finn said he felt uncomfortable about the situation. Dark mutterings but unclear what it was about and how it will be addressed.

The next item was about members enquiries versus service requests. It quickly became apparent who is running the council and that is Capita not councillors. An officer made it clear that for examples of pothole, roads and pavement members enquiries, officers would prioritise what should be done first, something which did not go down well with both Conservative and Labour Cllrs. As several Cllrs put it, if residents come to Cllrs with a problem it is typically because it hasn't been addressed already. The officer said that they would prefer Cllrs to use the web portal that the public used. Cllr Zinkin said he had tried the website to report problems but that it was difficult and time consuming so he just wanted to be able to speak to someone. So residents can use a difficult and time consuming system but not cllrs. I don't think he realised how crass he sounded.

Cllr Mittra also raised a very serious concern that Cllrs were sometimes told a problem had been resolved when in fact it hadn't. In my day they called that lying. In the past I suspect that if an officer had done that they would have been hauled over the coals and disciplined but this is a contractual relationship now and the link between Cllrs and the outsourced officers who deal with problems is now much more tenuous. That item took more than 45 minutes to not resolve.

Next we got into the core of the meeting and Cllr Finn decided the order of which items would be dealt with.

First up was a review of Adults and Families which clearly has problems but which was discussed at the the Adults and Safeguarding committee last week. Nevertheless the officer responsible was called to the table and asked why he wasn’t meeting the savings target. Bear in mind Adults have already had to make very large savings, currently they are around £2.5 million short of the savings required. Like a number of the services Barnet provides, the council is not always in control of demand. The officer mentioned that, for example, some people who have been funding their own care have now run out of money so the burden falls to Barnet to pick up those fees. He mentioned that Barnet has 101 care homes, more than any other London borough which drives demand. But we need to get more for less insisted  Cllr Finn “Negotiate with the care homes on things like inflation”. The problem is care homes are already being squeezed and with the introduction of the national (non)  living wage that problem is only going to get worse. If care homes are squeezed too far they will either stop accepting local authority clients or they will go bust, something Cllr Finn fails to grasp. 

Indeed, Sarah Woolaston, Conservative MP, a GP for 20 years and the chair of the all-party Commons select committee on health, is calling for the government to act, saying that social care providers are reeling from rising costs and declining fees from cash-strapped local authorities. Simply squeezing care home further is not sustainable and maybe the budget is already too small.

This was followed by Children’s service which was a similar tale. The officer told Cllrs that demand had risen 26% since April, again something over which they have little control, and Cllr Finn told them to cut costs. My concern is that maybe there is nothing left to squeeze on this budget, like Adults, and that Barnet need to increase council tax to fund these essential services, something which Conservative councillors have resisted for the last 6 years.  Adult’s and Children’s service have borne two thirds of all the budget cuts and yet they are being squeezed further. I just hope that this doesn't result in a tragedy but if it does I know who will be to blame. I recommend reading this article in the Guardian about the concerns of the Government strategy to outsource social services.

Next was highways where the issue of spray and gritting as the new road repair method was discussed. Many Cllrs are unhappy having had lots of complaints from residents. The man from Capita seemed in no way contrite. “Well it looked a good idea on paper” he said. Hang on a minute, Capita are supposed to be experts, that's why they were appointed and now they are saying it 'looked' a good idea. I got the distinct impression that the man from Capita frankly didn’t give a wotsit.

By now we were almost out of time. “I wanted to talk about IT” said Cllr Cooke, "and what about the CSG contract" said Cllr Levine. Ah well we don’t have time so we will have to deal with it at the next meeting. So we had spent the best part of 3 hours dealing with matters that are directly dealt with by other committees but the largest contract the council operates with Capita and for which this committee is specifically responsible is sidelined for another three months.

A pantomime, a farce or a tragedy, it certainly wasn’t scrutiny. For a commissioning council that is intent on outsourcing absolutely everything this does not give me any confidence that cllrs will be able to hold contractors to account.

Part 2 to follow.

Friday 30 October 2015

Barnet Supplier Payments - Will Capita's £16.3 million in September bust the budget?

Supplier payments are out for September and yet again it has been a bumper month for Capita. Between the CSG and Re contracts, Capita was paid £16.3 million for September. This brings the running total to £39.5 million for the first 6 months of the financial year compared to £21.7 million for the first 6 months of last year and is more than the total value of the two contracts for the entire year, suggesting that Special Projects and Gainshare must be coining it in for Capita. Last financial year Barnet paid Capita a total of £51 million. This year, the budgeted payment to Capita is £41.8 million, see below, so if we have paid them £39.5 million in the first six months of this year there isn't a cat's chance in hell of hitting that target and I am increasingly concerned that the total payment for this year could easily hit £80 million.

To reiterate a challenge I made to Richard Cornelius earlier this year, if he can demonstrate to me Capita are saving Barnet residents money overall, I will donate £250 to a charity of his choice.

Another beneficiary has been Comensura who in September were paid £1.55 million and in the first 6 months of this year have billed a total of £9 million. I have raised my concerns about this contract previously and I remain convinced it is going to overshoot the £15.5 million Comensura billed Barnet last financial year. Also bear in mind that this contract is for temporary and agency staff  yet it follows a period of mass redundancies. Previously I was told that this was because Barnet are struggling to recruit social workers so they have having to use agency staff instead. However a hole was blown in that myth when a freedom of information request revealed that social workers made up less than 20% of the agency spend.

