Monday 23 December 2019

Barnet still not managing its money

Barnet were due to hold a Financial Performance and Contracts Committee meeting last week but postponed it until the end of January due to election "purdah". I did write to Cllr Zinkin asking him to reconsider this decision given that there was nothing that would appear to breach purdah rules in the planned agenda and it is essential that Cllrs should keep a tight control over finances. He said that they wouldn't reconsider the meeting but that they would try to publish key financial information. This week he kept to his word and published what appear to be some of the reports that would have been considered.

However, what the key report shows is that at Month 7 (October) the Council was still forecasting an overspend this financial year by £6 million before drawdown from reserves. There are a number of reasons for this overspend. One of them is caused by the closure of the Finchley Lido while repairs to its unsafe roof are on-going, losing £736,000 of revenue. Here are a couple of pictures of the repair work courtesy of the GLL website.

The big worry is how much more is this going to cost to repair, while all the time it is losing revenue by being shut. It also makes you wonder how the roof was allowed to reach such a serious condition that such major works were required and why this problem wasn't picked up sooner.

Streetscene, which includes the bin collection service, is still £1.4 million overspent which is apparently due to additional agency staff costs and the service being split between two depots. As I have said many times, the bin reorganisation has been a disaster in that it has failed to save any of  budgeted savings, and hence the overspend. They also note that there is a £400,000 overspend on maintenance of the refuse vehicles. I know they have been having problems but they bought four new refuse vehicles last year when they reorganised the rounds and in the last 4 months have bought another 16 new  refuse vehicles at a cost of £3.4 million so that does seem to undermine their argument.

There is an overspend of £4 million on unfunded care packages for the elderly, albeit this is partially offset by an underspend in Learning Disabilities. It runs to the heart of the problem with Central Government who continue to push all the costs for elderly care onto individuals who, when they run out of money or if they lack the funds, become the responsibility of the local authority. Barnet has an ageing population and according to Barnet's own figures, the number of residents aged over 65 will grow by 37% over the next ten years. As such the financial pressure on Barnet to meet unfunded  adult care is likely to grow dramatically.

Children's and Family Services are overspent by £1.2 million of which £744,000 is down to staff overspend. After the Inadequate Rating of the service in 2017 money was thrown  at the problems including bringing in some very expensive staff on agency contracts. Perhaps if the council had been less ready to cut the budget in previous years the service might not have declined to the point where it need such a large injection of funds.

What is clear is that every year Barnet set savings targets and they consistently fail to achieve them. There is always a reason but it remains a worrying trend.

Over the next five years Barnet have a forecast budget shortfall of £118.7 million according to their own figures.

The new Conservative government appear to have made very little provision to address the massive cuts local authorities are going to be forced to make in the next 5 years. There is no policy to address the problem of social care funding which will put yet more pressure on local authorities.

These are all matters that councillors should have been discussing last week, looking at how Barnet can live with these huge financial problems yet this is now postponed till the end of January and because the public are effectively gagged there will be very limited public scrutiny.

Many people seems positive about this new government - Based on the finances, I have nothing but dread for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Seasons Greetings from Mr Reasonable.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Another bumper month for Capita in Barnet

Barnet's monthly supplier payments are out and yet again Capita have done well. On the CSG contract they were paid £2.04 million, including employee benefits, and on the Re contract they were paid £5.07 million. Now remember this is just the payment for October. In the chart below you can see the running total for the contract period is now at £445 million, £169 million above the contracted value.

The review of these two contracts was due to be discussed on 16th December  but because the papers would have to be published before the election Barnet are claiming that under purdah rules they cannot hold the meeting and as such the contract review process will not be discussed until the end of January. That means we are unlikely to get the contract review results before September next year by which time many millions more will have been paid to Capita.

The agency staff cost which have been on a downward trend saw a large jump in October to £1.76 million. I have continually raised my concerns that we aren't seeing a clear picture of the agency staff costs and this seems to be the adjustment I was anticipating.

There was also a large jump in the spending on security provided by Blue 9 Security who were paid £161,768 in October. I wonder how much of that is being spent on security at libraries to replace the librarians who were made redundant?

I will keep watching Barnet's spending.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Why Failure is Condoned in Barnet - Untouchable Capita

I know everyone want to talk about the general election but here in Barnet there are still some really serious issues that councillors seem incapable or unwilling to address. Last Wednesday we had an Audit Committee meeting. Due to the new gagging rules, residents are forbidden from speaking to the committee or submitting a written comment and have severe restrictions on the questions they can ask, which means that at least 29 of my 32 questions would have been refused.

The big issue at Audit was the internal audit reports on Highways and Accounts Payable, both services run by Capita. Highways got a "No Assurance" rating - the worst possible - with some real horror stories about the absence of quality checks on work undertaken by contractors and the failure to check what we are paying for. Accounts Payable got a "Limited Assurance" rating with concerns about people who were authorising invoices above their authorisation limit and failure to implement systems to identify duplicate payments. We also heard that there is another fraud using seven different false bank accounts, although details were sparse as it is subject to a criminal investigation.

What annoys me more than anything is the deference shown by councillors to Capita and their unwillingness or inability to look at how often they fail. One councillor even thanked the man from Capita for attending the meeting, even though Capita's failings on this area - Pensions Administration - has brought fines on the council and the first time The Pensions Regulator (TPR) has issued an Improvement Notice to a public sector pension scheme.

I have repeatedly said at Audit Committee meetings that there is a failure to follow up on previous problems identified by the Internal Auditor. They have introduced a system to identify actions which have been recommended by Internal Audit but not implemented by the agreed deadline. There seems no sanction for repeated failure to meet deadlines. Two recommendation have missed three deadlines for implementation, which is bad enough, but what councillors fail to recognise is that even when recommendations are implemented, it doesn't mean the problems will not reoccur. To prove this point I went back through all of the Limited and No Assurance reports back to 2014,  set out in the table below, and the same problems keep cropping up. What you also see is that the vast majority of these poor ratings are for services provided by Capita. Indeed, things got so bad that in April that two major services, Finance and HR, were brought back in house because of Capita's dismal performance. What I question is why so many of the other under-performing services, including the two highlighted at the most recent Audit Committee, remain under Capita's control when they have demonstrated their failure to sort out the shortcomings.

(Capita marked in Red, LBB marked in Blue)

Accounts Payable, based in Chichester, has received four limited assurance ratings in the last five years. To any sensible person that would suggest that this is a failing service and that Capita cannot be trusted to continue running it. When the finance function was brought back in house in April, the obvious choice was to include Accounts Payable, as it is such an integral part of Finance, but not so. We are also stuck with Capita's Finance IT system, Integra, which has repeatedly been flagged up as having shortcomings, so it is like the car analogy I gave to the Audit Committee (when residents were still allowed 3 minutes to address the committee) with someone in charge of the steering wheel and someone else in control of the accelerator and brake. Net result, car crash, and that is what we have with Capita in Barnet. What I cannot accept is that Councillors seem unable to take this long term perspective and that Conservative councillors simply refuse to criticise Capita, all the time claiming that these outsourced service deliver cheaper better services - they don't. 

Capita has achieved a unique status in Barnet, untouchable, irrespective of the dismal performance they provide. That is not in the interests of residents.

Monday 28 October 2019

Gagging Part 2- Serious questions about the role of Audit in Barnet

Yesterday I published a list of questions I would have asked Barnet's Financial Performance & Contracts committee if I had not been gagged. Today, I have published the list of questions I would have asked at Audit Committee.  However, there is a broader and more serious point here. The Audit Committee received internal audit reports on  the performance of Capita but they are buried away on hyperlinks within the officers' report and not attached to the agenda. These reports detail a catalogue of problems and failings by both the Highways service run by Capita Re and Accounts Payable run by Capita CSG but also of the systems that are there to check the services are being delivered properly. Highways gets a "No Assurance" rating and Accounts Payable, a "Limited Assurance" rating - both of which are terrible given Capita have been running the service for over 6 years and we are paying them a fortune.

