Sunday 16 December 2018

It's not just Barnet that's broken - it's Broken Britain

This week is one that will go down in history as a series of dreadful mistakes and missed opportunities both nationally and locally. It started with the national TV debate which in the end didn't happen (although the Channel 4 debate did shine a light on Caroline Lucas). Next came the Brexit vote that was cancelled mid-way through the parliamentary debate.  I watched the madness in parliament with a feeling of despair and hopelessness. National politicians grandstanding for the sake of ego sickens me and when this was followed by the vote of no confidence in Theresa May's leadership it was yet another example of selfish individuals screwing millions of ordinary people who are just trying to get through life.

I watched Prime Minister's questions and was given the impression that I was living in a parallel universe. Employment at an all time high - well, given that you only have to work one hour per fortnight to qualify as being in employment and there is immense pressure to take any work with the threat of benefit sanctions, that is hardly surprising. The problem is that it forces people into the wrong jobs. Many years ago I learned about frictional unemployment: that period of unemployment while people search for the right job that matches their skills. To my mind it is an acceptable form of unemployment because it helps to optimise the skills of individuals where they can maximise their productivity. In Britain we have high levels of employment but falling productivity. Forcing people to take the very first job offer irrespective of their skills just seems like a waste of talent and an inefficient use of resources. There is a classic example of this in today's Guardian which typifies the plight of many graduates who have been convinced to make a massive investment in their education, piling up huge student debts, but betrayed by government who have failed to come up with a coherent industrial strategy to boost high value, high paid jobs.

The government also talk about wage rises. That's not the feedback I get from friends and relatives who are stuck on minimum wages. The minimum wage is going up next year by 4.9% - sounds great doesn't it. But when you look at what that actually means in cash money it is just 38p an hour. When you look how much energy, food and rent are rising by then you realise that 4.9% of f*** all is still F*** ALL.

This week also saw Capita come in for even more criticism of their failings in the National Health Service and Army recruitment yet they still keep their contracts, propped up a government who seem to accept poor performance in return for keeping privatisation of the public sector.

What I see is a cruel, self-serving, remote and out of touch Government that seems to demonize the poorest in society and reward the privileged and wealthy.

This translates from a national level to local politics in leafy Barnet. This week we saw approval given to £68 million of cuts to frontline services, including Children's, Adults', Environment and Housing services.
To save money, Barnet Conservatives agreed to changes in council tax support that will see thousands of people worse off, without allowing any public comment and questions. The contempt was magnified when the Council's Monitoring Officer appeared to say that public comment and questions have no value.  Dr Julia Hines recorded this contempt at the meeting.
At the same meeting Conservatives decided that it was okay for officers to ignore the unanimous request of Cllrs to prepare full business cases for the in-sourcing of Capita services. This means that we will have to put up with paying for failing services like pensions, payroll, customer services and IT for even longer.

Then, to round off the week, Barnet published the unredacted version of the Grant Thornton Report into the £2m fraud. It set out in detail the evidence of the fraud, one missed by both the Council's internal auditor and the Capita-run Finance Department. What was most shocking was the statement Capita released which seemed to shirk responsibility, undermining the credibility of the report even though we know it happened and the offender is in prison.
Barnet is a reflection of Conservative Britain; contemptuous, selfish and happy to make the wrong decisions for a few short term savings. We need to start again with a fresh agenda, a clear vision of what we want Britain to deliver to its citizens, of how society should treat its most needy and the role of big business in that plan. We have a nation of good, talented, hard working people who deserve so much more from their government than what we have been served up this week. We need and deserve change. Let's hope we get it in the New Year.

Monday 3 December 2018

Suppliers Payments for October - A very large bill this month

Updated 5 December see below in Red
The supplier payments for October are out and there are a few anomalies. First off is the size of the overall bill which is much higher than normal at £74.85 million. The lion's share of that is represented in a payment of £25.86 million to the Barnet Group and their Open Door subsidiary. I am not clear why they are receiving such large sums; it may be the continuing purchase of properties for temporary accommodation; it maybe something else but it is a lot of cash especially at a time when the budget is overspent and massive cuts are planned for next year.

Capita CSG received £1.45 million after a deduction of a credit of £420,000 (I wonder what that was for) and Capita Re received £2.39 million, not insignificant. Just for reference, Capita CSG did receive more than £8 million last month.

Comensura only received £0.8 million this month, much lower than normal and would given a year end forecast of £17.2 million.  However, I was surprised there were any Comensura bills given the contract ended on 30 September and a new contract with Matrix SCM was supposed to have started in October - so far there are no signs of any invoices from them.

Updated 5 December
Barnet's Open Data website has now published the Matrix SCM data (although they confusingly call it MCM). The data includes 4 Day's of November data but I have separated that out to get a clearer image of total costs for October. This adds another £975,002 giving a total cost for interim & agency staff for October of £1,778,816.83 and a year end forecast of £18.9 million, £1 million more than last year.

There are a few unusual payments which include PA Consulting who were paid £232,267 for IT services - I wonder if this is linked to the Mosaic problems; £48,000 for Grant Thornton, I suspect tied up with the Fraud report; £12,726 to Enterprise  for vehicle hire. Next month will be interesting when we get a clearer picture on the interim and agency staff costs especially as the new bin service started at the beginning of November and may have significant  Set out below are the usual charts. I will continue to watch spending in Barnet.

