Saturday, 21 March 2015

FOI refusals in Barnet - Hiding behind Capita

Since Barnet Council changed its website, some information sources have been completely inaccessible or have dead links that lead nowhere. In particular it has been impossible to look at previous Freedom of Information requests and the responses provided. If you click on the link on the website it  takes you to a page where you can fill in an FOI form but not see previous requests.  I drew this to the attention of the Council who promised to get it fixed but, as with so much the Council says, it was an empty promise.

Looking via Google at cached searches I managed to find the previous FOI's and one in particular caught my eye. It asked for Information relating to Fixed Telecommunications and Internet Services, an issue that has been the source of problems in the past.

So what was Barnet's response?

I am writing to inform you that the requested information is not held by London Borough of Barnet (the council). The council has outsourced its IT services to Capita under a 10 year contract. Information about the outsourcing can be found on the following page of our website:

I then looked at another FOI request which related to IT training. It was a detailed question and clear expressed concerns about money being wasted. So what was Barnet Council's response - yes you guessed it:

I can confirm that the requested information is not held by London Borough Barnet (the council). The council outsourced its IT services to Capita as part of the Customer and Support Group (CSG) contract. Details of the contract can be found on the following page of our website:

The same answer is given for  FOI requests about Servers,  IT maintenance and ICT strategy, although a request about printers does get an answer even though it acknowledges the contract is provided by Capita.

This represents a major problem and undermines genuine transparency about costs of operating ICT. The council maintain that they have signed a ten year contract with Capita and therefore they don't need to worry about costs. That seems mad to me given that the cost of ICT equipment has plummeted over the past 10 years and may continue to change, develop and be sourced at a lower costs over the next ten years. Without the public being allowed to question how much  is being spent on this very expensive cost centre, we don't know whether or not Capita and making excessive profits from this area of their contract payments.

Prior to Barnet contracting with Capita, the Council would have had to answer these questions and indeed they were asked and the answers showed what a complete mess the Council's IT department was in back in July 2011 

Now I'm not the only one who thinks hiding behind a contractor is wrong. The Information Commissioner Office (ICO) has written a report specifically on this subject Transparency in Outsourcing: A Roadmap which says:

"We do feel there is a strong case for designating outsourced services as falling under FOIA when they are of significant monetary value and long duration: for example, those over £5 million in value or continuing over 5 years or where the contractor solely derives its revenue from public sector contracts". That would definitely apply to Capita's contracts with Barnet.

With the Children's, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding already in the process of being outsourced (see the tender here), there will be virtually no services that are not provided by a contractor and everything will be hidden behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Cutting Councillor Allowances - an alternative view

Barnet will be discussing Cllr allowances at the meeting on Tuesday, the same meeting where they will be receiving a petition on library closures.

Cllrs currently receive an allowance of £10,597 and, in addition, certain Cllrs receive a special responsibility allowance. These range from an additional £35,000 for Richard Cornelius as leader of the council down to an additional £2,368 for Chairmen (even women are Chairmen) of the Residents Forums and Vice Chairmen of 8 committees. 17 Chairmen of committees receive an additional allowance of £15,333. This ranges from committees which sit frequently such as the Planning Committee - 10/11 times a year, to those which sit just four times a year such as the Housing Committee or Community Leadership Committee. The Licensing Committee Chairman attracts a lower special responsibility allowance of £8,852 but in 2014 this committee only sat twice.

From what I can see, 26 of the 32 Conservative councillors receive some form of special responsibility allowance whereas only one Labour Cllr receives an additional allowance, Alison Moore, as leader of the major opposition group. Some Cllrs work hard for which they receive their main allowance and I understand why the leader and opposition leader receive an additional allowance as they have to devote a great deal of time to the running of the council but the rest of the special responsibility allowances seem to me like a way to reward loyalty within the Conservative group.

If we really want to make cuts, I would do away with all special responsibility allowances other than for Cllr R Cornelius and Cllr Moore. If committee chairmen didn't receive an allowance then maybe the council would rationalise the number of committees.

By way of example of how the current system isn't working is Danny Seal, the globe trotting Cllr for Hampstead Garden Suburb who has only attended 9 of the 15 meetings he should have attended, or just 60%, see the details here. However, in addition to his standard allowance of £10,597 he receives an additional allowance of £2,368 for his role as Chairman of the Finchley & Golders Green Residents Forum. Imagine an employee turning up only 60% of the time and asking for extra payment. They would be shown the door.

By cutting out special responsibility allowances it would reduce the allowances bill by approximately £300,000 a year and in addition would do away with the patronage system that buys loyalty with committee chairmanship roles.