I, fellow bloggers and engaged residents have been saying for years that Capita are providing a diabolical service but these comments have been dismissed as "political" by Barnet's ruling Conservative group and as such ignored. This time last year there was a review of the service following the £2 million fraud and it was decided to bring a number of services back in house. Highways were an obvious candidate for in-sourcing given their dismal performance and accounts payable seemed a natural fit along with the finance function which was to be brought back in house as a result of the fraud. However, at some stage at the back end of 2018 the Chief Executive of Capita came to visit senior managers and councillors at Barnet, a deal was done for compensation and after that things changed. We have no record of the meeting or what was discussed or agreed other than a meeting was held. All we do know is that a number of services that had previously been identified for in-sourcing were now to be kept with Capita. This has proved disastrous for Barnet. Pensions administration run  by Capita has attracted an Improvement Notice from The Pensions Regulator, the first time one has been issued to a public body. Payroll (run by Capita) are still generating  an unacceptable level of errors (as deemed by the contract).  It looks like there is another fraud involving 7 false bank accounts. Millions of pounds worth of Highways work is not being properly checked or inspected. Special projects are not being authorised appropriately and LBB were unable to identify what payments had been made on specific special projects even though this is something I managed to obtain and collate during my inspection of the accounts.

Overall the Audit report should embarrass and shame every single Councillor of Barnet, make every resident question how our money is being wasted through inadequate systems and non existent management checks and ask why, after 6 years and a total cost of £438 million, we still have a service that is failing.

I have been gagged from asking serious questions and making a public comment, written or spoken, yet we have a service that is catastrophically bad  and that continues to attract criticism internally and externally. I have reached the point where I believe Barnet is now a failing council and requires a new management team to sort out the mess we are in. We have a looming budget deficit of £118 million over the next 5 years and with Capita failing to deliver on the most basic services like highways I can only see that budget gap widening. Many of the issues I have raised over the last five years, especially areas like the cost of special projects, have now been shown to be out of control with inadequate checks and raising questions as to whether we are receiving value for money.  I have set out the questions I would have submitted below but I suspect very few if any of the issues I have raised will be addressed. That is the Barnet way.

Questions to the Audit Committee
Agenda Item 7
  • In the Highways no assurance report – the 54 page one that is not attached to the committee agenda but hidden in a hyperlink within the officer’s report – provides details that 4 of the 6 Special Project audited contained significant financial errors including lac of supporting evidence for charges, resource plans which exceeded the agreed budget and on where costs appear to have been over-charged by £18,000. Who is responsible for checking to cost of special projects, Capita or Barnet, why are they not be checked properly, and if this failure to check the costs of special projects has been on-going for more the last 6 years, how much money has been wasted/overcharged?
  • Special projects are not being signed off properly with 5 of the 6 inspected documents lacked sign off by the Senior Responsible Officer, Commercial, Finance and Performance Management Teams and that 5 of the 6 inspected documents contained a picture of the Strategic Director’s signature to act as sign off rather than an actual (‘wet’) signature given the value of the projects was £1.6m. Given the risk of fraud associated by such poor practices, why has it taken 6 years to identify these failing and who in the council was responsible for checking these errors were addressed.
  • The report identifies that payments were made on projects before they were signed off which suggests the payments procedures were non compliant. This happened before the Finance function was brought back in-house. What reassurance can we have that this is not still happening and what is the value of the milestone payments paid in June and September before the project initiation was signed off in December?
  • The report notes that when asked about payments to a capped budget Special Project, LBB Finance stated that this information was not readily at hand and would ‘take a lot of time for someone to confirm’. Can you clarify if this is because LBB Finance are not up to the job of because Capita handed back the finance system in such a poor state that historical payment data is difficult to track down?
  • You identified in 2017/18 that £689,000 of S106 money for Highways was at risk of being clawed back by developers because it hadn’t been spent but it took until June 2019 to get sign off on these projects. Was any of the £689,000 actually clawed back by developers and are systems no in place to speed up the process when dealing with S106 monies that could be clawed back?
  • 25% of the special projects had been paid without any evidence to confirm the payment was authorised. Given this presents a very high risk of fraud or over payment who is at fault: Highways for submitting an invoice without authorisation; Finance for paying an invoice without authorisation; or the Senior Responsible Officer for not checking why payments were being made without their authorisation?
  • Of the 16 actions from previous highways reviews 1 had not been implemented and 5 had only been partially implemented. Why was this failure to fully implement actions, not identified sooner?
  • Why were the findings of the specially commissioned PWC forensic review of Highways Projects in 2016 not followed up to confirm implementation of the actions arising and how much did the PWC Forensic Review cost?
  • In 16 of the 25 invoices inspected Internal Audit were not able to reconcile the invoice amounts to supporting calculations or documentation, for example contracts or Bill of Quantity schedules/ contracts provided. What is the total value of these 16 invoices and what is the risk that we have been overcharged for work not carried out?
  • The report notes that a credit note in the amount of £95,945.60 was required against an invoice dated October 2018 for the works carried out to resurface Summers Lane but at the time of writing this report in 2019 this credit note had not been processed. Can you confirm that the credit note has now been processed and paid?
  • What is the risk that other credits notes have not been processed and why isn’t there a procedure for identifying and tracking credit note processes?
  • The report notes that in 20 of the 25 invoices inspected complete evidence for quality checks were not available, that in 6 of the 20 invoices there was no evidence at all of site inspection or quality checks and that in 14 of the 20 there was either missing photographic evidence or site inspection sheets and that it was not possible to link the photographic evidence to the works carried out. Given Barnet have invested £50 million on the Network Recovery Plan how can we have any confidence that the money has not been wasted on inferior works?
  • It would appear that Area Committees are being given budget for projects to sign off without a breakdown of how the fee budget has been arrived at. Why didn’t councillors ask for budget breakdowns before agreeing the budgets and does this call into question the process of decision making at Area Committees?
  • Capita Re bill LBB for Special Projects based on the time incurred by Re staff at agreed rates. This timesheet data is collected on Excel spreadsheets. Both Capita Re and LBB agree that there are no arrangements in place to ensure that the spreadsheets are accurate. As such how can you have any confidence that LBB has not been ripped off by Capita Re staff logging time they haven’t actually incurred?
  • This problem with timesheet recording was identified in 2016 and recommendations were made to resolve these problems but they were not all taken up. If there is no follow up to recommendations what is the point of undertaking reviews?
  • The report notes the difficulty of assigning payments for each special project against specific invoices as there may be multiple Special Projects on one invoice. It may be of interest to the Audit Committee that when I inspect Capita’s invoices each year during the Inspection of Accounts period I ask for and have received the detailed breakdown for each Special Project and how that reconciles to each invoice. It does take rather a lot of time to collate the data but it can be done and I do it.  If I, as a resident, can collect and collate that information to understand how much Capita are billing us for each project why can’t you?
  • As one of the Advisory Findings it notes that during their review Internal Audit found one payment that appeared to relate to Highways expenditure which was for £367K, and was one of two invoices with a total of £500K. This was entitled ‘Procurement Savings LOHAC to Dec '15’ and purportedly related to the London Highways Alliance Contract (LOHAC). The report notes that the payment related to a contractual issue regarding the Alternative Delivery Model for Education and Skills rather than a Highways payment and was therefore outside the scope of their audit.  I specifically queried these two LOHAC payments of £500,000 in June 2018  and was reassured that rather than duplicate payments they related to two separate years but did relate to the LOHAC contract. Subsequently I was told by the External Auditor that only one payment was made on the LOHAC contract. What Internal Audit appears to be saying now is that two payments did take place, that one of the payments did not relate to the LOHAC contract but to the Alternative Delivery Model for Education and Skills but was still paid. As such it suggests that the information provided to me in July 2018 regarding these two payments was inaccurate. Can you clarify whether this payment will be investigated separately and does it provide yet more evidence that there is inadequate scrutiny of payments on the CSG and Re contracts?
  • In report of the Accounts Payable system run by Capita (the 59 page report not attached to the meeting agenda but available only via a hyperlink included within the officer’s report), it states that 2 of the 15 payments reviewed did not have dual authorisation of the purchase orders attached even though this is a requirement for payments over £1 million. How can the systems have allowed this to happen, is this a longstanding problem, and why has it not been addressed before now given the contract has been running for more than 6 years?
  • Can you confirm that the stationery order from Office Depot for £3,556.80 was duly received and was not stolen?
  • How can purchased for greater than £25,000 have been authorised by persons who only had a £25,000 limit and does that mean the system has a fundamental weakness in allowing unauthorised persons to sign off purchases, similar to the problems identified in the major fraud case by Grant Thornton?
  • Processes to identify duplicate payments on a wider scale across Integra through the commissioning and procurement of software, AP Forensics, is in progress, but has not yet been implemented despite being discussed since 2018. What is causing the delay: Capita’s failure to put enough resources into the project; LBB’s failure to manage Capita; or the incompatibility of Integra with other software systems?
  • Given that fuzzy logic matching as a technique for detecting invoice fraud has been in use for almost 20 years why has it taken so long to be used in Barnet?
  • Given that the data matching exercise identified 7 bank accounts associated with an on-going fraud investigation, can you provide a sense of the scale of this fraud, which must be sizable if it involve 7 different bank accounts, and have Audit Committee members been briefed confidentially of the nature and details of this fraud? In terms of scale, is it hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds that is involved?
  • How can a payment of £858,000 have been made without a supporting invoice?
  • In regards to training of Accounts Payable staff, given that Internal Audit have a contractual right to inspect evidence of its operation, for example, the courses assessed, how evaluated and the resulting training identified had been requested by Internal Audit but that Capita have failed to provide the information, surely this amounts to a contractual breach and leads one to draw the conclusion (right or wrong) that Capita has something to hide?
  • If the BACS reconciliation system could not mitigate the risk of fraud what reassurance can we have that no frauds have taken place using the method identified?