Sunday 2 December 2018

War on the Poor & Vulnerable

The last week in Barnet must seem to some like a war on the poor and vulnerable. On Monday the Adults and Safeguarding Committee looked at cuts to their budget. These included:
  • Cuts to adult social care staffing which, as the report identifies, "has the potential to impact on service delivery where capacity is reduced, such as longer waiting times".
  • Putting clients into residential care rather than offering community-based placements when cheaper to do so. The report acknowledges that "some clients and their carers / families, may consider this change unfavourable if they have a preference for a community placement". But who cares as long as it is cheaper.
  • "Maintaining affordable levels of inflation on care and support packages while continuing to meet statutory duties" for which read cuts to care provider costs. The report acknowledges that, "As this could impact providers' ability to provide services, there could be an impact on customer satisfaction". The reality is that to deliver this objective it will need squeeze the pay of frontline care staff , some of the lowest paid staff in Barnet who are already struggling to live on poverty wages.
  • "Increased use of universal services, enablement, telecare, adaptations, equipment and direct payments which cost less than traditional home care and residential care....This might include support from volunteers and local clubs, for example".  The report acknowledges that "some users/relatives may still prefer traditional care and find creative options less palatable" So get volunteers or charities to pick up yet more of the services.
At the Housing Committee they discussed moving 950 council homes to their Open Homes Organisation which is more akin to a housing association. The Council acknowledges that rents will go up but they will take a premium from Open Homes which will generate £650k a year. Personally it looks social cleansing to me.  A number of years ago Barnet scrapped open waiting lists and now only help those people with the highest house needs - you can read it here. This proposal will wait until a Council property becomes empty, either the tenancy comes to an end or the tenant moves out. The council will then transfer these properties into Open Homes. The rents in these properties will be significantly higher than council house rent and up to 80% of the market rent. According to the latest GLA figures published on 18 October 2018, the median borough wide market rent for a 3 bed property is £1,798 so 80% of that is £1,438. Even if you are in a working household that is a great deal of money especially if you are in low paid employment. This looks like a plan to run down genuinely affordable rents to a point where the only council accommodation will be temporary to meet statutory needs and that may be outside the borough. This meets the aspirations of certain councillors who would like to see only rich residents in Barnet.

At the schools forum on Tuesday they discussed three options facing Barnet schools

  1. A proposal to fund some services, previously funded from the Education Services Grant, from the budget shares of maintained primary and secondary schools.  the impact of this cut would be approximately £32/pupil
  2. A proposal to increase De-delegation from maintained school budgets in order to continue the school improvement (LNI) service in its current form.  The impact of this would be a cut of £11.28 per primary school pupil and £5.83 per secondary school pupil.
  3. A proposal to transfer 0.5% of the Schools Block to the High Needs Block. The impact of this this varies by school  but for my local primary school is would cut their budget by £25,490

We know that wealthier parents can employ tutors for their children. I recall just how many kids had tutors when my children were in primary school and how we had to use tutors again in secondary school because of prolonged periods without a permanent teacher in certain subjects meant our children were falling behind. Cuts to budgets will impact the least advantaged children  who simply can't  afford tutors. Barnet make great credit of the performance of pupil in our schools but just look at little harder and you will see that the children who are not performing well are in the poorest groups . Examples include the percentage of disadvantaged pupils achieving the ‘expected standard’ in Reading Writing & Maths (RWM) or the percentage of pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan37 or statement of special educational needs achieving the ‘expected standard’ in RWM. Cuts to school budgets will just hurt these disadvantage children even more.

On Thursday a consultation on changes to the Council tax support system closed. This looked at the amount of discount people who are on benefits receive on their Council Tax bill. There may be an assumption that people on benefits get all their council tax paid but that has not been the case for a while. Barnet have used the introduction of Universal Credit to change the discount and rather than make the new scheme cost neutral, they have taken the opportunity to cut £3.2 million from the support budget. This means that if you earn just £10/month on top of your benefits you will have to pay 48% of your council tax. The full schedule is below.  This is just going to push even more of the poorest 20,000 people in Barnet further into poverty.
Add all these elements up and it looks like a war on the poor and vulnerable. They seem to be shouldering a disproportionate burden of the budget cuts which seems unjust and inequitable. More worryingly it does look like a concerted strategy to purge the borough of the most disadvantaged making Barnet a borough for the fit, healthy and wealthy only. It also seems to mirror the national government's plan to demonise and punish the poor. These are very bad times.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Will the £4m cheque buy Capita another 5 years?

Updated below in Red
Urgency Committee meetings are designed to pick up urgent matters that can't wait to be dealt with at other scheduled meeting. This meeting popped up in the calender last week and will be held this Friday morning at 8.30 am with the single issue of whether the Leader should authorise the acceptance of a £4.12 million cheque.  In most cases people would be cheering at getting a welcome cash injection just before year end. In this case it is what the payment is for that is most troubling.
The report is titled 'Commercial Settlement of Historic Issues' a rather startling title and I think not as intended. I think the intention was to discuss previous (historical) issues but they may have been historic as well in so far as they will be remembered for many years as one of the most disastrous deals ever done in Barnet.

This report provides an overview of the £4.12m cash settlement payment to the Council negotiated between Capita and the Council to resolve historical commercial issues related to the CSG (NSCSO) and Re (DRS) contracts.
The key items that form this proposed commercial settlement are:
  • Mosaic (the Adults Social care system) – new IT system implementation that experienced issues with timeliness and quality of delivery;
  • Development pipeline – delays in delivering housing on council land;
  • Increased monitoring associated with financial controls – to cover cost of Grant Thornton and additional council resources (in addition to first payment made in September 2018);
  • Procurement gainshare – settling of respective claims; and
  • Miscellaneous items – estates compliance (related to 2013 to 2016); and KPI failures related to the Re contract.
In theory this may look attractive  but a further analysis of the problems suggest that Capita are getting off lightly. The Mosaic Case management systems has been an unmitigated failure and in July the council identified that it would cost £4.2 million and a new supplier to sort it out. The fraud and consequent Grant Thornton Report has not only cost a fortune but taken up huge amounts of senior officer time to try and sort of the mess and to implement control procedures that Capita should have put in place 5 years ago. The gainshare rip off is nothing short of a scandal and deserves much greater scrutiny and the KPI failures are numerous and serious.