I also note that Conway Aecom received £1.84 million in September for all those roads that have been surface dressed with tar and grit much to the annoyance of many Barnet residents.

There were also a couple of entries that caught my eye. The first was for £118,911.02 to a company called Senator International who supply office furniture. Given the libraries services are due to be decimated especially my local library in East Barnet it does seem somewhat strange to be spending this much money on new office furniture. I was also surprised to find that Senator International are not currently listed on Barnet Council's Contract register for 2015-16. Mind, it does say next to the contract register "Created 6 months ago, modified 6 months ago"  so maybe it will find its way onto the register next time someone gets round to updating it - I wonder if there is a KPI for website updates given that procurement and website are both Capita responsibilities.

The other company that caught my eye were Shaylor Group who were paid £509,805.22 for equipment and materials purchases and instructed by the Commissioning group. As with Senator International, I couldn't see them on the contracts register. Let's hope the update comes soon.

Here are a few more  payments that have caught my eye.

The council paid TMP UK Ltd £51,501.99 for advertising and professional services. TMP UK describe themsleves as a "resourcing business that helps organisations hire and retain the right people by leveraging their employer brands". Given that Barnet is a commissioning council determined to outsource as many jobs as possible with a brand associated with cuts to vital services spending over £50k with this company seems a bit excessive.

Barnet also paid Claer Lloyd-Jones £7,500 in September. You may remember Ms Lloyd Jones was brought in last year after the Committee allocation fiasco saying that "nobody" at Barnet had an understanding of Local Government law as set out in the Barnet Times here and on Mrs Angry's blog here. I wonder why, a year later, we are paying another bill for her services - we paid her £6,000 last year on 15 August. Have the problems been resolved or have Barnet just been very late paying the bill?

As always, I will continue to monitor the payments - I just wish some of our councillors took a little more interest in just how much we are paying out.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Why Barnet is such a great place to live - last night's libraries meeting

Last night was the Barnet Council meeting to discuss the future of libraries - the destruction of a brilliant service which is well used by the community. As is the case with so many council meetings, they determine the outcome and then arrange the debate around that conclusion.

Barnet Council use a well worn technique of putting up absolutely dire proposals which they then pull back from slightly to say they have listened. In the case of the libraries the original proposal was to reduce some libraries to just 540 sq ft an entirely ludicrous proposal which was never the real plan. Now they have said they can be around 2,000 sq ft and we are all supposed to jump for joy and thank our lucky stars. However, for my local library, East Barnet, that means reducing the space by two thirds. East Barnet library was also listed as closing in one of the previous options. The new proposal is that it will be saved  - woohoo! Except that it is now going to be a 'Partnership Library' which means it will be run entirely by volunteers  - if they can be recruited and sustained and open just 15 hours a week. No paid librarians, in fact no paid staff at all, just volunteers.

Last night Cllr Reuben Thompstone kept asking speakers "will you volunteer to work in a library?", the classic 'when did you stop beating your wife' question. Whatever way you answer that question you are screwed. If you say yes, then that justifies the council's proposal to make the service entirely dependent on volunteers. If you say no, then the response is that you don't care enough to save your own library. The reality is that many people have to work two or more jobs just to survive. They don't have the luxury of receiving almost £26,000 in allowances as a Councillor chairing a committee. One questioner asked Cllr Thompstone if he would volunteer - no reply, no surprise.

134 questions had been submitted to the meeting demonstrating the depth of feeling. They also illustrated the numerous holes in the proposals; the unsupported assumptions, the lack of evidence, the wildly optimistic belief that they can deliver over £1/2 million pounds of rental income from space freed up in libraries. In East Barnet's case they reckon they can generate £54,000 a year in the space they will free up by cutting the library down to just 1,991 sq ft. Yet in New Barnet redundant office blocks which simply can't find tenants are being converted to flats.

Under 16's will not be allowed into unstaffed libraries unless accompanied by an adult. The rather patronising officer who wrote the report and answered many of the questions last night said at one point "parents wouldn't want their children to use unstaffed libraries unaccompanied". Yes that is correct but parents do want their unaccompanied children to use STAFFED libraries and that is what we are fighting for. In East Barnet's case many local school children go there after school to do their homework - not everyone has the luxury of a quiet room at home where they can do their homework in peace. We are not just talking about secondary school children here. I recall when my children attended Danegrove primary school, just across the road from East Barnet Library, some parents couldn't afford after school club so their children walked across the road to the library where they were told to wait until their parents could come and pick them up; somewhere warm, safe and with opportunities to learn and have fun. That cannot happen when it is a volunteer only library open just 15 hours a week.

Toilets will be closed when libraries are unstaffed which will affect parents with young children and possibly some older users. Yet Cllr Helena Hart moaned that at Edgware library the toilet was sometimes out of use because people had done 'unpleasant things' in there. Well Helena, have you thought what they might do in the unstaffed library? Will they trash the place, will they defecate on the floor. On no they won't because they will be CCTV - unmonitored so that several days later someone can go through the tapes and try and see which person committed this act. Not very comforting and one reason why so many people in the consultation exercise expressed their concern at using an unstaffed library.