Agenda Item 9
  • Given that BDO were unable to conclude their audit by the 31st July deadline has this led to any formal action by Government for missing the deadline?
  • The delay in concluding the audit was identified as being due to issues over valuations of land, buildings and dwellings, where additional work was required by the valuer and amendments made to the financial statements as a result. Can you clarify if Capita Re carry out the valuations and what steps will be taken regarding valuations to ensure that the deadline is not missed again next year?

Agenda Item 10
  • Can you clarify why management has not corrected the financial statements for the material misstatements identified in the Annual Audit Letter given they are very significant sums?
  • The auditor’s letter notes that there is an unrecoverable VAT sum of £898,000 which arose from an accounting error resulting in an under claim of input VAT. Who was to blame for this accounting error, LBB or Capita, why wasn’t the VAT claim double checked given the sums involved were so large and why wasn’t this flagged up by financial control systems?
  • At 31 March 2019, mobilisation costs for CSG of £2.535 million and Re of £17.621 million remain as prepayments to be recovered from ongoing payments to Capita. However the External Auditor has not been provided with an agreed contract variation or written confirmation from Capita that the remaining balance of mobilisation costs can be transferred to the ongoing contract payment schedule and have requested that management confirm this in the Letter of Representation. Has this Letter of Representation been provided or have we lost out on the £20 million being repaid?
  • The audit letter states on page 43 that “the updated MTFS shows an anticipated budget gap of £65 million over the period 2019-24”. However the MTFS published at Policy & Resources committee earlier this month shows a budget gap for the four year period 2020/21 to 2023/24 of £78.4 million and the five year period 2020/21 to 2024/25 of £118.7 million. Can you clarify if the External Auditor was provided with the latest version of the MTFS dated 10 September 2019 and if so why the difference in values?

Sunday 27 October 2019

Gagging - The questions I would have asked if I wasn't gagged

Since the introduction of the new gagging rules, residents are no longer allowed to make public comments or submit them in writing and are limited to just one question per agenda item. I intend to publish the questions I would have submitted to demonstrate that these questions still need to be asked. Set out below are the questions I would have submitted to the Financial Performance and Contracts Committee on 28 October. Scrutiny is a vital function and without residents questions it is an incomplete process.

Agenda Item 7
  • The leisure budget is overspent by £719,000 because of the on-going problems at Finchley Lido which has now been closed since March. Does this overspend include the £245,520 the council has spent on phase one propping of the roof at the Lido while investigation works take place or is that in addition to the £719,000. What have been the results of the investigative works, what is the likelihood that the Lido will remain closed after December and what are the estimated costs or repairing the roof so that the Lido can reopen?
  • Why were the counter fraud operations overspent by £731,000 before reserve movements?
  • In CSC 0-25 the manpower costs were overspent by £362,000 with 13 agency staff in place. What steps have been taken to reduce the dependence on agency staff and how much will it save if all those agency staff can be converted to permanent staff?
  • The CSG managed budget is £2.36 million overspent. Of that sum, £411,000 was due to the delay in moving out of NLBP to Colindale. Who was at fault for the delay, the contractor or the council and if the contractor, is it possible to recover this cost through contractual penalties?
  • Why are we picking up the bill for the £469,000 shortfall in document solutions service given that this is a service provided by Capita?
  • Is the £690,000 shortfall associated with Brent Cross income shortfall and running costs a one off problem or an early indicator of wider problems with the Brent Cross redevelopment?
  • If the £1 million overspend on the Re projects management fee relates to the fee increase for the deferral in 2017/18 to 2019/20 can you clarify why this wasn’t accrued for in 2017/18?
  • Frontline waste is £1,162,000 overspent. The explanation includes reason such as replacement of the fleet but surely these are capital expenditure, not revenue? The detailed evidence suggests that the rounds reorganisation saved no money whatsoever and in fact appears to have cost an additional £250,000. Given you have already missed the deadline to consolidate services into one depot, that the Oakleigh Road depot is about to undergo a period of major works to address subsidence problems known about from day one and which are likely to increase operating cost, are you sure that the year end forecast is reliable or merely an aspiration?
  • The highways service is currently predicting an underlying overspend £654,000. Given the recent internal audit “No Assurance” rating for Highways and examples where invoices weren’t properly reconciled, work wasn’t properly checked and invoices weren’t certified for payment by the appropriate budget manager, how certain are you that the shortfall will not be considerably more by year end?
  • Given that this financial year, the net forecasted overspend is £9.423m excluding reserve movements and that according to the MTFS the council will have a budget deficit of £118.7 million over the next five years, is Barnet facing the inevitable risk of bankruptcy unless you take radical action to get the finances on a more secure footing?
 Agenda Item 9
  • As the contractual dispute with the main building contractor was resolved in July, why are we not allowed to know the scale of the payment made by the council given it could be up to £5 million and will have to be identified at some stage in the accounts?
Agenda Item 10
  • Given that TPR felt that even after issuing a Warning Notice, they were not confident there would not be further delay without their involvement, they issued an Improvement Notice. What steps is this committee going to take to ensure that Capita’s role as the pension administrator is much more rigorously monitored by the Council?
  • What was the outcome of the Annual Benefits Statement exercise?
  • Why are there no KPI’s for pensions, will KPI’s be implemented as a matter of urgency and does the lack of KPI’s mean that there is no contractual redress against Capita for their catalogue of failures on pensions administration?
  • Given that Accounts Payable operated by Capita has received a "Limited Assurance" rating from Internal Audit, will this committee explain why they chose not to bring Accounts Payable back in-house along with the finance function in April 2019 and will this decision be reconsidered as a matter of urgency?
  • Given that you expect that overall phone and email volumes for the year will be less than 500,000 contacts for the first time since the start of the contract does that reflect the fact that many residents have given up trying to use the telephone system because it is so poor or it is because the strategy of savings opportunities from “telephony service degradation” agreed by the Senior Management Team at the Strategic Commissioning Board, are working?
  • The report on HBPL does not identify if the contract is overspent. Can you confirm that the contract is in line with the budget forecast and if not, by how much is it overspent?
  • Why does the Cambridge Education contract which provides vital services to schools, including 1.1 million school meals, warrant just 8 words of text and does that mean that there are no problems at all with the service provided by Cambridge Education and its subcontractor ISS?
  • In the Barnet Group report it notes that the repairs target is not being met. I understand that the contract with Mears (who carry out the repairs) is being terminated one year early and the service will be brought back in house. What is the risk that the backlog of repairs will increase between now and when the contract is brought back in house in April 2020 and how can that situation be avoided?
Agenda Item 11
  • The forward works programme states that you will set out details of the 6 and 7 year contract reviews at the December meeting. Why has this been left so long given that we are already in year 6 and have you renegotiated the contract to change the terms of reference for the year 7 review which relates to the extension of the RE contract?
It will be interesting to see if any of these questions get asked at the meeting - I suspect not.