So the payment is welcome if somewhat low compared to the actual costs Barnet has been subject to. However the sting in the tail is that paying this £4.12m allows Capita to sidestep their procurement savings guarantees of £30.17 million over the next 5 years. The argument is that we will now receive 100% of the savings. Given that most of the savings have already been squeezed out of the procurement budget, the risk now is that we receive 100% of not very much instead of a guaranteed £30 million.

My really big concern is that this has been pushed through as an urgency item to forestall any decision about Capita's future services to be discussed at the Policy & Resources Committee on 11 December. We have already seen that we are not going to get the agreed full business cases on which services to bring back in house. This cheque has the potential to render the meeting on 11 December entirely redundant other than as a talking shop.

I will blog more about this after the meeting  on Friday but below are the questions I have submitted.
  1. Please can you provide the notional allocation of the £4.12 million attributed to each of the 5 items set out at 1.1 (a)-(e)
  2. Given that at the July Policy & Resources Committee the report noted that the costs of resolving the problems with the Mosaic system were £4.2 million and that there “are differences in views on who should pay for the £4.2m costs” can you clarify whose views have prevailed in this settlement and how much of the £4.2 million Capita are paying?
  3. The report notes that the payment of £4.12 million removes the liability for Capita to deliver net guaranteed procurement savings which amount to £30.17 million over the last 5 years of the contract. What impact does this have on the overall guaranteed savings of £126 million over the lifetime of the CSG contract and what are the risks of these savings not being delivered?
  4. In the financial  year 2019/20 will Capita receive £356,000 under the Agreed Procurement Price Recovery (APPR) mechanism as set out at 41.27 of Schedule 4 Price Payment Mechanism?
  5. Given that Capita will no longer receive any gainshare on this contract and APPR would have ceased after 2019/20 anyway, what incentives are there for Capita to fully resource the procurement function?
  6. Given that Capita have commenced formal redundancy consultations to cut 72% of their Corporate Programmes Team working on the Barnet contract, what reassurances have been provided by Capita that they will not cut the number of staff in their procurement team down to the bare minimum and /or move out the most talented staff to other contracts where they do receive a gainshare?
  7. Can you clarify if, by signing this agreement, it precludes the procurement team from being TUPE’d across to Barnet before the end of the contract?
  8. The report notes that no gainshare has been paid in 2018. However, advance claims were made and paid in 2016/17 for the entire three years of a contract which include 2018/19. Will those advance payments be recovered and if so what proportion of the £4.12 million do they represent?
  9. Can you clarify how much of the net guaranteed procurements savings were actually delivered in 2017/18 and, before this settlement is agreed, can you provide evidence that any shortfall in historical guaranteed procurement savings have been met?
  10. The report notes that procurement gainshare payments to Capita in 2017/18 were approximately £2 million. Can you clarify how that sum is broken down given that the Capita invoices suggest that the sum was  £1,665,543.26 and that of that sum, £534,000 was paid at the rate of 100% to Capita under the APPR mechanism (i.e. Capita received 100% of the savings and none was shared with LBB).
  11. Can you clarify if, by accepting this payment, this automatically guarantees that Capita will continue to provide the procurement function until the end of the contract irrespective of what the Business Case being presented to P&R in December finds?
  12. Does the payment of this sum guarantee that Capita will continue to provide any other services for the remaining 5 years of the contract irrespective of what the Business Case being presented to P&R in December finds and if so what are they?
  13. Does the offer of £4.12 million from Capita crystallizes an acknowledgement of financial loss exceeding £500,000 and  by accepting this payment does this preclude Barnet from invoking Step In Rights as set out at 21.1.1 in the contract?
UPDATE: 1 December 2018
I attended and spoke at the committee meeting yesterday. You can listen to what was discussed here and clicking on the sound bar. My appeal to the Councillors was not to refuse the payment but, at this stage, to defer the decision until the Policy & Resources Committee on the 11 December when more councillors would be able to scrutinise this decision and for more information to be provided to inform that decision.  Given that the payment from Capita will not go through until January anyway, deferring this decision by 11 days would have had no impact of the timing of the payment. It would have also allowed this to be discussed alongside the review of the Capita contract so the two items, which are inextricably linked, could be dealt with together. As is the way in Barnet, two councillors, Richard Cornelius and Dan Thomas, made the decision to press ahead, out-voting Barry Rawlings who was in favour of deferring the decision.

One thing that did come out during the course of the meeting is whether these savings are real or not. Because of the way the contract is written with a baseline for costs being set in 2012, it appears that any savings that are made at any time during the 10 years of the contract trigger a gainshare payment for the remaining duration of the contract, even if Capita had little or no involvement in the process. This is what I have always suspected but this seemed to be clarified in the responses and discussion to my supplementary questions. I have blogged about the one sided and anomalous gainshare process many time especially where contracts are let by council consortia. One such contract is the highways contract - LOHAC which is a London Highways Alliance and TfL joint initiative - you can read about it here. In the last two years Capita have claimed £1 million in gainshare on this contract. Part of the deal offered means that they can no longer claim gainshare on any procurement - which is a good thing. What it does do is make a complete nonsense of the often repeated statement that Capita is saving us £1 million a month. Over the period of the contract Capita claimed to save Barnet a net £47 million on procurement.  This meeting highlights that these savings are nothing more than smoke and mirrors and would have been saved anyway with or without Capita as part of the normal council procurement process. 

