Monday, 13 March 2017

Is 43p a week too much to ask?

In Barnet we are facing a 3% council tax increase specifically for social care which, as we all know, is in crisis. However, the council had the opportunity to increase the council tax by a further 1.99% to cover all the other services provided by the council such as street cleaning, refuse collection, libraries and children's services. The council have put forward a budget for 2017/18 which shows a shortfall of just under £20 million and that takes into account the 3% social care precept. To balance the budget the council are using reserves, increasing charges and making cuts to services.

As I am sure many people are aware, adult social care and children's services make up the majority of council costs. Whether local tax payers should be paying for what many see as a national problem is a matter of debate but in Barnet we have the highest number of residential/nursing homes of any London borough reflecting the borough's mature resident profile and that drives demand for social care.

Since 2010 Barnet Council have frozen council tax and in 2014 they cut the council tax just before the last election. In the early years there was money from central government to hold down council tax rises which Barnet took but they failed to grasp freezing council tax in one year means that rise is lost every year for ever.

At a recent Council Committee meeting I asked the council the cost of a freeze to council tax  this year over the next 10 years. In fact they calculated it incorrectly at £31 million (its actually just under £34 million) but it signifies the impact of a single year of council tax freeze. When you look at the impact over 7 years the difference is significant.

Some people, including Cllr Cornelius, may argue that council tax is a regressive tax but there is banding by property value and there are also approximately 30,000 households that receive some form of Council Tax discount or exemption.

Even setting aside the growing demand for adult social care, inflation alone adds over £4 million a year to costs and includes, for example, the automatic inflation clauses included in the Capita contract.

If the council had increased council tax this year by the 1.99% allowed by government (in addition to the 3% social care precept) it would have cost the average Band D household the princely sum of 43p a week. It wouldn't have stopped all of the cuts but if the council had taken modest increases of 1.99% each year since 2010, then there wouldn't be a £20 million shortfall this year.

One question I asked the committee was, "Do the council think residents would prefer cuts or a 43p a week increase?" to which Richard Cornelius said that was a political decision and that is undoubtedly true. I speak to many residents who would prefer modest increases so long as it is spent on frontline service but they are never asked that question. However, in Barnet, the council are happy to spent an extra £800,000 on additional PR staff. They are prepared to spend £400,000 a week on interim and agency staff.  They are prepared to pay Capita millions for 'special project' consultancy work. They are prepare to spend £360,000 a year on both a Chief Executive Office AND a Chief Operating Officer in a commissioning council where many of the services are outsourced.

In 14 months time we have another council election. I just hope the electorate see through this shortsighted strategy which damages council services in both the short term and the long term but then again some people my just read the headlines of council tax freeze and not give a damn about how that affects services.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Library reduction programme hits students at vital exam period

In its wisdom Barnet Council is downsizing most of Barnet's libraries. This will have  a massive impact for most residents on going. However, the programme of works to eviscerate the libraries is taking place during the key GCSE and A level period. No doubt some bod from Capita worked out how quickly they could implement the changes but, as usual, I don't think anyone bothered to check whether this made sense to users. As a result of both the downgrade works and the introduction of the Partnership Libraries, which will not operate unstaffed opening, it means that there are only three of Barnet's 14 libraries that are open throughout the exam period.

I have said before that Barnet's Conservative Councillors are out of touch with the reality of library usage. They think that children all have their own bedroom, a nice desk or dining room table to study at or as Cllr Davey mentioned at a recent meeting that they could go and study at their local Starbucks or Costa. The reality is that a significant number of children in the borough share bedrooms, have little or no study space and are dependent on libraries to carry out their revision. Children studying for their GCSE and A Levels study in libraries because they are quiet, they have tables where they can lay out their revision notes and they aren't obliged to pay £2.50+ for a cup of coffee each time they visit.  I speak as both a parent and someone who has spoken with children in East Barnet, currently forced to go up to Chipping Barnet library to study because East Barnet Library is closed for works.

To me, it seems like common sense to keep all libraries open during the exam period, but as is frequently the case, common sense is a scarce commodity in Barnet.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Is this evidence of Barnet's cuts to community based adult social care?

I like to explore the Barnet Council Open Data web portal. Often it is a source of interesting data which deserves a wider audience like how many senior council are paid more than an MP (and  the Prime Minister).

However, a recent data set (which you can see here) showed the number of service users in receipt of adult social care.  With all the current talk about the social care crisis, I had expected the numbers of service users to have grown steadily over the period which starts in the financial year 2008/09. Indeed it did grow until the year 2012/13 since which time it as declined so that the number of service users in receipt of social care is now lower than it was in 2008/09. I have summarised the data in a table below and in a graph but the key fall appears to be in the provision of community based services.

Given that I cannot believe that demand for community based adult social care has declined, is this evidence that cuts to the service provision are already taking place and does this mean potential service users are missing out on the care they really need?

Maybe the figures are faulty; maybe I have misinterpreted them; but to me it looks like community based care is being cut. I hope someone from Barnet Council can shed some light on this.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Capita get massive £45 million Christmas present from Barnet Council

I did wonder why the Barnet Council monthly expenditure figures weren't posted yesterday. Today I understand why. In December Capita were paid a staggering £45 million. Yes £45 million split £39 million on the CSG contract and £6 million on the Re contract. So far this financial year that brings the total payments to Capita to £96.5 million and there are still three months to go of this financial year.