Friday 25 October 2019

Supplier Payments for September - a Bumper Month for Capita

Barnet Council may think that by gagging me it has stopped me from scrutinising what they do but trust me, that is not happening. The September supplier payments are out and yet again it has been a bumper month for Capita being paid £7.78 million on the CSG contract and £3 million of the Re contract.

Set out below is the running tab for Capita which has now hit just a fraction under £438 million since the contract started and £165.6 million more than the contract value.

Agency staff costs are settling down to £1m per month but there does seem to be some discrepancy between figures publish on different parts of the council website.

There were large payments to The Barnet Group and John Graham Construction who are building the two new leisure centres in Barnet.

In the next week I will be blogging the questions I would have put to the Financial Performance & Contracts Committee and the Audit Committee had I not been gagged by Barnet Tories.

Monday 7 October 2019

The Collapsing Depot Part 2 - Scrutiny Process Gagged

Three weeks ago I wrote about the saga of the chaotic bin collection changes and the problems with the Oakleigh Road Depot. I didn't think things could get worse but in Barnet that is always a foolish assumption to make. On Thursday we had a Policy and Resources Committee. One of the late additions to the agenda was a report about the problems at the Oakleigh Road Depot with a further exempt report kept secret from the public. The public report gave outline details of the problem, which in summary is that there is a massive crack in the main roadway caused by part of the site slipping down the slope on which the depot is built, and pinned the blame on Willmott Dixon. The solution is as follows and will take 6 months to undertake:

"The current remedial works proposal constitutes a contiguous piled wall, from the rear of the footpath and stretching from the gatehouse in the North and to the South of the fuel station. This piled wall will be reinforced with reinforced capping beams and ground beams. In addition, this wall will be secured by ground anchors driven to a depth of over 16 metres".

They have known about this problem from the week the depot opened and they have already had to introduce a one way traffic system at the depot to avoid driving over the massive crack. As part of the solution, vehicles will have to refuel off site at local garages to avoid unnecessary traffic around the depot fuel tank.  It will also cause some residual waste and recycling rounds to move to Saturdays, to spread traffic movements more evenly across the week. The Council will also have to suspend the winter green waste collections approximately four weeks earlier than usual and require the extension of the opening times of Summers Lane recycling and reuse centre.

What the public report didn't mention (but was in the exempt report) is that, there are plans to reduce the use of the other waste depot in Harrow with all refuse vehicle run out of Oakleigh Road. So not only do we have restrictions but they are also going to increase the number of vehicles using the depot. As part of this relocation Barnet are planning to buy the site immediately behind the depot to accommodate the additional vehicles

Under the new gagging rules residents are apparently not even allowed to submit a written comment of 100 words or less, only a question. Personally I think this is not what was agreed at the originating committee but has been "fine tuned" by officers in the updated constitution. My banned comment was as follows:

"In June 2015 Capita prepared the detailed plans for the site and commissioned site investigations as appended to the planning application.  In June 2016 Capita acted as consulting engineers on a major soil stabilisation project. Capita project managed the depot construction. The site was known to be dominated by made ground. This report seems to entire ignore Capita’s role in this project and the significant fees they have received. There are numerous questions that need to be asked as to how this problem arose. I request this committee to commission an independent investigation into why this situation has arisen".

I also asked four questions which are also banned so I have asked for the to be answered under the FOI act although any responses will of course come far to late to inform decisions made at the committee. These included:
  1. Is there any risk that surface water containing fuel from vehicles can pass directly through the surface cracks and into the ground water without being capture by the oil & fuel interceptors and has the ground water been tested to see if this is happening?
  2. Has the ground movement had any impact on the vehicle fuel storage tank and have any tests been undertaken to ensure there is no risk of fuel leaking from the fuel storage tank?
  3. The site has one or more attenuation tanks. Has any investigation been undertaken to ensure that the integrity of these tanks has been unaffected by the ground movement?
  4. There is a large culvert running under the site. Have any investigations been undertaken to ensure that the culvert has been unaffected by the ground movements?
Now some councillors may say these questions are a waste of money answering, some may say they are politically motivated but from my perspective they are really important, especially when there are residents who live literally metres away from the depot in Coppies Grove.

Given the plan is to extend into the site behind the depot adjacent to the railway line, the reason  for asking these questions is to ensure that we understand how these problems arose and make sure they don't reoccur when the site is expanded.

@BrokenBarnet had one question accepted about this at the committee meeting which was as follows:
Will Capita face any contractual penalties for failures in construction, or project management, in regard to the Depot?  and the response was "There is currently no evidence to suggest that Capita has any liability to the Council in respect of this matter".

Now this ties in with my banned comment where I set out evidence that Capita were significantly involved having carried out a detailed site investigation report back in 2015 and acting as consulting engineers to a soil stabilisation project on the site. In the committee report Capita's name isn't mentioned once yet they were heavily involved in the site investigation and knew of the problems that might cause the subsidence. In their 2015 report they noted that the site and surrounding area originally sloped to the north. However, when the site was originally developed, to create a suitable development platform, fill was imported to raise levels across the majority of the site. This "Made Ground" forms a “wedge” of fill which generally thickens to the north of the site, is up to 7 metres deep and is made up of  clay and sand plus a mixture of "oversize brick, concrete, metal, wood and plastic". They also found pieces of a sheet of asbestos, hydrocarbons and water ingress into the boreholes at quite shallow depths. Photos of the boreholes are in the report with a couple included below:
Now all of those things should have been ringing alarm bells if the site was to be used daily by a large numbers of heavy vehicles. As part of the depot development, soil stabilisation works were carried out with Capita acting as the consulting engineers.
In addition, it is important to understand that Capita were the project managers for the depot development so should have been aware of the issues of the site throughout the construction by Willmott Dixon. Barnet say there is currently no evidence that Capita have a liability to the council on this matter but I would suggest there is evidence that should at least be examined, especially if Capita are to project manage the extension of the depot.

What this also suggests is that less than 12 months after a massive and disruptive waste round reorganisation that was predicated on having two depots, one at Oakleigh Road and one in Harrow,  we now face having to review all of those rounds again, once we are back to a one depot solution, this time in the East of the Borough.