As such I can start to see why this might be a better deal for Barnet than sticking with the original contract - BUT it fundamentally undermines the rationale for outsourcing in the first place. In which case the best option would be to take the money and sack Capita. The problem is that by taking the money I suspect it makes it much harder to sack them. Cllr Thomas also made the bizarre comment that it was good that we had outsourced because when the contractor fails we can claim compensation unlike in house teams. The issue is if you outsource contracts you don't expect them to go wrong and getting Capita to constantly pay up for failure just means we have a failing service.  

Time will tell what happens but given the tactics employed yesterday I have no confidence that we will see a fair and balanced business case appraisal on 11 December. 

My speech to the committee is below:

"The question is “does this deal represent good value for money. The council’s legal advisors say it represents “good value” but there’s not a single piece of evidence to support that statement. This 5 page report contains no detail, no risk assessment, no analysis of how the sum has been calculated, yet you are being asked to make a decision which could have major financial consequences over the next 5 years. This sum doesn’t cover the cost of fixing the Mosaic system. We still don’t know what the final bill will be for all the additional management time and control systems to address the fraud let alone the total cost of the Grant Thornton report. We’ve paid just shy of £8 million in gainshare on alleged savings which may not have been cashable.
By accepting this offer you remove Capita’s liability to pay £30.17 million of net procurement savings. The contract was back end loaded with two thirds of the savings falling due in the last five years which they will now avoid. You may argue that by taking away the gainshare guarantee we get to keep 100% of the savings. The problem is that the level of savings look entirely unrealistic. The two largest alleged savings were on the Comensura and LOHAC contracts. Comensura has been replaced and LOHAC savings are currently subject to challenge with the external auditor. Some gainshares were only derived because officers had set an indicative budget too high. The risk is  Barnet receives 100% of not very much maybe  £1 -2 million a year at the most. This would leave us with a £20-25m shortfall against the guarantees. There’s no risk analysis, no forward procurement projections, no advice from external procurement experts. Approving this deal without those documents or advice would be nothing short of criminally reckless.

I urge you to defer this decision and deal with it at the Policy & Resources Committee on 11 December alongside the Capita business case review by which time officers can provide the level of detail a decision such as this deserves and allow greater scrutiny by more councillors. The payment is not scheduled till January so deferring the decision for two weeks will have no impact on when you receive the money. Making the decision now could cost the council at least £20 million. Think carefully, you will be held accountable".

Sunday 25 November 2018

Anger, Chaos & Conflict - Just Another Barnet Audit Committee

On Thursday evening we witnessed fracture lines opening between the old and new guard of Barnet Tories, a meeting that satisfied no one and yet again highlighted the terminal failings delivered to us by Capita.

With seven speakers and 68 public questions this was always going to be a lively meeting but I am not sure anyone had quite anticipated the frustration and annoyance that was expressed by members of the public. Each of the seven speakers gave their three minutes with little or no questioning. Even with so little feedback there was still only time for 3 of the 68 supplementary questions.

There were two main items on the agenda; the first was the review of the Grant Thornton (GT) report and second was a run through of the internal audit reports. Most of the audience were familiar with many of the issues in the GT report because it was discussed in October at the Financial Performance & Contracts Committee. However, the biggest revelation that emerged was that a number of the committee members had not been provided with an unredacted copy of the report. The public are used to being treated with contempt by the council, but for councillors and the two independent co-opted committee members who are being asked to review a serious financial investigation not to be given a full copy of the report is inexcusable. Cllr Alison Moore asked for unredacted copies of the report to be given to members immediately. Lots of rumblings and patronising comments but it went to a vote.  Imagine the shock when new Tory Cllr Alex Prager voted with Labour and Cllr Laithe Jajeh abstained and the motion was carried. These two young councillors will need to be taken more seriously. Cllr Prager is an accountant and Cllr Jajeh is, I believe, a lawyer. They have the potential to bring a different perspective to the committee. Time will tell if the whip is brought to bear on them or if we will see a bit more independent thought from the Tories.

There were reports from the S151 officer, the assurance director and the GT staff. The one group unrepresented on the night were Capita, the company who were in charge of both the regeneration team where the fraud occurred and finance team whose lack of suitable controls allowed 62 separate fraudulent transactions to go unnoticed. The Internal audit function failed to identify this problem and agreed that they would have to put more resources into this area. Yet just a couple of years ago I challenged both Internal Audit and the Corporate Anti Fraud Team about the number of days allocated to reviewing the CSG and Re contracts but as always my concerns were ignored.

The reports were noted and the S151 Officer and his team went through all the systems they have now implemented to ensure this doesn't happen again. At one point Cllr Kathy Levine made the comment that if we (the council) are doing all this work for them (Capita), why don't we just do the job ourselves. She makes a perfectly valid point. We are paying Capita ,who do a lousy job and then sort out the mess that ensues. Cut out Capita and just bring the service back in house.

A vote on the report was deferred till the end of the meeting when Cllrs went into private session to read and discuss the freshly printed, unredacted, GT report. We don't know what was said or what they agreed so no transparency there then.

They then moved onto internal audit findings. Now I suspect that many of the committee members had not read the full report as it was buried away; a hyperlink in the summary report leads to other hyperlinks which eventually take you to the report. I have mapped out the click trail below:

The report gave no assurance, the lowest possible rating to the Temporary & Interim workforce service, a contract which is managed by Capita and for which they have claimed several million pounds in gainshare. It is a shocking report which you can read here.  Examples include:

On DBS Checks:
"Four individuals (2 x Passenger Transport Escort - Level 2 and 2 x Passenger Transport Driver) indicated that they would normally be required to have DBS clearance due to the nature of their roles and contact with vulnerable residents. We looked at the compliance tab within the agency staff system for each of these individuals but none had details of DBS clearance in place,"  and
"The supplier is supposed to audit suppliers regularly (six monthly for all agencies, three monthly for social care agencies) to assess compliance with statutory requirements in areas including immigration status, DBS checks and IR35. The six-monthly audits are supposed to be reported on to Barnet, but the three-monthly ones are only reported if requested. Only one audit report has been produced since the inception of the current contract, which was sent by the supplier to the Council in February 2017."
The risk identified was as follows: "If agency staff are not subject to the relevant vetting for their post, there is a risk that inappropriate appointments will be made, leading to financial loss, increased safeguarding risks and/or reputational damage for the council."