I attended the evidence gathering session for the review of the Capita CSG contract back in July 2016, the only opportunity for the public to have any input to the review process. Six months later we get a report that says everything is coming up roses with this contract. Well Councillors, if you think that shelling out £96.5 million in just 9 months is acceptable then you clearly have lost touch with reality.

I understand that at last night's Council meeting Cllr Geof Cooke asked why the ruling group insisted on holding the review of the Re contract in secret. Apparently he was told by Cllr Finn it wasn't in secret, it was in private. I have absolutely no confidence in the working group doing anything other than giving the Re contract another clean bill of health.  Perhaps if these figures had been released before the meeting yesterday, the response to Cllr Cooke's question might had drawn greater criticism - or maybe not.

I call on all the ruling group Councillors especially Cllrs Finn and Zinkin who site on the working group to reconsider holding the Re contract review meetings in public, not in private, to explain why we are paying so much to Capita and to allow residents to understand what Councillors really feel about this contract.

Friday, 23 December 2016

51 for 8 - not the cricket score but Capita's payments from Barnet

Barnet Supplier payments have been published early this month because of Christmas so we can have a festive peep at how much suppliers have been paid between April and November. So far this year Capita/Re have been paid £51.5 million in 8 months with a year end target looking like £76 million - so where are the savings?

The contract for agency and interim staff (Comensura) continues to grow. In October it looked like they were getting costs under control but in November the costs were just a shade under £2 million for the month so still on course for a full year spend of £20 million.

This remains nothing short of a disgrace despite all of Barnet's protestations. While two thirds of the agency spend is on Adults and Children's Family services, one third, or around £700,000 in just one month was spent by the Commissioning and Streetscene departments. What I can't understand is why Capita who the Council pays to run the HR department haven't got to grips with this problem and come up with some more innovative solutions to address the recruitment problems that necessitate so many interim and agency staff.

Barnet are currently undertaking a budget consultation exercise for next year's budget. Unfortunately the council want to cut key services like our libraries, meals on wheels and children's services to meet the £22.2 million budget gap next year but seem unwilling to get to grips with this interim and agency staff bill which is running out of control at £20 million a year. I would also say that much of this budget shortfall is of Barnet's making. They have frozen Council tax since 2010 and actually cut council tax in 2014, weeks before the election. If they had been sensible and taken modest council tax rises of 1.99% each year then we wouldn't have this shortfall.

Barnet continues to be a council driven by political dogma rather than common sense and that is to everyone's regret.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

CSG (Capita) 3 year Contract Review

Next Tuesday the Performance and Contract Management Committee meet to rubber stamp a ringing endorsement of the Capita contract. I say that on the basis that even before the committee has met, Barnet has published a press release here which includes the following statement from Cllr Finn:

I’d like to thank members of the cross-party review working group and members of the public who expressed their views. I’m pleased that, three years into the contract with Capita to supply the council’s back office and customer services, this review confirms that it has been a success.  

"With council budgets under significant pressure, the fact that these services are now costing the Barnet taxpayer £6 million less each year to deliver is substantial. But I’m also pleased that Capita is meeting the agreed performance targets in the contract and that user satisfaction is going up.  We have set challenging performance targets and there is more work to be done in certain areas, but so far this has been a good deal for the borough.”

What he doesn't mention is the £25.6 million already paid to Capita for additional services outside the contract nor the £39 million they are going to pay Capita for additional services between now and 2020. That is a total of just under £65 million of additional services payments to Capita which they do not have to tender for but is automatically handed to them.

I have submitted some questions to the committee which are set out below so we will have to see what responses I receive.
  1. In Appendix B it states that “Monitoring of contractual commitments forms part of the regular monitoring undertaken by the Commercial team, in conjunction with the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for each service. Progress is recorded in a tracker spreadsheet”. Have members of this committee received a copy of this tracker spreadsheet and can a copy be made public?
  2. In Appendix B it states that the employee survey carried out is company wide rather than on a contractual basis. Does this mean that there is no staff satisfaction survey specifically for Barnet staff and if so why has this been signed off as complete when it provides Barnet with no specific information about staff satisfaction in the Barnet contract?
  3. In Appendix B it acknowledges that the Leadership Panel is not delivered. Given that the role of the Leadership Panel was seen as a key component of the three year review why has this issue still not been addressed?
  4. Who prepared Appendix C, a Barnet Council employee or a CSG (Capita) employee?
  5. In Appendix C what reassurance have you received that the £25.6 million that you have paid Capita for additional services represents value for money and as stated on page 7 “paying less than we would in the open market” given that all these additional service are automatically given to Capita without any market testing?
  6. What oversight is in place to ensure that the £39 million you are going to pay to Capita for additional services over the next 4 years is value for money?
  7. Why are we paying an additional £9 million on IT when IT is part of the CSG contract and that Barnet paid Capita upfront for capital investment in IT?
  8. Given that we have had 4 different IT directors in 3 years how can we be reassured that this additional spend is essential and that it will not change again when another IT director is appointed?
  9. Why are comparisons quoted as a percentage of total spend when work is volume related not cost related?
  10. On Page 6 of Appendix C what is the relevance of the capital schemes comparison?
  11. On Page 6 of Appendix C there is a comparison with £7.1 million paid to Impower/Agilisys. Given that Councillors authorised a spend of “circa £2 million” for this contract do you think this a suitable basis for comparison?
  12. On transformation project Appendix C states that contractual rate cards are 11% below the rates that would be paid to equivalent companies. What tangible evidence supports that statement?
  13. In Appendix 4 the chart showing in year council tax collection rates appears to show rates are lower in 2015/16 than they were in 2012/13. Is this correct?