The shutting down of any debate on this is a very serious matter but Barnet seem happy that there is absolutely no public scrutiny of a critical and expensive public service. This seems to be the Barnet way and it is unacceptable.

Sunday 15 September 2019

The Politics of Bins, Rubbish and a Collapsing Depot

Last week the Environment Committee held a very full meeting under the new gagging rules. No public speakers and severe restrictions on questions. Barnet Tories have achieved what they want - no public scrutiny. The agenda was stuffed to the gunwales, two public questions on one item limited to 100 words, no opportunity to speak, same answer to both questions, yet there were so many other issues.

If you live in High Barnet you may be unhappy to learn that Barnet have agreed to give 100 resident parking permits to Barnet General Hospital for their staff to park in residents bays as the hospital's staff car park is full. Interestingly, the no public speaking rule was waived to allow someone from Royal Free Trust to speak about their plans and justify why this should go ahead. Apparently there are plans at some stage to build a multi storey car park  but they need this proposal to meet an immediate need. Labour councillors had asked for a review of the CPZ to be undertaken before these new permits were introduced to get local residents views but the Tories were keen to push it through and undertake the review once the hospital had been given the 100 permits. It also touches on a broader issue which is that many of the staff at Barnet General simply can't afford to live in Barnet and hence have to drive in from lower cost areas. This is a problem that is only going to get worse and highlights the failing in the Council's affordable housing strategy (what strategy?)

Onto another serious matter, the review of the Reduction and Recycling Plan (RRP). This is a plan Barnet were required to produce in conjunction with the GLA because of Barnet's withdrawal of the food collection service last year. It has taken a long time to get this report, and I have to say I found it very interesting. It highlights that Barnet is slipping down the rankings in recycling rates from 11th to 15th of the London boroughs with most of the lower ranking boroughs being the inner London ones.

What the independent consultants report identified was a series of options ranging from the status quo plus food waste collection to fortnightly collections of general and recycled waste.

The options also looked at the introduction of charging for green waste collection at a cost of £35 or £50 per annum, something that was mooted last year and has yet to be confirmed.

What the study did reveal was that simply adding back in a weekly food waste collection service would cost an extra £1.26 million a year. I found this somewhat surprising as the justification for its removal was a saving of just £300,000 a year. So scrapping a service which will now have to reintroduce by 2022 at the latest has cost us at least an extra million quid. This is because they have bought 16 new refuse vehicles, 4 in October and another 12 last month at a total cost of £3.2 million. However, these new vehicles cannot collect the food waste separately on the same vehicle (which is how they previously operated the service) so they will have to buy and operate a new fleet of dedicated food waste collection lorries.

What the report also shows is that the option of weekly food and recycling collections with fortnightly general waste collections (Option 3) could save over £400,000 a year and boost recycling rates from the current level of 34.6% to a respectable 48.2%. While this seems like the most sensible option, in Barnet sensible doesn't cut it. The Tory party manifesto focused on keeping weekly bin collections in spite of the fact that three quarters of English Local authorities have already moved to fortnightly (or even less frequent) collections.

This report does include the treatment costs of waste and it confirms what I said last year that anaerobic digestion of food waste will continue to be significantly cheaper than burning it with the general refuse. Interestingly, last week Barnet also published a report on the cost and savings generated by the refuse rounds reorganisation when the food waste collection ceased. That shows a net saving of just £335,000 but ignores the additional cost of waste disposal. Add that back in and the savings fall to just £50,000. That looks like an incredibly bad decision now that we know we will have to reintroduce food waste collections at a cost of £1.26 million.

When pressed as to whether Barnet will ever reinstate the food waste collection they repeated said that it was their "aim" but would be influenced by the cost of the service. Anyone listening to what was being said will be in no doubt that the food waste collection service will not be reintroduced while we have a Tory council in charge.

What caps all of these problems off is the continuing subsidence at the new Oakleigh Road depot. This is a scheme that was rushed into at great expense even though it was inadequate for our needs resulting in Barnet having to rent additional depot space from Harrow Council. Capita project managed the depot delivery at this site even though it was known for problems with subsidence. Within weeks of the depot opening cracks began to appear and the problem has simply got worse. Some cosmetic repairs were done filling in the cracks  but the problem has never gone away. At last week's meeting it was announced that the problems had become much worse over the summer and that major works were now necessary as a matter of urgency. This will need to start in November, taking six month to complete and is likely to cause significant disruption including weekend working, reduced number of vehicles at the depot and use other satellite depots. There are likely to be additional costs over and above the remedial works, such as the extra costs of renting space, paying staff to work weekends etc. but it is not clear who will be picking up the tab for these costs and as the officer said they will be "part of a commercial discussion" as to who pays. Willmott Dixon are the builders but I cannot understand why Capita who were responsible for project managing this scheme  and have been paid a large sum on top of their core contract fee, allowed this to happen and to drag on for such a long time that such serious and disruptive works are now necessary.

As ever, we will never get to the bottom of this saga as Barnet hate any form of criticism of them or their contractors.

Thursday 1 August 2019

Supplier Payments - Gagging means these concerns can't be raised at Committees

Barnet's supplier payments were published yesterday and yet again Capita are raking in the money. On the CSG contract Capita were paid £8.55 million and on the Re Contract they were paid  £8.35 million, a total of £16.9 million in just one month.

Set out below is the Capita spend to date which shows just how much we are paying for extras.

Another large beneficiary in June was PA Consulting who were paid £1,288,268.09. By the looks of the detail (Adults IT) I suspect this is for the implementation of the Mosaic casework system, the project that Capita completely messed up. I just hope the compensation we received from Capita for their failure was sufficient to cover all these bills from PA Consulting.

Agency staff costs appear to be falling with Matrix, the agency staff contractor, billed £1.09 million so the trend remains downward. It really makes you question why we stayed with the previous contractor, Comensura, for so long and why these changes were made sooner.

The agency contract seems on target to hit just over £12 million for the year, down from its peak of £20 million in 2016/17. However we are still paying £29,000 a month to separate agencies, Gatenby Sanderson and Hampton's Resourcing for a couple of very senior members of staff.

Another payment that caught my eye was to Saracens who received a payment of £25,271.30 for "rent". I am not sure what we hired the stadium for but that seems like a lot for rent.

The Capita payments often used to figure in my questions to the Financial Performance and Contracts Committee. Now that I have officially been gagged I get just one question and no opportunity to speak. It is clear to me that I have asked too many difficult and awkward questions about Capita and their contract with Barnet and that is why the new rules have been imposed. This isn't small change we are talking about but £160 million more than the contracted value but if you believe everything Barnet Conservatives say it is fantastic value for money. Having no one there at meetings to challenge them is exactly what they want.

Wednesday 31 July 2019

It's Official - I've Been Gagged. Why Capita's dismal performance must not be discussed

Last night Barnet Conservatives voted in favour of restricting public participation at council committee meetings. Cllr Melvin Cohen proposed the motion stating that the £42,000 a year they spend dealing with residents questions is money wasted. The report was factually incorrect stating the period in question was 5 months when it was in fact 6 months and over stating the number of questions asked by 100. But in Barnet facts don't matter, just say something often enough and people will believe it.