On Monitoring:
"18 (individuals) had their assignments extended beyond the initial assignment length. We looked at the records of approvals within the workflow inbox and requested supporting evidence from the supplier for the most recent assignment extensions for these individuals (all dating from after September 2017) and were not able to verify that the required permissions had been obtained for these extensions in line with the agreed workflow for extension approvals for 17 of the 18 extensions (94%)."
The risk identified was as follows: "If the Council does not have an overview of the length of service of agency staff, there is a risk of financial loss to the Council where a permanent post would be more appropriate, or where agency staff gain additional employment rights through length of service".

On Value for Money:
"The historic savings percentage quoted in the contract is used to estimate savings to arrive at the quarterly amount to be paid to CSG. It is not clear why the historic savings percentage is being used as the basis for the CSG gain share calculation, when the contract says that actual savings should be calculated and costs rebaselined annually. The text within the contract where the savings percentage has been drawn from is explicitly flagged as an illustration of past savings performance, rather than as a rate setting exercise. As such, it is likely that the CSG gain share calculations to date for this contract have not been accurate if the historic savings percentage has been used as the assumed savings amount"
The risk identified was as follows: "If cost savings and agency staff numbers are not accurately reported, the Council may not be able to understand whether or not the contract with the supplier offers value for money."

Personally, I find all these matters shocking especially as some of them were flagged up in 2014 and again in 2015. The response from the council is "we are changing the agency contract". What they failed to acknowledge is poor contract management, that is carried out by Capita and I see no prospect of their service improving. Worse, I see the Audit committee who have a responsibility for risk management failing to take any actions which would see the situation improve.

On 11 December we are scheduled to have a Policy & Resources Committee which will discuss the business case of which Capita services will be brought back in house. We know that this includes the Finance function excluding transaction services which will remain in Darlington and Strategic HR. I think that will be the totality of services. I also have a very worrying suspicion that the deal done by Capita to pay Barnet £4.12 million to resolve "historic (sic) commercial issues" is aimed at heading off any other services being brought back in house.

Monday 19 November 2018

Will a Confluence of Events Lead to a Crisis in Barnet

In the last couple of weeks a number of separate and different policy decisions have emerged. Each one on its own is bad but not overwhelming. However, as all these different problems come together in the next four weeks, this confluence of events risks leading to a political crisis in Barnet,the likes of which we have not seen in some years.  Set out below are just six of those issues.

The Grant Thornton Report
The Grant Thornton report into the £2 million fraud was published back in September but with a large part of one annex heavily redacted. This annex dealt with contractual breaches by Capita.
Next week is the Audit Committee at which this report is due to be discussed. I and other bloggers in Barnet have already highlighted the massive failure of systems that allowed this to happen. I blogged about it here, Broken Barnet blogged about it here and the Barnet Eye blogged about it here. Grant Thornton have pulled no punches about the causes of the problems and all roads lead back to Capita. There was an expectation that the report elements that were previously redacted would be made public so we could have a full and frank review, especially around the contract breaches. The report lists a summary of the contract breaches and these are set out below.
Crucially, the evidence and observations is the part that is redacted. A well informed source suggested to me that the redactions weren't just to spare the blushes of Capita but to conceal criticism of the Conservative group and the way the contract has been managed. At this stage that is just speculation and will only be proven one way or the other when the report is published in full. The big issue here is that by concealing the evidence and observations, democracy is being stifled at a time when key decisions about these contracts are being decided. There are many calls for this to be made available and ultimately this may end up with the Information Commissioner's Office, one of a list of complaints they are dealing with in regard to Barnet, but this is no way to run a 21st century council.

Capita Contract 'Realignment'
Back in July officers set out a series of services where they felt there was scope to improve service performance, value for money and strategic control as set out below.
A business case report was commissioned unanimously by the Policy and Resources Committee in July and it was scheduled to come to the next Committee meeting on 11 December. Last week we also found out via a letter from the Council Chief Executive that the Capita Contract 'realignment' has now been shelved. Officers have had nearly 5 months to prepare this business case but it simply hasn't happened. As a result, all but two of the various services that even the Conservative group had agreed should be considered for insourcing will be left with Capita for the foreseeable future. I suspect that this committee will call into question the authority of the Chief Executive to ignore a unanimous committee decision. If it is claimed there have been insufficient resources to complete the study, then I will point out that they allocated a budget of £300,000 for this work so what has that been spent on?  I made the suggestion at the July committee that council officers were already busy and that in these circumstances they should bring in external consultants to help prepare the business case. Residents and, I'm sure, many councillors who were expecting this report will feel betrayed and let down by the council and I suspect this will end up in legal action.

Internal Audit Report
At the Audit Committee next week councillors will also be considering an internal audit report which is shockingly bad with a NO ASSURANCE rating. This documents the failure and mismanagement of the interim and agency staff contract, a contract managed by Capita and on which they have received millions of pounds in gainshare payments. This detailed report is buried away and not listed in the agenda papers. As is increasingly the case, the report can only be accessed via a hyperlink in the officer's summary report which then requires three further click throughs before you can actually read the report. If you want to read it, here is the direct link to the report.  Some of the problems identified in 2014 and again in 2015 are still happening in 2018 yet nothing changes. There is always the promise of an action plan to solve the problem but why after five years of failure is this never followed through. I will be blogging more about this in the coming days but it is a catalogue of indifference, complacency and refusal to take decisive action.