Cllr Dan Thomas kept asking what other suggestions questioners had to maintain the libraries at lower cost. Well actually Cllr Thomas there were many ideas put forward in the consultation process, all of which were ignored. Barnet are spending £6.5 million on new technology to diminish our service so I am sure with a bit of thought we could come up with alternative ways of making that investment to deliver a much better service. The council are going to spend £34 million to build a new office building at Colindale, highly inaccessible to those who live in the east of the borough. Perhaps libraries could have been developed into community hubs with council services co-located there, right in the middle of our communities saving a large chunk of the £34 million they intend to spend.

The meeting was pushed along and by 8.30 pm it was all over. It will be referred to the full council meeting next week but, with a majority of one, the Conservative group will force this through in spite of all the concerns.

So why the title to this blog? Well one thing that can be said about Barnet is that people care. 134 questions, a large meeting room full to overflowing with people forced to wait outside as there was no room for them. So many people who care about the libraries. I chatted with one conservative outside who told me he had paid his £3 to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to ensure Labour couldn't win the next election. We talked about re-nationalising the railways and other Corbyn policies and then he said, "look let's not talk about that. We are both here to save the libraries. It's a ludicrous proposal and I don't know why they are doing it".  Barnet is a great place to live because of the people who live here, the people who care, the people who are passionate about their community.

Mrs Angry, one of Barnet's most talented writers, quoted Mrs Thatcher who was a champion of aspiration. That is something Barnet residents have in bucket loads,  but something deficient in the Council where the one overriding target is money. Stuff aspiration, stuff community, stuff the poor or disadvantaged - its all about the money. The council like to claim credit for Barnet's success but it is a great place in spite of the council rather than because of what they do. Destroying such a valuable community resource just highlights how out of touch the conservative councillors are with the community they are supposed to represent.

Thursday 8 October 2015

East Barnet Library - sacrificed to balance the books

Barnet Council are proposing to downgrade East Barnet Library to a "Partnership Library". It will be open just 15 hours a week, run entirely by volunteers and it will occupy just one third of the space of the current library. This is to save money apparently, although this will take at least three years before the council breaks even on their investment in technology, using their wildly optimistic assumptions about how much they will get renting out spare library space, in East Barnet's case £54,000 a year. My guess is that the space will never realise the £546,000 a year they anticipate across all the Barnet libraries making the business case even more spurious.

Now you would think that this is a very underused facility to be cut so severely. In fact this is a well used library with more than 9,000 users and over 167,000 transactions a year. But what does that mean in reality. I've just popped into East Barnet Library to meet someone there. The place was full of children coming from school - with two primary schools and a secondary school on the doorstep. There was a mother and daughter working together on one of the computers and people on another three of the computers - one was out of order. There were four mature residents reading newspapers in the soft seating area. Librarians were dealing with a number of requests. The library was buzzing yet this is the same library that Barnet Council have deemed an unnecessary expense to either be run by volunteers or shut. So for all those children the alternative will be to get on a bus either to Osidge library which is to be halved in size to just 2153 sq ft or to Chipping Barnet Library. However, if the children are unaccompanied they probably won't get into either as Osidge will only be staffed for 15.5 hours a week and Chipping Barnet only for 23.5 hours a week. Outside those times unaccompanied children will be excluded.

Barnet could have avoided this problem if they hadn't decided to cut the council tax by 1% just before the 2014 local election. A political hand out to buy voters which has cost us our library service.  Cllr Reuben Thompstone will chair the committee on Monday which will push this through. If you disagree with the proposals to destroy our libraries email him at cllr.r.thompstone@barnet.gov.uk and tell him what you think.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Capita's Money Making Machine - It's Called Barnet Council

Over the next few weeks I will be publishing a series of blogs which relate to the two massive contracts which Capita have with Barnet Council, the CSG and Re contracts. It has taken some time to compile the data and is taken from many Capita invoices that I requested as part of the inspection of the accounts in June. The reason for inspecting all of Capita's invoices is because I remain unconvinced that the appointment of Capita is actually saving any money overall. They may be making savings on the core contracts but they charge for everything extra with dozens of special project which all attract additional payments. Overall in 2014/15 we paid Capita £51 million and £126 million since the contract started so I believe this deserves much greater scrutiny.

I preface my comments by noting that I was warned not once but twice, in writing, by Barnet Council that I risked committing a criminal offence for passing on, blogging or communicating in any form any of the information I discovered other than to the auditor, Grant Thornton, or the Police.  Surely in a 21st century open democracy this type of information should be available to everyone without any threats of prosecution. I read the legislation and in the absence of any clear evidence to support these assertions I asked where such offences existed in the legislation. Surprise, surprise Barnet said they had made a mistake! Time will tell on that front.

Today I will start with the Comensura contract. Comensura were appointed back in 2012 to act as a broker who coordinates the supply of agency and interim staff. They don't directly supply any staff themselves but provide one point of contact for Barnet with a range of staff agencies. In theory they are supposed to save the council money but over the last three years the cost of the Comensura contract has risen inexorably. In 2012 the average monthly cost of the contract was just over £1 million a month. In the first three months of 2015/16 it has hit £1.6 million a month and in July alone it was £2.3 million.  Now there may be very good reasons why we are having to use so many interim and agency staff, two thirds of which are in the Adults and Children's department but Barnet have been talking about reducing this cost for the last two years and have so far failed miserably. Based on my calculations and the current run rate, Barnet will pay Comensura around £20 million this year.