Perhaps Cllrs should consider this before they go making cuts to the library and other essential services which residents value on Tuesday.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Only £1 million in January for Capita

Barnet's January supplier payments are published and there are just a few items of interest. Capita billed a modest £1,059,978.80 significantly down on the £16.69 million paid in December.

The bill for Comensura in January was £1,304,913.12 which shows no sign of reducing. In December Barnet made an advance payment to Comensura of £1.25 million something which I queried with the Council. In response to and FOI request they stated:

"The Comensura payment prior to Christmas was to ensure business continuity and cover payment to agencies for provision of a temporary workforce during the Christmas closure period. This was offset by a credit note in the first week of January by Comensura to LBB."

 Frankly this doesn't wash. The requirement for temporary or interim staff during the Christmas closure period is minimal specifically because the council is closed and the £1.25 million represents an entire month's typical payments. According to the January supplier payments the credit note was paid on 30 January. So for a month from 23 December till 30 January Comensura had an interest free loan of £1.25 million. I wish someone would be that kind to me because I reckon that is worth around £5,000.

On a few of the minor payments, I'm not sure why Re spent £2,374.98 with Evans Cycles. Perhaps they are getting staff out on their bikes? It looks like CSG are considering who they bank with as they have spent £3,276.20 with Focus on Banking who are consultants that specialise in reducing banking costs and work extensively with local authorities.

Barnet spent £11,925 with M.E.L. Research Ltd who help council with services like:

  • Residents Surveys
  • Budget Consultations 
  • Research on access to services

Just a shame that having spent all that money to consult with residents, Barnet consistently ignores what they say.

Parking contractor NSL was paid £278,495.62 in January but I wonder if we are getting value for money from this contractor - Any views Mr Mustard?

Penna Consultants were paid £19,500 for "Employee Expenses" for which I think it means payment to a consultant but commercial confidentiality prevents understanding any more.

Finally the bill from Vodafone was pretty high at £166,630.05 in just one month and one I just can't reconcile. I think it needs a bit more attention for cost cutting rather than cutting the library services.

I will keep watching supplier payments - because someone has to!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Barnet Housing Commission - Do we need some radical solutions?

Last night Mrs Angry and myself were invited to give evidence to Barnet Labour Housing Commission. There were several other speakers including an very interesting and helpful speech about cooperative housing groups which seem to make a great deal of sense. Make sure you read Mrs Angry's blog here setting out her speech and I have set out below a copy of my presentation. The purpose of my presentation was not to come up with a final solution but to stimulate debate on some new ideas.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Christmas cheer for Capita as they bill Barnet £16.69 million in December

Barnet's supplier payments for December reveal £16.69 million paid to Capita even after two credit notes for a total of £1.5 million. Barnet keep saying these payments are in line with the payments schedule but I am at a loss to see how they can have billed so much in just one month.

It also brings the running total of payments to Capita of £102.9 million a staggering sum and one which I do not believe can be reconciled against the contract that we were all told would save money.

In addition, Comensura, the company that provides agency and interim staff to Barnet billed £2.66 million in December, a vast amount and more than double the average month spend. It includes a single invoice for precisely £1.25 million billed to the Customer Support Group run by Capita. Such a large round figure looks to me like a separate payment not the reconciliation of agency and interim staff invoices. Cllr Mark Shooter raised the issue of Comensura cost back in July and was told they were going down. Well Cllr Shooter they aren't - they are rocketing and something stinks.

I remain concerned that having handed over the running of the council to Capita  no one is actually keeping an eye on just how much money is being spent. Where is the scrutiny, where are the checks and balances who is actually checking Capita and Comensura?

Thousands of lost voters in Barnet at the general election

My son is 17 and will be 18 before the general election. Traditionally a household electoral registration form was sent out in the Autumn identifying those in the household  who were on the electoral register and allowing you to add in someone who was 16 or 17. In September/October 2013 I duly added my son's name to the form. In the Autumn 2014 they changed the system - this is not a Barnet idea, it is a Government change. This form omitted my son's details so I rang Barnet who said they were working through the new system and it would get picked up.

With less than 100 days to the election I rang them again and found that my son's details are not on the register - because he isn't 18 yet and he has to actively register on line with his national insurance number. Is he going to do that without prompting  - definitely not. Does he know where his national insurance number is definitely not.

I wonder how many other teenagers for which this will be their first general election are going to miss out on their vote. Are they told about the need to register their vote at school - no. Have we had any leaflets through the door about it - no.

Expect thousands of teenagers in Barnet and in every other constituency to lose their vote at this election, something which could alter the make up of our next government.

If you have a teenager who hasn't registered to vote and will be 18 by the time of the general election make sure they go here and register.