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.