So, you may ask, what has this got to do with Capita. When Capita negotiated the CSG contract they included a Gainshare clause which means they get a share of any savings they make on contract negotiations. Although the percentage they receive is confidential by my reckoning it is 40% and so far I estimate they have been paid around £750,000 on this single contract. This contract was due to expire in October but because the procurement function ( run by Capita) have not started the tendering process and they don't want to be rushed,  the contract will be extended for another 12 months. If Capita continue to receive gainshare at the same level I estimate they will receive another £750,000 in gainshare payments over the next 12 months.

I would also point out that there are a number of people taking their cut on the agency staff contract in between what the staff get paid and what Barnet Council pays. The contract was originally let through a framework agreement from the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation (ESPO). They charge a small levy on every contracted hour purchased to cover their costs. The staff agency takes their cut on the staff supplied, Comensura take their cut of all the staff supplied and finally Capita get their gainshare payment. So four different organisations are taking their cut on this contract.

Some people may say that if Capita are getting 40% we are saving 60%. I would suggest that any contract that is so generous for one contract discussion should itself be renegotiated. It also make me wonder what on earth the Barnet commercial team were up to before Capita were appointed that allowed such poor contracts to be agreed - oh yes they were all too busy working on the Capita contract. I raised all my concerns  on the Comensura  contract at the recent Policy & Resources committee and although treated politely and courteously by Richard Cornelius the committee still voted to extend the Comensura contract for another year. Looks like another good year for Capita - unless they tell me otherwise?

Monday 31 August 2015

URGENT: Act to save Cricklewood's last green open space from Barnet Council's land grab

Guest Post From the Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Development

Act to save Cricklewood's last green open space from Barnet Council's land grab

Cricklewood Open Space (Thomas Bell Photographs)

This is what Barnet Council says to justify the selling off of Cricklewood's last green space:

The subject plot fronting B&Q, on Cricklewood Lane is currently an open space primarily used as a disabled access ramp to the B&Q store. It is regularly fly-tipped and attracts rough sleepers among other social issues such as alcohol and substance misuse. The proximity to local businesses means on-going disturbance to businesses, environmental degradation, and Health & Safety concerns resulting from substance/alcohol misuse and excessive littering. Retention of the site in its existing condition would not only allow these problems to continue, but also drain the Council’s resources in terms of on-going management costs. 

Campaigners and residents from Barnet and Council came together in November 2013  to protest at the possible disposal of the green space outside B&Q in Cricklewood and are organising again as a planning application to build on it goes before Barnet Council on September 7th.

November 2013
The Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Development sent this message over the weekend:

Barnet  Councilare meeting on September 7th to discuss the sale of Cricklewood’s only green space, outside B&Q. It was given as public open space in 1987 when the retail park was built. Crown Estates sold it to Barnet in 2004 with a stipulation it would not be built on.  Barnet have managed to remove this requirement, and are selling public land with no public consultation.

All the known Cricklewood Green Space material is now on the BX Coalition website  LINK - scroll down for the last few postings there:

Actions you can take
-          Tweet @Barnetcouncil using #CricklewoodGreen
-          Sign the petition if you haven’t before and ask your neighbours to sign LINK
-          Write to the papers
-          Write to the committee about the sale of public land without consultation,
-          Join us in a protest outside the meeting on September 7th (check blog)
-          Keep checking the blog and Twitter @BXcoalition

From the Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross Development
Our co-ordinator  Alison is on holiday, please contact fiona.colgan@yahoo.co.uk

Monday 3 August 2015

Barnet June supplier payments - £11.5 million to Capita and £1.8 million to Comensura

In June Capita were paid in total £11,520,890.74; £7.66 million on the CSG contract and £3.86 million on the Re contract. I wonder how this will pan out over the rest of the financial year.

Comensura were paid an astonishing £1.8 million in just one month for interim and agency staff. This is a contract managed by Capita who are receiving massive rewards for apparently saving us money on this contract. It is completely beyond me that a contract that continues to grow so hugely should attract reward payments to Capita of hundreds of thousands of pounds in gainshare payments for two years running.

Conway Aecom have been busily repairing road and billed £938,951.93 in June and our friends from Impower consulting pick up a shade under £47,000.While on the subject of consultants,PA Consulting were paid £40,600 in June  - I wonder what that was for?  The council also spent £36,271.82 with a company called Wider Plan who specialise in employee benefits; their website is here.

I wonder what was so important that Barnet had to spend £16,765 hiring the Ariana Banqueting Suite at North London Business Park. I know from previous invoices that this must have included two quite substantial events.

As always I will continue to monitor Barnet's spending

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Barnet - a step too far in preserving their majority

Tonight there is an important vote at the Council on the Abbotts Depot. In the papers there is a Monitoring Officers report which covers the subject of Disclosable Pecuniary Interests (DPI) and whether or not a councillor can seek dispensation to speak and vote on an item when they have made a disclosure.

Below is the text from the Monitoring Officer's report which you can read here What it seems to be saying is that even though Cllr Dean Cohen has made a DPI for the Abbotts Depot because he acts for a client who occupies part of the site, he should still be allowed to speak and vote because without his one vote the matter would be tied.

Now when there was a dispensation granted for councillors who owned rented properties voting on housing matters that argument had some traction as there were so many conservative councillors who owned rental properties and there was not a direct link between their individual properties and the policy matter under discussion.