Cllr Cohen said that in Barnet they were far too generous in the time they gave to residents to ask questions and make comments so they had benchmarked themselves against the worst councils and were happy that the very restrained new rules were acceptable. Cllr Cohen said this would be a chance for more residents to ask questions. How he arrived at this twisted take on reality is beyond the logic of any sane person. The old rules allowed as many questions as could be dealt with in 30 minutes each person submitting a question got their chance for a supplementary question and only when everyone had asked one question would a second question from an individual be allowed. The new rule is one resident one question per agenda item. More than two residents asking about the same agenda item and their questions will be rejected - first come first served.  So when we get an agenda item about libraries across the borough which may be affected in different ways only two questions will be allowed. Same for the any budget cuts. There might be 20 different areas in the budget that residents want to ask about but 2 questions will be the limit. In terms of making a public comment, previously residents were allowed to speak for 3 minutes and had to give notice on which agenda item they wished to talk about. That has now been banned. You can submit a comment in writing of 100 words but you can't speak at the committee and most importantly councillors cannot question he speaker. It is also important to note that the comment counts toward one of the two questions per agenda item so if two residents submit their 100 word comments ahead of you then no questions will be allowed.

So why have Barnet Tories taken such desperate measures to gag Barnet's engaged and questioning residents. The truth is simple. Barnet residents scrutinise what the council does; they ask probing and difficult questions, they can see through spin and flim flam and they aren't willing to settle for a badly run council.

It is true that I ask a lot of questions. Like my fellow bloggers Broken Barnet,  Mr Mustard, Barnet Eye,  and Brent Cross Coalition, and engaged resident, Barbara Jacobson,  we all challenge Barnet and for very good reasons.

Yes there was one meeting where 158 questions were submitted but it was an exception. Eleven different residents submitted questions which included items such as:

  • The review of the Capita contracts - a unanimous committee decision had asked officers to prepare a business case for a range of options to bring services back in house. The reason for so many questions is that  residents were rightly concerned that officers had ignored the request and pressed ahead with their own plan and no business case.
  • The Brent Cross Cricklewood funding and delivery strategy - Brent Cross is a vast project which will disrupt many locals. The transport strategy has not been well thought through and Barnet have had to go to government with a begging bowl for a bail as we were on the hook for the construction cost of the Thameslink station after Hammersons scaled back their expansion plans. Residents were rightly concerned about the risks of the scheme.
  • The annual procurement plan which set out spending commitments that had not been discussed or approved by committees.
  • The medium term financial strategy - which set out the need for £68 million of budget cuts over the next 5 years.
  • The strategic performance report - which showed the 5 consecutive year of overspend on the outsourced legal contract.
None of the items were insignificant but the Capita contract review did attract the majority of the questions. If I look at another meeting cited in the report, the Audit Committee where 68 questions were submitted, again there was a very good reason for that situation. This was the first Audit Committee where the findings of the investigation carried out by Grant Thornton into the £2 million fraud were heard in a report published by the Chief Executive. The Grant Thornton report was a damning indictment of Capita's failures to enforce even the most basic of financial controls that allowed the fraud to take place. It was also critical of Barnet Council's poor scrutiny process so it is hardly surprising that residents had lots of questions. Another item on that same agenda related to the internal audit rating of "No Assurance", the worst possible rating, on the interim and agency contract administered by Capita. You can read the report here but it makes shocking reading.

Set out below is a chart showing all the questions asked during the period mentioned in the report and the issues that were raised at each of those meetings.

Now you may start to see a common theme developing and that is about the dismal performance of Capita and how they have failed to deliver in Barnet. That is not just me saying they have failed but the Council's own senior officers who commission services from Capita.

I spend a lot of time reviewing Capita's performance and how much they charge and that by its very nature generates a lot of questions. Take for example the performance of Capita on Pensions Administration. This has been a disaster with fines from The Pension Regulator and just last month the serving of a Draft Improvement Notice, which if Capita fail to deliver, could result in a £50,000 fine. Just 2 weeks ago Internal Audit gave Pensions Administration a "Limited Assurance" rating.

Yesterday, after some chasing, Capita published their Customer Service performance figures for the last nine months. What this showed is the abysmal performance of call answering in Barnet. Some calls receive an automated response which can prove exceptionally difficult to get through. However there are two areas where performance has been consistently bad throughout the term of the contract, call to Council Tax and calls to Housing Benefits. Set out below is a chart showing how many calls are answered within the 60 seconds service level agreement target (the red line). The target is 80%. The other element shows how many calls were abandoned - people who hung up after a prolonged wait to get through. The maximum queue time for calls to be answered in May was 50 minutes and 48 minutes in June - those are for the people who didn't hang up.

What the chart above illustrates is that in the last 15 months Capita have only met the target of 80% of calls answered within 60 seconds twice and in 6 of the months the figure was below 50%. What is also shocking is the number of abandoned calls which in March 2019 hit 2191. Now to be clear that isn't all calls to the Council just those calling about Council Tax.

Calls to Housing Benefit are equally poor again only just meeting the service level agreement target in 2 out of the last 15 months (they failed in every single quarter) and with large volumes of abandoned calls.

Indeed in the most recent quarter April - June 2019 there were 12,288 abandoned calls and the 80% target level was not met for any single service area. It is clear to me that Capita's performance is not getting better and to many it seems to be getting worse, even after 6  years of running the contract.

We can't escape the other massive issue and that is the cost of the Capita contract. In the first 6 years of the contract we have paid almost £146 million more than the original contract sum.

Capita's failure to perform and Barnet Conservatives ideological support of outsourcing mean that they hate people questioning both Capita's performance and their own failure to manage the contract adequately. In any other business Capita would have been sacked long ago but not in Barnet.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of other things the council does that are just as bad and not directly linked to Capita. The downsizing of the libraries, the failings of children's services which have taken 2 years to recover, the on-going budget cuts, but one way or other they all link back to Capita and the culture it has imposed on the operation of the Council. Complacency and arrogance, a focus on money not service, a silo based culture where secrecy is the default and a disregard for residents seem to have become norm in Barnet.

Several, Conservative Cllrs have asked me why I bother asking so many questions and my response is because they don't ask enough or even any questions. If scrutiny was in good shape I wouldn't spend hours reading reports, preparing questions and travelling all the way over to Hendon to speak for three minutes when I could be at home with my family. I am sure the same is true for all the other people who regularly question the Council. Unlike Cllrs, we don't get paid for all the time we devote to making the council better.

Last night's decision to gag residents was simply a further reflection of this poisonous culture that have invaded what was a well run and respected Council. It has lost loyalty and trust and that will not change until there is a change of regime and a realisation that the culture of the council is inappropriate for a public service organisation.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Not good enough - the verdict from Barnet's Audit Committee

Barnet's Internal Auditor has given the council a "Limited Assurance" rating for the second year running, something which was discussed at last week's Audit Committee. We had a new chairman, Cllr Rohit Grover. I have never seen him at an Audit Committee before but he assured members that he had listened to the tapes of previous meetings and was aware of what had been discussed.

We had the 30 minutes of comments and questions from myself and @BrokenBarnet.  you can read the questions here. One of @BrokenBarnet's questions was linked to the limited assurance rating given to the Capita run Pensions Administration  and related to an error in the  qualification age of Barnet pensioners.  The response to the question was that following a review it was found that 1,880 members had an incorrect normal retirement age. Now this represents nearly 20% of the total pension membership and could have financial consequences on the pension fund. The records were amended on 11 April but we were told that on 1 April that there were only 953 live errors. This is an issue that was subsequently picked up at the Pension Board and raises serious questions about whether Capita have really got to the bottom of the data quality problems.

The speech I gave is at the bottom of this blog but I focused on the Code of Governance and how the culture of the council seems to have a blindspot when it comes to scrutiny and challenge of Capita, a theme that recurred throughout the three hours of the meeting.

When discussing the Chief Executive's report Cllr Arjun Mittra questioned the change in public participation rules that will be ratified by the council on 30 July and asked the External Auditor for their opinion. The response was both surprising and very positive. The External Auditor reminded members of the principles of public scrutiny introduced by Lord Pickles and said that this is the only council where  you have a strong armchair auditor presence and that he positively welcome members of the public telling him of their concerns. He said they wanted to know about these things, real nuggets of information they can follow up on. It sounded like a ringing endorsement of the public questions and comments to me but whether Conservative Councillors will listen is another matter. This is the second time in a week that Lord Pickles presence has been felt in Barnet, the previous time as reported here by Broken Barnet.