School Budget Cuts
I was contacted by several people last week about the consultation taking place in schools to cut their budget further.  Barnet's approach is that their own budget has been cut by Central Government so the Council will have to cut the schools' budget. You can read about the consultation here. It offers three options all of which are bad as follows:
  1. A proposal to fund some services, previously funded from the Education Services Grant, from the budget shares of maintained primary and secondary schools. The impact would amount to a cut of £32.37 per pupil
  2. A proposal to increase De-delegation from maintained school budgets in order to continue the school improvement (LNI) service in its current form. The impact would amount to a cut of £11.28 per Primary pupil, £5.83 per Secondary pupil
  3. A proposal to transfer 0.5% of the Schools Block to the High Needs Block. The impact varies by school but for example my local primary school Danegrove would see their budget cut by £25,490, the cost of a teaching assistant.
In response 30 Chairs/Vice Chairs of Governors at Barnet schools have written to Barnet Council showing their  concern at the situation they have been placed in, the lack of true consultation and the impact it will have on future budget cuts.You can read the response here.

Council Tax Support Cuts
We have also seen a consultation on the cuts to council tax support. This is the amount of discount people who are on benefits receive on their Council Tax bill. There may be an assumption that people on benefits get all their council tax paid but that has not been the case for a while. Barnet have used the introduction of Universal Credit to change the discount and rather than make the new scheme cost neutral, they have taken the opportunity to cut £3.2 million from the support budget. This means that if you earn just £10/month on top of your benefits you will have to pay 48% of your council tax. The full schedule is below. You can give your views on the consultation here. This is just going to push even more of the poorest 20,000 people in Barnet further into poverty.

Bin Collection Chaos
The final issue that has arisen is the change to the bin collection service. This seems to have been rushed through with very little consultation with the frontline staff who do the job. There have been changes to collections of refuse from flats above shops and as we know the food waste collections have been indefinitely suspended. The net result has been chaos, with many bins left uncollected. I understand that senior managers were warned that some of the rounds were simply too long to cover in a day and that the number of bins that had to be collected on each route was not known. This is unforgivable. You only have to look on Twitter to see numerous pictures of unemptied bins around the borough.

Political Crisis
So all this is coming together in the next four weeks and I get a sense that more and more ordinary, Barnet residents, those who are not engaged with social media, those who have no more than a passive interest in politics are starting to question the actions of the Conservative councillors. Brexit may be providing an immediate distraction but on a day to day basis all of these problems are now affecting many more residents. Coupled with the budget shortfall of £66.8 million over the next three years things are only going to get much worse.

I also get a sense that not all members of the Conservative party are happy, let alone thousands of residents who are feeling the impact. I get the impression that a gulf is starting to open up between the old guard politicians  and some of the new young Tory councillors.  The net result for Barnet residents is a badly run council, a weak leadership and poor management. That is good for no one especially the poor, school children, and anyone who believes in democracy. This council is falling apart and I doubt that is going to change any time soon.

Friday 9 November 2018

Capita realignment -The silence is deafening. Should we read something into that?

Back in July Barnet Council published a very significant paper which set out the details of the process for the "realignment" of the Capita contract. You can read the full details here. The basis for this review was driven by a number of issues identified with the contracts as follows:

"In relation to the CSG contract, these have included issues with: financial controls and reporting; pensions administration; estates; and user satisfaction with back office services. In relation to the Re contract, issues have been raised on financial controls and the operation of the Highways service. A number of these performance concerns were also highlighted in the contract reviews that were carried out in 2016 and 2017 of the CSG and Re contracts respectively".

The review considered which option could deliver three aims as follows: high quality services, value for money and strategic control and they framed this in three options as follows:

  • Option 1  - keep the Capita contracts as they are now; 
  • Option 2 - bring some services back in house; and
  • Option 3 - terminate the contracts and either insource or contract with a different organisation.
The initial conclusion was to go for Option 2  and the summary of reasons is set out below:

Option 2 would consider bringing the following services back in house.

At the meeting  and after some debate, it was agreed that consideration would also be given to bringing even more services in house by looking at Option 3 as well as Option 2.  At the meeting I also asked several questions including:

"Which firm of consultants will be used to carry out the business case" to which the response was "The full business case will be developed by council officers, taking external advice as appropriate". The other question I asked was "As part of the business case process will there be any public consultations or public evidence sessions" to which the response was a very succinct "Yes". I expressed my concern that council officers were already very busy dealing with day to day matters and that there was a risk that they simply wouldn't have time to prepare a business case. By contrast I was pleased that the council were taking the sensible approach to hold public consultation on the business case especially as this might at some stage be subject to legal action.

That was back in July. We are now in November and the business case report is due to be tabled at the Policy & Resources Committee in just over 4 weeks. Given that the report has to go through all the council review processes before it is published and it has to be published a week before the meeting,that means it should just about be finished. Yet we have not had any public consultation on this process, or been able to provide any public evidence. Once again we have been told an untruth.

As you will know I am not prepared to leave matters like this to lie unresolved so on 30 October I wrote to the Chief Executive and copied in to Cllr Cornelius asking when the consultation would take place. No reply, not even an acknowledgement. So on Tuesday I emailed them both again. Today is Friday and still no response.

You can draw one of two conclusions from this. The first is that they are simply ignoring me and do not want to engage in any form of dialogue - definitely a possibility. The alternative conclusion is that they they have no intention of opening up consultation because they have no intention delivering either option 2 or option 3 and they will now seek a fudge on the current contract.

If I hear back from either the Chief Executive or Cllr Cornelius on the consultation then I will of course blog about it. If I hear nothing then don't be surprised if, in 3 weeks time, we hear that, yet again, Barnet have fudged the options and most, if not all, the service are staying with Capita. 