This matter is quite different. In this matter it is just one councillor and he has a direct financial link to the matter because he is paid by a client who occupies part of the site. It also set a precedent as in future; with a majority of just one vote surely the same rule will apply whenever there is a risk that majority will be lost. I think the Monitoring Officer has made a fundamental error here and if this is allowed to stand may leave the council wide open to further legal challenge.

Dean Cohen needs to make a choice who he takes his money from; the Council or his client, but not both. This is also a serious reputation matter and if this is allowed to stand do not be in the least bit surprised to see it feature in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs page next week.

Richard Cornelius needs to do the honourable thing here and overrule Dean. As for the Monitoring Officer their judgement seems seriously and irrevocably flawed.

1.3 An application to stay, speak and vote has been made by Councillor Dean Cohen in respect of agenda item 14, Motion in the name of Cllr Kathy Levine, on Abbotts Depot.

1.4 Councillor Dean Cohen is declaring a disclosable pecuniary interest in that in a business capacity, he acts for a client who occupies part of the Oakleigh Road South site.

1.5 The Monitoring Officer has confirmed that, under her delegated authority as Monitoring Officer, she has considered the application against the tests set out in the Localism Act and Members’ Code of Conduct and concluded that, given the political balance of the Council, the representation of different political groups on the body transacting the business would be so upset as to alter the outcome of any vote on the matter, and has therefore granted a dispensation for this item.

The Monitoring Officer has considered the application against the tests set out in the Localism Act and Members’ Code of Conduct and concluded that, given the political balance of the Council, the representation of different political groups on the body transacting the business would be so upset as to alter the outcome of any vote on the matter.

It has been brought to my attention that at item 12.1 of tonight's council agenda Appendix F there is a request for the Council to "Note the designation of Davina Fiore as the Monitoring Officer". It also mentions that she was appointed as the Director of Assurance and Monitoring officer at the Council meeting in April. In fact the minutes say something different in that she was appointed merely as the Director of Assurance as you can see here.

As such this looks awfully like the monitoring officer isn't the monitoring officer at all in which case her decision to grant a dispensation to Dean Cohen is void until she has been duly appointed. This a matter of grave importance especially given the debacle the council suffered under the previous but one Monitoring Officer.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Barnet Council - Commissioning Council At Any Price

Barnet Council have made it clear that they wish to become a Commissioning Council whereby we have a few senior officers who let contracts and a swath of subcontractors who deliver all of the services. Most recently the Council has commenced the outsourcing process of education services
which includes:
  • Strategic and financial management of the service
  • School improvement
  • Special educational needs
  • Educational psychology team (part traded)
  • Admissions and sufficiency of school places
  • Vulnerable pupils
  • Post 16 learning
  • Traded services including:
  • Catering service
  • Governor clerking service
  • Barnet Partnership for School Improvement (BPSI)
  • Newly Qualified Teachers support
  • Educational psychology (part)
  • Education Welfare Service (part)
  • North London Schools International Network (NLSIN)

Much of the justification for pursuing an outsourced joint venture is predicated on generating a large amount of new income from traded services with other local authorities. In total 71% of the financial improvement is from income growth rather than efficiency savings and of that 60% comes from school meals. Given that school meals is such an important component of the outsourcing package you need to be really sure that the company delivering the service is suitably qualified. 

I have questioned the business case because they have used completely unsupported assumptions that show both a commercial ineptitude and and lack of understanding of the way school meals operates. Previously I challenged these margins and received this reply from Barnet Council:

"As stated at the Committee meeting in January, the document presented to Committee was an outline business case, which was based on our assessment of the various options for the future delivery of these services and which of those options was most likely to meet the project’s overall objectives.  The report made it clear that a full business case, based on the outcome of a procurement exercise, would be brought back to Committee for final approval.  It was also made clear to Members that the only true test of the market would come by carrying out this procurement exercise and that proceeding to procurement was the only means of providing certainty over the delivery of the required savings".

When we had three bidders for this contract there was an argument that a dialogue might reveal that the business case was completely wrong. That very rapidly became two bidders, Capita and Mott MacDonald. Capita made it clear that they would subcontract out school meals to Compass so at least everyone knew what they were dealing with. 

This week we found out that this tender competition has become a one horse race with Capita folding, leaving a clear run for Mott MacDonald who trade under the name Cambridge Education. They don't provide school meals services so for the first time this week we found that they would subcontract that element of the business to ISS Catering.

So to summarise the situation:
  • Barnet have tendered a contract for which there is only one bidder;
  • Barnet don't know what margin they will achieve on the largest component of the business and will depend on the sole bidder telling them;
  • The company Barnet are in dialogue with don't actually provide the largest component of the service being tendered;
  • Until this week no one was aware  (other than  a few senior officers) that the now sole bidder would subcontract the largest component;
  • Capita who run the two large outsourcing contracts and have the best opportunity for economies of scale have walked away which may indicate that the contract isn't viable.
If an in house team had been allowed to bid we would have had a very clear benchmark  against which any other bidders could be measured but in Barnet, in-house teams have been refused permission to bid.

We are faced with a situation now which is entirely unsatisfactory, exposes the council to significant financial risk and from a governance and scrutiny perspective is inadequate.