Normally the co-opted members of the audit committee sit in silence but at this meeting both spoke out regarding the limited assurance rating given to the Council. Richard Harbord who is a former Council Chief Executive and a regular contributor to 151 website which focuses on local authority finance, said he was surprised a council such as Barnet should have received a Limited Assurance rating two years running and that a lot of work would be necessary to turn the situation around. He also said there was a there was a period when scant regard was being paid to internal audit reports, something I have been saying for several years. I just wish Mr Harbord had expressed those views in audit meetings before now. The other co-opted  member Geraldine Chadwick also noted that she was disappointed how few individual "Substantial" ratings (a good rating) the council had gained in the year (just two) and that she would have expected Barnet to have received more.

A senior person from Capita was present at the meeting and was asked to come and explain the poor performance of the pensions administration. Yet again we had someone who is new to the company, he has been with Capita since January, so distanced himself from the historical problems but promised that things would get better. He said that for a number of years the focus in Capita "had been on financial metrics", that they must refocus on staff, that staff salaries "were probably substandard" and that they wanted to lift the standard and professionalism of their staff. This is a staggering admission of failure and while it is good that they have at last admitted their failings, it provides little comfort given that we are six years into this awful contract. When Cllr Kathy Levine asked about the difficulties of communication between payroll and pensions (which are highly dependent on each other for information) the man from Capita said there was "a culture of silence in Capita", again another shocking admission. He talked about Capita's transformational journey but that provides me wit little comfort as they are changing their company on our time. It is also important to point out that we pay Capita millions each year to help with the "transformation" of Barnet. I serious worry that they can't deliver transformation in Barnet adequately if they are so focused on transforming their own organisation.

Interestingly Cllr Laithe Jajeh challenged the man from Capita saying that every meeting he had attended for audit he had heard promises from Capita staff  but that "things just hadn't been good enough at all"   He said it takes up a significant amount of time dealing with missed deadlines and promises that haven't been delivered, that time and time again deadlines are missed and how could he have confidence they would be delivered this time. Cllr Jajeh also talked about the progress with Capita being one step forward one step and sometimes two steps back. He also talked about Capita giving the council false hope. All I will say is well done Cllr Jajeh for saying what everyone knows to be true but other Conservative Councillors are afraid to say. Capita is without a doubt a classic example of emperors new clothes and for once we were hearing a Conservative councillor calling it as it is.

Ironically the man from Capita said "what we have now is a transparent relationship". Transparent to whom, certainly not the public in Barnet.

My Speech to the Committee

“Further improvements are required to improve the adequacy and effectiveness of governance and control compliance”
 “Gaps in delivery or governance oversight”
“As in the previous year, governance issues were noted across a number of audits,”
Those quotes comes from your internal auditor yet when I read The Code of Corporate Governance it seems to have been written about a completely different borough. 
Apparently, “Shared values that are integrated into the culture of the organisation, and are reflected in behaviour and policy, are hallmarks of good governance”. When I read the Internal Audit report it suggests the hallmarks of weak and inadequate governance.  Shared values are not integrated into the culture of the organisation. In fact the culture of the organisation is seriously flawed. It is a culture that refuses to recognise and address failure and now wants to prevent any form of public scrutiny especially when it comes to Capita.
Capita consistently fail to perform,  even when given second, third, and fourth chances. If council staff behaved like this they would be sacked yet Capita appear exempt from censure.
The governance statement says you will set appropriate KPI’s yet you admit that Capita have failed some critical KPI’s every year since the contract started 6 years ago.
It says you are “Ensuring that there are structures in place to encourage public participation”. Laughable when, from 31 July, you intend to gag residents and prevent them from participating and scrutinising the council. No one will be allowed to comment in person at this committee and I can ask only one question per agenda item unless a couple of people get in first in which case any questions I submit will be rejected.
So why is the Code of Corporate Governance so out of line with what the Internal Auditor is saying in their reports?
Maybe because there is a blind spot in this council when it come Capita, a cataract that blurs their failures, their underperformance and their cavalier attitude.  A comforting haze means you cannot or maybe do not want to see  who is to blame for the failures around you like the massive fraud, the pensions admin chaos, the failure of Highways. They hold a status that appears to be untouchable and defies most of the objectives within this document. Governance statement? No. A cut and paste job that bear no relation to what is happening in Barnet. Please do your jobs and start challenging the quality of governance in Barnet or we risk much greater problems in the future.

Saturday 6 July 2019

Who cares?

UPDATED 30 October 2021: 
I originally wrote a blog about the Apthorp Care Centre back in July 2019 (see below) setting out the failure of the operator to deliver a safe service to residents. This is a centre that was contracted out yet when the service failed it was simply handed back. Since then Barnet Council's 100% owned Arms Length Management Organisation, Barnet Group have been running the centre. In recent months the centre has been found to have a number of building problems (even though the building is less than 20 years old) and so the Council has decided to close the building indefinitely while building works are undertaken and make all of the care staff redundant. I have just been to a demonstration outside the centre where some of the redundant care workers were present. 

This whole situation seems mad. NHS trusts up and down the country are saying that the cannot discharge elderly people out of hospital because of the lack of care workers either to provide in-home care or into care homes that are short staffed. From what I understand Barnet Group are saying they cannot upgrade Apthorp in phases, for example, doing one wing at a time so have to close the entire care home, all 120 beds. Something just doesn't seem right here. It smells very badly and makes we wonder what the long term use of this building is planned. It is also important to note that Barnet do not own this building that they are spending so much money repairing - it is owned by Catalyst the company to whom the care homes were outsourced. Back in 2019 I was asking why the operator was not being more closely monitored and it seems Barnet Council weren't monitoring the building either. When they took the contract back from Fremantle in 2019 they should have also reviewed the state of repair and held Fremantle responsible for any failings to maintain it properly but apparently did not happen. Questions need to be asked how such a disastrous position could have been reached in such a modern building.

 Staff today were calling for a Public Inquiry into what has happened at Apthorp Care Centre and they are absolutely right. Something here stinks. 93 care workers have been made redundant at a time of care worker shortages and very frail and elderly residents have been moved out of their home and the people they know and who care for them removed. At the same time Barnet residents are being landed with a massive repair bill for a building we don't own. We need answers.

Post from 2019:
Back in January the Care Quality Commission (CQC) published a damning report about a local care home, Apthorp Care Centre which is located near the bottom of Oakhill Park in East Barnet. The CQC gave the home an inadequate rating and a number of the specific details were quite shocking, including:
  • No Registered Manager in post;
  • Bathrooms were dirty and this exposed people to the risk of harm due to poor infection control practice;
  • All the showers were out of use due to legionella in the water system and yet five of the seven baths were being used for equipment storage;
  • Breaches of five regulations relating to person-centre care, safe care and treatment, premises and equipment, staffing and governance;
  • Medicines were not administered in a systemic manner and not managed in a safe way;
  • Risks to people were not appropriately mitigated and risk assessments were not always followed.
A quote from the Report:

"We  found bathrooms and toilets were dirty and being used inappropriately for storage. We saw two shared toilets had faeces visible on the outside of the toilet bowls. The flooring in some bathrooms was damaged meaning that they could not be effectively cleaned and posed an infection control risk. Where they were not damaged the floors were dirty and water stained. The showers in the home were currently out of use as they were being refitted following legionella being found in the water systems. The manager told us people were being supported to have washes and baths until the shower heads were replaced. Seven of the baths checked were dry and dusty. They were all dirty and one contained a dry, stained tissue underneath the bath chair. Five of the baths were being used to store equipment, some of which were Christmas decorations which staff told us had been brought down from the loft two days before our inspection. However, other items stored in bathrooms included clothing, bed linen, shopping trollies, people's clothing and wheelchairs. The cluttered nature of bathrooms meant they could not be effectively cleaned."

