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.