I also believe that there is a glaring flaw in the entire process. The Barnet business case is for a Joint Venture with Cambridge Education. The largest part of this contract is the school meals service and without that hitting very aggressive growth targets they will fail to deliver the forecast savings.  ISS, the school meals sub contractor, is a major player. They will not be part of the JV, merely a subcontractor to it. When opportunities to bid for more school meals contracts arise, say, in Harrow, Brent or Enfield, will ISS forgo a share of their profit to bid for these contracts as part of the Barnet JV or will they bid for them on their own  - given they are specialist school meals caterers - and keep all of the profit to themselves. The JV model can only work where the partners are the major service suppliers and that is not the case with Cambridge Education. I forecast therefore that if Barnet enters a JV with Cambridge Education they will never hit the massive revenue growth targets which are predominantly school meals driven and as such they will fail to meet the budget savings required. Consequence - disaster.

I call on all councillors to suspend the dialogue process immediately and seek an in house comparator bid to at least provide some form of competition/comparison.I also ask them to reconsider the right to subcontract such a large component of the contract to a third party. If the council continue to push this through with a single bidder with a subcontracted school meals service, then they will have failed in their responsibility to demonstrate best value and in the future that decision will come back to haunt them.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Royal Brunswick Park - 1600 homes on North London Business Park

Barnet are terribly keen to vacate North London Business Park (NLBP) and Barnet House and relocate to a sparking new office at Colindale. You can read the report here.
 This will cost £36.3 million to build with interest at 3.34% over 30 years. The report says that in the long run it will save money and we won't have to keep paying rent although my reading of the business case is less clear.  I kept scratching my head to understand why they wouldn't remain in Building 2 at NLBP and Barnet House until the full impact of outsourcing all of the council services is clear at which point we might not need the 90,000 sq ft of space in these new offices.

Today I happened to be looking through council decisions which are taken by officers and came across this and pennies began to drop.
You can read it here.
What this tells us is that Barnet have entered into an agreement with Hindale Limited (two directors Brian and Luke Comer) whereby Hindale will pay Barnet £105,364 for officers time to prepare a site development brief and to provide pre application advice to inform the preparation of the planning application for the site.

So what you may say - the site is designated as a Strategic Employment Location in the Mayor's London Plan  March 2015 so what's the problem. Well the problem is that the proposal is to develop 1600+ homes on the site along with the re-provision of the St Andrew the Apostle Greek Orthodox school.

I know new homes are important but so are jobs and the correct balance needs to be struck here.

With such a massive potential development why has this decision been buried away on the website. Surely the community should be alerted to what is being proposed and Barnet's apparent desire to assist Hindale/ Comer in this development.

I hope for her sake that Cllr Lisa Rutter is fully aware of these proposals coming on top of the complete dogs dinner that is the Abbotts Depot on Oakleigh Road South and the apparent involvement of the Comer brothers in that site. (see the latest statement from barnet labour group on the matter here)

There is something very seriously wrong in Barnet.

Monday 8 June 2015

Barnet's Supplier payments in April

April's supplier payments over £250 saw large lumps sums paid out to the usual suspects.
Capita received £6,173,867.16 for both the CSG and Re contracts and Comensura received  £1,268,593.60 in just one month. Last year Comensura billed over £15 million for interim and agency staff and based on this invoice it looks like they will hit a similar target this financial year.

In addition there were a few of the usual suspect who seem to have been paid rather a lot in April. City Suburban Tree Surgeons were paid £303,266.17 which in one month represents 30% of what they were paid in the whole of 2014/15 (£1,003,311.80). Perhaps this is an area where officers should be looking to make savings.

NSL the Council's parking contractor was paid £292,000.51 in April. I am sure Mr Mustard will be scrutinising their payments in some detail. Again the overriding question is, have they really saved money?

We seem to have paid out £32,527.96 to Gatenby Sanderson, an executive recruitment agency, for employee expenses. I don't know if this is payments for interims or simply their recruitment fees, but did we really need to spend it?

Old 'friends' Impower who along with Agilisys were paid over £8 million to implement One Barnet are back advising the council and in April were paid £32,743, a modest sum based on past experience but are they really needed?

I am still waiting for Barnet to take up the challenge of showing where the savings are buried because to date I haven't found them.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Barnet and the Dodgy Business Case

Today some Barnet Council staff are on strike about the continued outsourcing of services in Barnet. Already we are starting to see the wheels are starting to come off existing outsourced contracts with over grown cemeteries and the "Inadequate" rating given to an outsourced care home (read the damning Care Quality Commission report here).

What makes this situation much worse are the entirely dodgy business case reports that have promoted outsourcing as the answer to all our woes. In the original CSG business case it was based on Capita making a major investment in IT because Barnet didn't have the money. Yet once the  contract is signed we find the Council advanced a massive capital sum of £16 million to invest in the IT. For the Your Choice Barnet contract, which involved outsourcing adult social care to Barnet Homes, the business case was predicated on generating income from other local authorities which, surprise surprise, failed to materialise.

In the latest outsourcing scheme, which focuses on educational services we have another dodgy business case which uses assumptions which are entirely unsupported and without any benchmarks to justify a joint venture. The business case is here

The services being outsourced include:
  • Strategic and financial management of the service
  • School improvement
  • Special educational needs
  • Educational psychology team (part traded)
  • Admissions and sufficiency of school places
  • Vulnerable pupils
  • Post 16 learning
  • Traded services including:
  • Catering service
  • Governor clerking service
  • Barnet Partnership for School Improvement (BPSI)
  • Newly Qualified Teachers support
  • Educational psychology (part)
  • Education Welfare Service (part)
  • North London Schools International Network (NLSIN)
The problem is that much of the justification for pursuing an outsourced joint venture is predicated on generating a large amount of new income from traded services with other local authorities. In total 71% of the financial improvement is from income growth rather than efficiency savings and of that 60% comes from school meals. Given that school meals is such an important component of the outsourcing package you would have thought that whoever put the business case together would have made sure their assumptions were accurate or at least supported by benchmarks. 