What is also important to understand is that this care home is run for Barnet Council by Fremantle and in 2018/19 Barnet paid Fremantle £3.99 million to provide care for Barnet residents. I was aware that Barnet has a system that is supposed to monitor these contracts so on 25 February I submitted the following questions in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request:

  • In the years 2017 and 2018 how many time did Barnet Councils' Care Quality Advisors visit Apthorp Care Centre (Nurserymans Road, London N11 1EQ)?
  • Please provide me with copies of the monitoring reports of all the visits to Apthorp Care Centre in 2017 and 2018.
  • Please provide me with copies of all the monthly reports setting out provider risks and concerns which are circulated to the DASS and to the DU's Leadership team for 2017 and 2018.
  • Please provide me with details of the support Care Quality Advisors provided to Apthorp Care Centre through best practice support and supporting staff development in 2017 and 2018.

After just over a month, the initial response to my FOI was for Barnet to refuse to answer any of the questions, something which I found astonishing and so I immediately requested an internal review. That was on the 28 March. The deadline came and went and no review was forthcoming. Trying to speak to anyone at Barnet Council proved incredibly difficult and after 11 calls I eventually got through to someone. I had also spoken to my local councillor, Felix Byers, who had emailed the FOI department, but when I spoke with them they said they had no record of his email. Barnet said they would fast track the internal review but again that was an empty promise. Eventually on 20 June, after threats to go to the Information Commissioner, I received  a response. Two questions were answered and two were again refused. What the answers did reveal was that:

There was no log of visits from Care Quality Advisors in 2017: "We do not maintain an accurate records of all visits by Care Quality Advisors to Apthorp Care Centre as far back as 2017 but we have a record of 21 care reviews of residents that were carried out in 2017". They speak as if 2017 was a long time ago which again I find staggering.

In 2018: "there were 2 Contract Monitoring visits, 16 visits from Care Quality Advisors, 12 resident care reviews and 21 visits from the Enhanced Care Homes Team. The Enhanced Care Homes Team is commissioned by Barnet CCG and works in partnership with the Care Quality Team in the Adults and Health Directorate to support care homes in the borough." 

Even though there were a large number of visits (51) to this care home the shortcomings they indicate were clearly still present when the CQC made their inspection, suggesting little or no remedial action had been taken. There is absolutely no point in having monitoring regime if no actions or changes in behaviour and performance are forthcoming. Given that Barnet were paying Fremantle a shade under £4 million per annum, why didn't Barnet bang the table and demand improvements with the threat of withdrawing the contract to ensure problems were remedied.

Another quote from the report:
"When people were permanent residents at the home their medicines were supplied by a local pharmacist with printed medicine administration records (MAR). The files where MAR were stored were chaotic and held information that was not relevant to the administration of medicines, for example, reminders to put menus out were also in this file. The files also contained old information and some MAR were loose and not kept with the other MAR for that person. Staff had not recorded incoming medicines on the MAR. Furthermore, some entries were handwritten by care workers into MAR charts and this was not always legible or easy to read. The detail of how to support people to take their medicines was not always completed, which meant people did not always get the support they needed. For example, we saw a care worker gave one person a tablet then walked away before checking the person had actually swallowed their medicine. There was no information to inform this care worker about how to support this person to take their medicines properly."

The other question they answered were the details of care support provided by Care Quality Advisors in 2018 (as they don't have records for 2017). This included:
  • The Care Quality Advisors undertook regular visits to the home which included updating of risk assessment as well as supporting and monitoring the homes improvement plan. Once the provider concerns process has been invoked full risk assessments are completed and mitigating actions monitored through a regular action plan including staff support and development.
  • The Care Quality Advisors reviewed and recommended improvements in regard to the homes policies, procedures, care plans and fluid charts.
  • Workshops were provided by the Care Quality Advisors on effective care planning and evaluation.
  • Care Quality advisors liaised with Environmental Health colleagues in regard to Legionella issues at the home.
  • There were 12 care reviews of residents to ensure their care needs are being met by the home.
  • Contract monitoring visits were undertaken to monitor performance.
  • Joint work was carried out with NHS colleagues including pharmacists to improve medicines management
  • The Enhanced Health in Care Homes team delivered seven "Significant 7" programme training sessions, with 24 follow up visits reviewing and case tracking residents to monitor the success of the intervention. Significant 7 is a programme which supports staff to identify signs of deterioration in a resident at an early stage, allowing preventive action to be taken and reduce hospital admissions. The team also supported Apthorp to adopt the use of a ‘red bag’ to support smoother hospital discharges.
This reinforces the impression that although the problems were identified and some support was provided, the situation had still not changed by the time the CQC carried out their unannounced visit on 11 December. This suggests that there were no sanctions or effective enforcement in place, especially from the Contract Monitoring staff. I specifically wanted to see copies of the Care Quality Advisor reports so that I could understand how these concerns were being portrayed and what follow up actions were required.

If this was a restaurant that received a zero hygiene rating there would be a report which sets out the issues for immediate remedy, a clearly defined timetable for remedial action to take place and a deadline for a follow up inspection. All logical steps to ensure a problem is resolved. If the matters are not resolved there is the ultimate sanction of a closure notice. This suggests that while our local takeaways are adequately regulated to ensure our health is safeguarded, the care our elderly friends and relatives receive is at the mercy of a more passive, lax monitoring regime. I am continuing to pursue Barnet for the disclosure of these reports as without them we have no clear idea how the monitoring regime is managed and that means residents in any of the other 100+ care homes in Barnet could also be at risk.

Since the appalling CQC report Fremantle have decided to hand back the management of the three homes they managed on behalf of Barnet. The Barnet Group (which is 100% owned by Barnet Council) will take over the management of the homes and I understand the staff are in the process of being TUPE'd back to Barnet. It is good that the management of these homes will now be much more closely regulated but yet again it is a case of the public sector picking up an outsourcer's failure.

On the final item in my FOI request, copies of  monthly reports setting out provider risks and concerns which is circulated to the DASS (Director of Adult Social Services) and to the DU's (Delivery Unit's) Leadership team, Barnet are still refusing. I have reluctantly agreed to drop this request as I suspect it is devastatingly bad, flagging up the potential risk of other care home providers going bust. In April this year Four Seasons, one of Britain's largest care home providers, went into administration affecting 17,000 residents and patients. Between January 2016 and April 2019 there was a net reduction of 901 care homes in the UK with consolidation of beds into larger homes. A recent report in The Gazette suggest 1 in 4 care homes are financially unstable. In Barnet we have over 100 care homes and as such it is vital that we understand the risks of collapse.

While accepting the refusal I have asked that Councillors on the Adults & Safeguarding Committee be given copies of the reports under "Blue Papers" (not available to the public) so that they can understand the risks if they have not already been made aware of them.

This is a shocking story which has taken months and a great deal of persistence to uncover. It also highlights the shortcomings of the FOI system where often the first response is to refuse and how, even when councillors are involved, it still does not guarantee the answers will be forthcoming in a timely manner. Barnet are planning to close down questioning in committees and stop residents from making public comments in person. Residents provide an invaluable level of scrutiny yet it is something Barnet believes can be resolved through FOI's and talking to councillors.My own experience suggests that is a false assumption.  I will be pushing for this tragic case to be discussed at the next Adults & Safeguarding Committee and I will be asking to speak.

Mr Reasonable will not be gagged. If you believe Barnet are stifling public scrutiny please sign this petition