I have reached a point where I no longer believe anything the Council tells me.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Ten Tips to Negotiate a Contract Break - Perhaps Barnet Councillors Should Read This

I saw this and thought Barnet Council might find it useful. My comments are in Red
Solicitor Robert Griffiths gives ten tips on negotiating your way out of troublesome contracts.
1. Read the contract thoroughly
Before you take any firm action, or start worrying about how to deal with a troublesome contract, the first thing you should do is read the contract thoroughly. By doing this you will make sure that you are properly prepared and appraised of the situation, and can be sure that you know your contractual position, all well in advance of contacting the other party.
If you are in any doubt as to the meaning or effect of any of the clauses in the contract, you should seek specialist advice from a solicitor as soon as possible.  
I would recommend Barnet employ a red hot contract lawyer as soon as possible - not members of the "magic circle" but a lawyer that has a real appetite to dig deep into this contract.
2. Consider all of your options
Before you decide to take any firm action, take stock. Ask yourself whether you are certain that you want to bring the contract to an end, and whether this is the only course of action open to you. If you are reacting impulsively as a result of falling sales or rising overheads, or have found a more profitable or better-value deal elsewhere, you may be able to talk to your customer/supplier and work out a way forward that suits both parties.
In Barnet's case they have been in discussions with Capita for at least 10 months and over that period the problems only seem to be getting worse. It may be that some services don't come back in-house and are instead shared with another local authority but the experience of  sharing legal services with Harrow has been expensive and problematic. There are a long list of councils that have brought contracted services back in-house and I would hope that officers have visited and talked to them to see how that process was managed.
3. Look at the termination clause
The contract may allow you to end the deal at any time, provided you give due notice. Before you do this, however, check whether you will have to make a penalty payment. Ideally, you will have agreed an exit clause with a minimal penalty. If not, the “fine” may be such that you are effectively locked into the contract. In these cases, it usually pays to be open with the other party and attempt to negotiate a better deal. 
I FOI'd the termination clause and had to go all the way to the ICO to get Barnet to reveal it.  You can read it here. It seems to me that the costs are not significant in comparison to what we are paying and the poor service we are receiving, although ideally we would not pay any penalty payments to Capita.
4. Look out for anniversaries or other key dates in the contract
These might enable you to leave the contract without penalty at certain times. Many contracts operate on a rolling yearly term, which is automatically renewed on the anniversary of the term and can usually be terminated without penalty at the anniversary. 

We missed opportunities to take advantage of the three year review but in less than 12 months the six year review is due at which time, if the contract has not been terminated, Barnet have the opportunity to change elements of the contract.
5. Cost your exit. What will you save by an early exit?
Don’t rush into serving notice or terminating the agreement until you have costed the implications of both leaving the contract and finding an alternative.

I hope the alternative solutions are being costed right now. If they haven't been then Officers have not been doing their jobs properly. We also need to make sure that we don't keep referring back to the baseline costs of 2012/13. The world has moved on, technology has improved and services have changed. We need detailed and thorough costings which are realistic and evidenced.
6. Look for a breach
Go through the contract to check that both parties have complied with their obligations. If the other party has performed poorly or failed to meet its obligations, you might be able to terminate the contract for a breach on its part.

There are so many occurrences which look like contract breach, the failure to provide reliable financial data, the failure to back up data for the library system, the failure of the pensions administration system, repeated payroll system failures, the failures to meet contractual commitments.
7. Misrepresentation?
You may be able to do the same if you have been the victim of misrepresentation – that is, you signed the contract on the basis of a written or verbal statement that turned out to be misleading or untrue. 

So many issues seem to be being raised where the spirit of the contract seems to have been breached but the letter of the contract has been followed. Is that misrepresentation?
8. Once you know your position – contact the other party and begin negotiations
The best course is almost always to try to negotiate a mutually beneficial and cordial end to the relationship that leaves open the possibility of working together again the future.

Hopefully that is what Barnet have been doing over the last 9 months - if it isn't then someone hasn't been doing their job.
9. Consider setting-off money you’re owed against what you owe
The law in this area is complex, but it may be possible to set sums off against each other where “the claim and cross claim are so closely connected that it would be manifestly unjust to enforce one without taking account of the other”.

I'm not sure how this applies in Barnet's case but certainly worth investigating
10. Be flexible
The chances are the other party will be feeling the pinch, too, and won’t want to lose your custom. They may respond to your concerns by amending prices, increasing quality or changing service provisions, or agreeing to a temporary variation in the contract until sales pick up again.
Frankly I don't care if Capita are feeling the pinch because Barnet residents are feeling the pinch much more and supporting Capita shareholders should not be the first priority.

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Supplier Payments September 2018 - Bonus for Capita

Barnet's supplier payments for September are out. First of all the good news. The spend with Comensura seems to be slowing slightly with spend in September down to £1.28 million and a year end forecast down to £18.47 million, still more than last year but starting to fall.  I did raise a very real concern that the figures being provided to the Financial Performance and Contracts Committee do not reconcile with the figures published in the suppliers payments. As yet no one from the Council has come back to me as why there is such a large difference. This is the last month of Comensura figures as the contract has now been awarded to a company called Matrix SCM but I will continue to monitor their spend.

This month Capita received a bumper payment of just over £8 million on the CSG contract and a more modest  £726,066 on the Re contract. We will have to wait and see what the contract review brings and whether Councillors will actually agree to bring services back in-house and finally get these costs under control.

I will of course continue to keep a close eye on Barnet' spending.

Friday 26 October 2018

Guest Blog - Kick Out Capita Inquiry - House of Commons 6th November

Barnet UNISON call-out for people to give evidence at the #KickOutCapitaInquiry
If you are a Barnet resident or Barnet UNISON member and want to give evidence to the #KickOutCapitaInquiry  in person or want to provide evidence but remain anonymous please please email
Already a number of people have already registered their intention to submit evidence to the #KickOutCapita Inquiry which is being held at the
House of Commons Westminster, London SW1A 0AA.
On Tuesday 6 November 2018 at 7pm
Please arrive early as there will be a queue for security checks.
Meeting is sponsored by Barnet Alliance for Public Services and Barnet UNISON
Chair: Aditya Chakrabortty Guardian columnist and senior economics commentator
Purpose of Inquiry
To hear evidence from residents, trade unions, politicians on what Capita has done in Barnet and elsewhere and end with a set of recommendations.
How you can help.
  1. Please join #KickOutCapita campaign from 6 pm outside Hendon Town Hall,11th December, The Burroughs, Hendon NW4 4BG.
  2. Please sign and share our #KickOutCapita petition here
A Capita employee managed to steal over £2 million from Barnet Council because neither Capita nor Barnet Council had control of financial matters.
Barnet Council felt obliged to commission Grant Thornton to identify how such a large scale fraud was possible. This project could cost up to half a million pounds of tax payers’ money.
 The review found no proper budgetary controls, no checking of basic banking details, inexperienced managers responsible for large amounts of Council money, no written financial procedures and check-lists.
Barnet Council agreed to pay Capita £252.54 million, but has already paid Capita £352.41 million with FIVE more years to go!
Barnet Council is in financial crisis with a budget overspend of £10.3 million this financial year and a funding gap of £66.8 million over the next three years.
Front-line services such as street cleansing, waste and recycling, libraries and social care are all facing more and more cuts that are already affecting Barnet residents.
Capita is having difficulty with its own finances.
Their Share Price has dropped from £13 a share to under £1.50 a share in the last two years.
On 11th December 2018, Barnet Council Policy and Resources Committee will decide on whether to end both contracts. We are campaigning that they VOTE to end both contracts and begin the urgent process of taking back control of those services.
Please join #KickOutCapita campaign from 6 pm outside Hendon Town Hall,11th December, The Burroughs, Hendon NW4 4BG.
Please sign and share our #KickOutCapita petition here

Friday 12 October 2018

Property Acquisitions - It's all about the extras

Over the last year I have been reviewing the properties acquired by Barnet Group. The idea of the acquisitions is sound, to buy properties for people who would otherwise be placed in rented temporary accommodation.  Last year Barnet decided that it would be cheaper to buy those properties in Peterborough, something I blogged about here last year. However they failed to agree this strategy with Peterborough Council who felt that this was putting a strain on their own housing market.
Part of the rationale behind this strategy is that the properties would be acquired and refurbished to a good standard. The cost of this refurbishment was set out in a report to Barnet Cllrs in April 2017 which you can read in full here.   Critically, they include the table below:

As you can see in the table the best case scenario for refurbishment costs and fees was £23,669 and worst case £31,890.  Barnet Homes said that the other costs include:
  • Management of the purchasing process;
  • Agent fees;
  • Survey costs;
  • Independent valuation costs;
  • Legal fees;
  • Costs associated with lease extensions;
  • Refurbishment cost;
  • Management to the refurbishment process. 

In 2017 Barnet Homes acquired a number of properties. I have taken the details and figures from a number of Council Delegated Powers Reports (DPR) for the 42 properties I know about. All I have done is collate that data into a table. Set out below is a table showing the purchases in 2017.

From the table above you can see that the average refurbishment cost is £45,796 which is 43.6% above the worst case scenario. I did raise this with Barnet Homes but they simply said:

"Many of the properties require extensive refurbishment to get them up to the Barnet Homes standard. This can include works to the structure of the property such as new doors and windows, plus works to roofs and guttering as well as asbestos surveys and consequent removal, new heating systems, kitchens, bathrooms, and redecoration". 

My argument is that if properties need that much work then that should be reflected in the purchase price or maybe you should buy different properties especially if these works take a long time to carry out. Also if you are buying this many properties you would have a team to manage this process and have agreed suppliers of kitchens and bathrooms at a discounted price.

Jump forward to 2018 and 77 more properties are being purchased closer to, or in, Barnet. Set out below are details of the properties acquired.

As you can see from the table above the additional costs are now averaging £56,512.  This was explained to me that it automatically includes a lease extension allowance of £15,000 where it is a flat and that some of the properties have an extra bedroom and that adds to the refurbishment costs.  What is troubling is how so many properties can have such a huge additional cost of over £60,000. I did ask about the property that had nearly £80,000 of additional costs on a property costing £315,000 but I was told that this sale has now been discontinued. 

There is a degree of irony as many of the 2018 properties are ex local authority properties. Indeed, at least one property is a former Barnet council house previously sold under right to buy. I googled Zoopla and found interiors of the property from 2013 when it was offered for rent.  You can see them here. OK, it is 5 years on but it is hard to see how it is necessary to spend £37,950 especially as Barnet Council own the freehold.

At the Financial Management and Contracts committee this week I mentioned these costs and asked who was checking. Cllr John Marshall challenged me and asked if I understood why these properties were purchased. Yes of course I do and I welcome the principle of what is being done especially as the latest crop of properties are much closer or in our own community. My problem is who is checking all these extra costs which on the face of it seem excessive and much greater than councillors were led to believe when they signed up to this strategy. So far the extra costs are just over £6 million compared to the best case estimate of  £2.8 million and a worst case scenario of  £3.8 million. That shortfall (compared to the worst case scenario) of £2.2 million could pay for  90+  full time care support staff, or is the equivalent of all the savings from the decimated library service cuts.

Barnet are focused on cutting budgets but I worry that they don't pay enough attention to controlling  costs.