The problem is they have used very generic assumptions, specifically around the profit margin that school meals generate. In the business case they have assumed that school meals generate a 20% margin and the Council's justification for this is that the current service will pick up most of the fixed overheads. However, speak to anyone in school meals and they will tell you that a 20% margin is a complete fantasy and many school meal services just about break even. Indeed Barnet's in house school meals service is well regarded and generates an operating profit of £190,470 on a turnover of  £7.1 million or a margin of approximately 2.7%.

Having asked the council to tell me what school meal service in the UK operates at a margin of 20% the answer came back none, or rather we don't know. By using a profit margin of 20% that generates a forecast profit of £963,000 it suggests a turnover target of £4.8 million. However, if they have got the margin wrong and it is 5% then to generate the same level of profit they will need to generate £19.26 million of additional school meal sales or approximately 9 million school meals, a huge increase which seems entirely unrealistic. I have brought this to the attention of the council including Richard Cornelius but no one seems particularly concerned.

We are being pushed down an outsourcing path, not because it makes financial sense but because of political dogma and anyone who challenges the financial logic is branded a troublemaker. If the outsourcing follows what happened with Your Choice Barnet, where all the promised revenue growth failed entirely to materialise, then the risk is that staff will be forced to take pay cuts and services will be reduced in the same manner as YCB and that is unforgivable.

Monday 25 May 2015

Barnet Council where are the savings - Who pays for the interim staff?

As I blogged about yesterday, I am challenging Richard Cornelius, Andrew Travers and Capita to show me where are the promised massive savings.

One area where it is difficult to pin down savings is the whole subject of interim staff. Comensura supply interim and agency staff to the Council and in March  billed the council a whopping £1.9 million bringing their grand total for the year to £15,538,090.25.

In 2012/13 Comensura billed £12.5 million, In 2013/14 it rose to £13.8 million and this year, 2014/15 it has jumped again to £15.5 million. One major area of concern I have is that former council staff who used to work for a salary have been made redundant or left the council payroll cutting costs for Capita and then coming back as consultants on much higher rates, paid for out of the Comensura contract.

Perhaps part of the £3 million per annum increase in the Comensura costs is a switch between contracts and if that is the case are we, the Barnet residents seeing the benefits?

Sunday 24 May 2015

Barnet payments to Capita - £250 to charity if Richard Cornelius can show me the evidence of how Capita are actually making the savings promised

Sorry to raise the issue of payments to Capita yet again but I still cannot reconcile how we can pay so much to Capita for a service that is supposed to be generating savings.

For the financial year 2014/15 Barnet paid Capita via the CSG and Re contracts £51,787,011.34. This should be set against a background of the service costing £53 million before it was outsourced. (Source the business case used at the meeting when the two contracts were awarded to Capita. For further details see this blog

Based on information supplied to me in February (see below) the contracted payments should have been £53,654,000 which is slightly more than what it cost before the service was outsourced. Now I have no corroborating evidence that these payment were ever specified because all the commercially sensitive elements of the contract are redacted and indeed there are numerous clauses relating to incentives and penalties which would have made publishing a single payments schedule almost impossible. What is also important to bear in mind is that in the schedule below it states that £14,933 million was paid for an interim service we we know cost less than £1 million to deliver as the period was less than a month before the main contract started. So what happened to the remaining £14 million?  I would also draw your attention to the lack of additional payments from 2015/16 till the end of the contract. Is this because there will be no additional payments or because Capita haven't billed it yet?

I have asked repeatedly to see the evidence of precisely what we are paying for and a detailed explanation of why the payments are so high. Whilst a few promises of evidence were made when the previous COO was in place, none actually materialised.

If Barnet Council are serious about openness then why not host an open day where they go through the contract in detail so that we can understand exactly what we are paying for. I would have thought it would have made sense for Capita to get involved with this, to work through the contract with interested citizens and to demonstrate clearly how much money they are saving.

So I hereby throw down a challenge to the Chief Executive Mr Travers, to Richard Cornelius and to Capita - host an open day, bring bloggers and critics in and show them what you are doing, how the contract is working in reality what money is being paid to whom and how much is really being saved - evidence is essential.  Indeed a few Conservative councillors might want to come along as well seeing as they voted for this contract. I know some of them privately had serious concerns about the contract but were worried about making those views public.

And to put my money where my mouth is, I will donate £250 to a charity of Richard Cornelius' choice if he makes this contract open day happen.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

£11 million down the drain - Barnet's Blue Bin Failure

Back in 2013, Barnet convinced everyone that a shift to blue bins for recycling was the answer to driving up recycling rates. Previously we had a presorted curb side collection which generated high value waste that could be easily and effectively recycled. Convinced that co-mingled waste was the way to drive up recycling from the then level of 35.99% as reported in council documents, see below, the council spent £11 million buying new blue and brown bins, a huge advertising campaign, people to visit every household telling them about the change and a new fleet of bin lorries to accommodate the new bins.

Roll forward two years and what do we find? After the initial honey moon period, recycling rates are now slightly lower than before the blue bins were introduced see below.

I wonder if Councillor Cohen will be trying to explain why after such a huge £11 million investment we are back to where we started?

Monday 4 May 2015

Capita Special Projects - The Barnet Moneyspinner

The Capita contract in Barnet was supposed to help save money yet, as reported repeatedly on this blog, Capita get paid significantly more than the contract price. The forthcoming Performance and Contract Management Committee meeting discloses the most recent Capita payments.

I have highlighted all the "special project" payments which in this statement amount to £3.95 million, or almost half the total quarterly payments. It is also important to point out that the Capita contract is automatically updated for inflation. Now in my naive world I though inflation was currently zero but not in Barnet. As a result Capita's CSG bill was increased by £90,912 for the period 1 January 2015 - 31 March 2015.  The Re contract was increased by £94,865.92 for the year.

In total that is an annual uplift £458,000. Now given that Barnet last year cut council tax by 1%, that additional £458,000 has to be paid for by a cut to another budget and that is the one of the key reasons why freezing or cutting council tax is such a short sighted strategy.

We have also been charged an extra £702,317 for "additional service provider costs". I thought the contract price was supposed to be guaranteed but as with complex contracts of this nature, and as Cllr Hugh Rayner pointed out, contract variations are where contractors makes their money.

It is also interesting to note that we ended up paying £14,268 for occupational health assessments for just 2 months, a cost which was minimal before the Capita contract.

And guess what, the Conservative councillors who voted for this Capita contract never seem to ask a single question about what we are paying.

Thursday 30 April 2015

Barnet financial year end shows a bumper year for Capita and Comensura

Today sees the publication of March 2015 supplier payments and marks the end of the financial year. Unsurprisingly Capita have picked up a large chunk of revenue. In total in 2014-15 Capita have been paid £51,787,011.34. According to my reckoning we shouldn't be paying more than £36.56 million plus inflation which as we know at the minute is zero %.

The other beneficiary is Comensura who supply interim and agency staff to Barnet. In March they billed the council a whopping £1.9 million bringing their grand total for the year to £15,538,090.25. This is without a doubt a contract entirely out of control rising inexorably at a time when agency costs should be plummeting. Not one Conservative councillor has done anything to rein this contract in. Indeed Cllr Shooter foolishly planted a question back in July last year about how the Comensura contract was declining. Sadly he was told a whopping great lie.

In 2012/13 Comensura billed £12.5 million, In 2013/14 it rose to £13.8 million and this year, 2014/15 it has jumped again to £15.5 million. Instead of cutting libraries Barnet should get a grip of this contract and start saving money.

More updates on the financial year end to follow.

Please read why Barnet Council workers are on strike today & tomorrow

Saturday 21 March 2015

FOI refusals in Barnet - Hiding behind Capita

Since Barnet Council changed its website, some information sources have been completely inaccessible or have dead links that lead nowhere. In particular it has been impossible to look at previous Freedom of Information requests and the responses provided. If you click on the link on the website it  takes you to a page where you can fill in an FOI form but not see previous requests.  I drew this to the attention of the Council who promised to get it fixed but, as with so much the Council says, it was an empty promise.

Looking via Google at cached searches I managed to find the previous FOI's and one in particular caught my eye. It asked for Information relating to Fixed Telecommunications and Internet Services, an issue that has been the source of problems in the past.

So what was Barnet's response?

I am writing to inform you that the requested information is not held by London Borough of Barnet (the council). The council has outsourced its IT services to Capita under a 10 year contract. Information about the outsourcing can be found on the following page of our website:

I then looked at another FOI request which related to IT training. It was a detailed question and clear expressed concerns about money being wasted. So what was Barnet Council's response - yes you guessed it:

I can confirm that the requested information is not held by London Borough Barnet (the council). The council outsourced its IT services to Capita as part of the Customer and Support Group (CSG) contract. Details of the contract can be found on the following page of our website:

The same answer is given for  FOI requests about Servers,  IT maintenance and ICT strategy, although a request about printers does get an answer even though it acknowledges the contract is provided by Capita.

This represents a major problem and undermines genuine transparency about costs of operating ICT. The council maintain that they have signed a ten year contract with Capita and therefore they don't need to worry about costs. That seems mad to me given that the cost of ICT equipment has plummeted over the past 10 years and may continue to change, develop and be sourced at a lower costs over the next ten years. Without the public being allowed to question how much  is being spent on this very expensive cost centre, we don't know whether or not Capita and making excessive profits from this area of their contract payments.

Prior to Barnet contracting with Capita, the Council would have had to answer these questions and indeed they were asked and the answers showed what a complete mess the Council's IT department was in back in July 2011 http://barneteye.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/barnet-council-datacentre-at-risk-of.html 

Now I'm not the only one who thinks hiding behind a contractor is wrong. The Information Commissioner Office (ICO) has written a report specifically on this subject Transparency in Outsourcing: A Roadmap which says:

"We do feel there is a strong case for designating outsourced services as falling under FOIA when they are of significant monetary value and long duration: for example, those over £5 million in value or continuing over 5 years or where the contractor solely derives its revenue from public sector contracts". That would definitely apply to Capita's contracts with Barnet.

With the Children's, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding already in the process of being outsourced (see the tender here), there will be virtually no services that are not provided by a contractor and everything will be hidden behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality.