Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Barnet Council - Agency and interim staff commission could have saved library staff

I have written a number of blogs about the amount Barnet Council spend on Agency and Interim staff as published in their monthly supplier payments. "Does it matter?" you may say. Well from my perspective yes it does.

The commission payments on the agency costs are significant and numerous.We pay a commission to the originating employment agency, a commission to Comensura, one to Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation through which the Comensura contract was let,  and a gainshare payment to Capita.

This year it looks like spend on agency costs will exceed £20 million. I reckon that we are paying at least 10% and probably closer to 15% (or higher), so between £2 million and £3 million in commission. That is money that generates no benefit - simply profit for all the intermediaries between the member of staff and Barnet Council.

In addition, there are a significant number of interim and agency staff who are paid at consultancy day rates significantly above the typical salary for that post. Lastly, there is the cost of having to go through a series of different people each time the interim moves on, something which I raised at the Performance and Contract management evidence session and something which even Conservative councillors agreed was a problem.

So why raise this again now? Well this week 46% of Barnet's librarians have been told they are being made redundant to save around £2.5 million, a sum very similar to the commission being paid on agency staff. This demonstrates to me that Barnet Council have completely lost the plot when it comes to setting spending priorities.

In the past I have been told that the reason for the increasing agency spend is because of the inability to recruit social workers. While that may be part of the problem, scrutiny of the evidence suggests that use of agency staff is endemic across several departments. In the latest detailed analysis of the Comensura spend in July 2016 £419,000 was spent on agency and interim staff in the Commissioning department and £227,000 was in Streetscene.

The graph on the right illustrates just how much agency and interim spend has grown since the concept of One Barnet was dreamed up. The spend doubled between 2010/11 and 2015/16 and is set to grow further this financial year at a time when more and more staff are being made redundant and that just doesn't make economic sense.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Barnet's Monthly spend - Agency costs look like hitting £20 million this financial year

Barnet's July supplier payments have been published here and it is generally a light month with total spending at just £29.9 million. The one payment that does jump out is Comensura who supply the council with agency and interim staff. In July they were paid £1.86 million and this brings the total for the first four months of this financial year to £6.9 million. On that basis it looks like Barnet will hit £20 million for spend on interims and agency staff this financial year. This is completely unacceptable given that we are paying commission and agency fees on all of those payments.  If we are paying 10% commission on this agency spend - and I suspect it is significantly higher - then the commission alone is is almost as much as the Council are planning to save by destroying our library service. Not only that but the lack of continuity by employing an never ending stream of interims and agency staff leads to inefficiencies and the same mistakes being repeated time and again. I have questioned Conservative councillors about this on numerous occasions and they entirely complacent on the matter. Having outsourced so many services it seems ridiculous that so much is being spent on temporary staff.  Richard Cornelius is the leader of the council and the buck stops with him. He has to get a grip on this massive problem.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Barnet Pay £17.5 Million to Capita in June

On Monday night I gave evidence at the Performance and Contract management working group which is undertaking a 3 year review of the Capita CSG contract. One of the areas I covered was the increasing cost of the Capita contract specifically in areas such as special projects and contract variations.
The evidence I gave  included the table below:

This shows that we have spend £33.44 million more on the CSG contract than was originally envisaged. (It doesn't include the spending on the other Capita contract, Re). I was encouraged to hear  Cllr Zinkin say that this was an area they were looking into having heard my concern expressed about this previously.

However, yesterday the supplier payments for June were published and guess who was a massive recipient?  Yes Capita!

On the two contracts, CSG and Re, Capita were paid £17.5 million in June so, by the looks of it, a lot more special projects and contract variations.

In terms of Capita's performance, I also submitted some charts on telephone performance over the last 12 month. Whilst the average figures say they are meeting the target of answering calls within 20 seconds, I like to look into the detail of the figures. Some calls are automated where you say the name of the person you want to speak to and these calls are all classified as meeting the service level target at 100%. However, this offsets some poor performance on other calls.The charts below are for three specific service areas and shows, on a monthly basis, what percentage of calls are answered within the agreed target and how many calls are abandoned - that is residents give up after waiting too long for their call to be answered.

This shows that over the last year calls to Housing Benefit have only been answered within the agreed service level target once and that over the year more than 6,400 calls have been abandoned.

Calls regarding Council Tax have only hit the agreed service level target twice in the last year and more than 8000 calls have been abandoned.

Finally, in terms of Adult Social Care, the 20 second target is never hit and almost 4,800 calls were abandoned.  That is exceptionally worrying but worse, I seem to be the only person who is highlighting this problem. (Calls for April, May and June were not recorded in the performance figures).

I made the point to the working group that staff turnover and the failure to retain staff is a major contributing factor to both meeting these targets and to ensuring residents are getting the best quality service from knowledgeable and experienced staff. This runs throughout the contracts not just on answering telephones yet Barnet do not measure Capita against staff turnover Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), something which I hope they will address as part of this review.

I have also submitted my evidence on the 324 contractual commitments that were made by Capita which you can read (or not) here and have asked the working group to make sure that someone actually checks to see if they have been honoured.

I hope that the working group really scrutinise the CSG contract performance and, as I said at the meeting, several hundred hard working Barnet Council employees were made redundant to implement this contract. We owe it to those people to at least check that the promises made are being delivered.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Lack of transparency on the NLBP Redevelopment ignores residents' concerns

Guest Blog
Set out below is a guest blog from the residents of Weirdale and Asbourne Avenue next to the North London Business Park.

"The London Borough of Barnet are on a mission, to build on every conceivable piece of land including back gardens with little thought or consideration to local residents, the infrastructure, environment or the community it serves.

This is not a new strategy but it is strategy about to go in to overdrive with the proposed redevelopment of the North London Business Park (NLBP) by Comer Homes.

Despite significant opposition to the original plans by hundreds of local residents and without keeping residents informed the council march on with their close colleagues at Comer Homes and friendly management consultants Capita. All parties have done a great job in NOT keeping the community informed. Barnet’s philosophy on consultation seems to be a tick box exercise - information regarding the development and planning process has been very difficult to find and decipher, with residents not informed of a key event and decision.  As a lay person it seems Barnet want to intentionally exclude the public’s involvement and right comment in order to push through this development with minimal intrusion.

Comer Homes are no different, they started with fancy brochures and a consultation process that took place right at the beginning but I for one have never heard from the developer again despite signing up for regular updates,

Whilst we accept progress and understand the need for additional housing in the borough there is a way of doing so without so many controversial measures. The plans for the NLBP are a complete contradiction to previous Conservative views. Proposing residential Tower blocks at a time where most have or are being brought down in London is nonsensical.

The independent charity Policy Exchange clearly advised Councils and Government back in 2013 that, "High-rise blocks should be knocked down and replaced with terraced homes to help tackle social problems and remove 'no-go' areas"

"The report by Policy Exchange claims terraced streets and low-rise flats could achieve the same density of housing as high rise."

How much of the housing will be affordable or in sustainable areas with a quality of life? This is currently a brown field site which has had some recreational playing fields yet the proposal is to turn the site in to a housing estate with a disproportionate amount of high rise buildings. It’s should not just be about building homes but also what they look like and the surroundings they exist in but this type of outlook only appears in developer’s brochures.

In reality the Developers in this case Comer Homes are looking to maximise their return from the land they purchased many years ago and it is the Councils role, elected by the people for the people to ensure that developers don’t get the best return on their investment but that the local community get the best additions to housing and services in their borough.

A good example of where this is NOT happening is at the North end of the NLBP site where plans are being agreed in outline to allow Emergency and Pedestrian access to the site via  Ashbourne Ave / Weirdale Ave. Now this access point has been closed / restricted for generations. The only access ever allowed was pedestrian access for those who worked on the site many years ago via a manned gate.

Since then the number of cars in the area has increased significantly and whilst the roads continue to be relatively quiet compared to main thoroughfares the sheer number of vehicles has forced many residents to invest in off street parking. Whilst this has helped the fact remains that most days and especially at weekends and evenings it is a difficult road to navigate with parked cars everywhere. So the idea of emergency vehicles plus additional cars parking in Ashbourne Ave / Weirdale Ave so that people can use the pedestrian access as a short cut is a ridiculous and dangerous suggestion and NOT in the current residents/ public’s interest and only in the interest of the developer.

There is a reasonable assumption that the Council should always remain completely independent. In Barnet there is a strong opinion amongst many residents that there is an unhealthy and not in the public interest relationship that has developed between Barnet Council, the Developer Comer Homes and the Consultants Capita. This relationship needs to be independently investigated before the NLBP plans are considered further. There is a significant conflict of interest between the three parties who share office space at the NLBP, in fact it is my understanding that Comer are the Councils landlords currently on the NLBP site.

The Residents associations won’t go quietly and are prepared to turn to the law if necessary to ensure that the development of the site is in the best interest of the people living in the vicinity of the NLBP.

The residents surrounding the NLBP are tired of being pushed around by the council who are happy to trade with developers as if there is no impact to local residents.

The local MP Theresa Villiers and Councilor Lisa Rutter are supportive of the residents’ concerns,

The Conservative MP said: “I will fight these plans. I accept the need for new homes but eight storey blocks of flats are completely unacceptable.

“That kind of development would be wholly out of character with the local area; it would disrupt traffic; and put real pressure on local services. If housing is to be built on this site, it must be far less dense in order to avoid impacting on surrounding streets.

“I also strongly oppose any proposed access through Weirdale or Ashbourne Avenue,  Villiers, as well as Councilor Lisa Rutter, have demanded urgent meetings with the council and developers to set out their strong oppositions to the plans."

For further information email

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

My Take on Brexit - Why Labour needs to stop in-fighting and come up with a credible industrial and employment strategy

As a Remainer I was desperately disappointed at the Brexit vote, but we are where we are and we have to get on with it. However, the issue that strikes me most now is how Labour have failed to address the issues that clearly resulted in so many Labour supporters outside London voting for Brexit and how there seems to be no clear strategy for moving forward.

In the run up to the referendum, the debate was entirely sterile, arguing around tightly defined topics with no real thought about how to plan for a new model that would provide an engaging vision of the future Britain within the EU.

If I start with immigration, part of the issue, as I see it, is the large number manual unskilled and semi skilled jobs that have attracted so many EU migrants. The root of this problem, from my perspective, is the failure of the UK education system to train up the UK workforce appropriately and the consistent failure of UK Governments to develop an industrial strategy that encourages the growth of skilled and semi skilled employment.

The Work Foundation generates some fascinating statistics about both employment and under employment and the skill levels of our workforce. The push for growth in the University sector suggests that by 2024 there will be 5 million more people with higher education qualifications yet only 2 million growth high skilled jobs. At the same time there are no signs of any growth in those people holding NVQ3 qualifications. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2014, 58.8% of graduates had jobs which did not require a degree. It strike me that some of these semi skilled and trades jobs are being filled by EU migrants simply because we haven’t trained enough UK staff with the correct skills to fill them. We have created the vacuum which EU migrants have filled. That is not their fault - they are fulfilling a need.

To my mind you can look at the situation we are in in two ways; welcome EU migrants and let the underskilled and underemployed continue to resent our EU and see vindication in the Brexit vote or set out a much more comprehensive plan to reskill our national workforce giving them a better chance to compete for those semi skilled and skilled jobs, something that will be essential if we opt for the "Norwegian" option/EEA membership which will still require free movement of labour.

In January this year Sir Michael Wilshaw roundly condemned the Further Education sector yet it is clear that government funding to this sector has been cut repeatedly, creating and perpetuating the shortcomings of the FE sector  An example of this is the skills shortage in the construction sector. Indeed back in January David Thomas of Barratt Developments described the skills shortage as “the number one challenge for housebuilders”. With a strong, vibrant FE sector producing skills workers for sectors that need them we could be filling that vacuum not making it worse.

I was discussing this with my sister, a retired teacher. Before retiring she was responsible for for NVQ courses at her secondary school. At its peak they were running 23 separate NVQ courses giving children recognised and  desirable qualifications and a direct gateway into good quality jobs. Change of government, change of policy and those courses disappeared denying many children an opportunity to succeed, an opportunity to enter a career path, an opportunity to earn and contribute to society.

There is also a massive problem of underemployment, people who are in part time work but who would like to work more. Again the Work Foundation provide statistics on this:

The table below summarises the main findings.
2015 - Q4 
Unemployment rate (%)
Under-employment rate (%)
 Young (16-24)
That suggests there is still a lot of slack in the economy. Short term underemployment has become entrenched as long term underemployment because the government has failed to address and allowed employers to exploit it with zero hours contracts. It may give employers some flexibility but it is a devastating waste of resources, especially young people who could be contributing so much more to the economy and reduce the burden on the social security budget.

To my mind we should be stimulating the economy to take up that slack, to take people out of low pay and benefits and to give them spending power that will in turn help stimulate growth. But this takes us to the second area where politicians have failed.

If you look at the Government’s Industrial Strategy page it sums up  that we don’t really have a proper strategy, just a few initiatives which don’t seem to address the underlying issues of British industry in a cogent and coordinated fashion. We need a coherent long term plan which sets out a clear path to growth and fuller employment with decent skilled and well paid jobs served by a well trained and well paid staff. Both Chuka Umumma and Vince Cable talked about the "deafening silence" of this government's industrial strategy

From a personal perspective, at a very micro level, I was pitching for a contract in Australia. To get round the red tape necessary to compete in the Australian market I rang up the UKTI team, a Government department to help exporters, and asked if they could help answer a fewer questions relating to employment and contract legislation. Having been put through to the Australia desk I was told they only supported defense contract bids. So no help there. As it turned out I won the tender but with no help whatsoever from this government. Maybe I was just unlucky but I suspect that departmental cutbacks and a lack of clear strategy were contributing factors to the lack of support.

The Tories have demonstrated over the last 6 years that they have no ability to deliver a new vision for Britain, just short term gimmicks and knee jerk reactions that have culminated in this disastrous situation we are now faced with. The Tory party are at war with themselves and that is all they are focused on at the minute.I have no belief that they will ever take a long term view about our economy and our role in th world market. It is all about short term tactics and point scoring off one another.

However, seem no better. If all those Labour MP’s were to stop messing about calling for votes of no confidence in Corbyn and actually come up with a clear plan of what Britain could look like, how we could rebalance the economy and generate well paid skilled jobs for well trained UK residents, then the issue of migration, and our lack of confidence in the EU would drop away much as it did in the early 2000's when the economy was storming along, would become much less of an issue. Indeed, they might actually start to win over a much greater majority of the electorate. Ignoring what 17 million people have said is pointless because it means you will never get re-elected. What we need are solutions that address those concerns but in a constructive and positive manner that benefits everyone not in-fighting that benefits no one.

Bill Clinton coined the phase, "It's the economy stupid" and that holds good today as it ever did. The Brexit vote has just made that more difficult but now more than ever Labour has to come up with a strong and credible industrial and employment strategy that will help get people back into good quality well paid jobs.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Barnet's Performance and Contract Management Committee - 20 Questions

On 31 May is Barnet's quarterly Performance and Contract Management Committee. The papers have been published in advance of the meeting  which you can read here. Having spent 5 hours reading all of the reports I have submitted a list of questions which I have set out below:

In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix H

  • Please can you clarify how the reduction in Single Person Discount is calculated to arrive at the net figure and, for example, is a saving made in 2015/16 treated as an on-going saving for the purposes of gainshare calculation or just a one off saving for that year only. 
  • Please can you clarify how the Additional Council Tax Income  is calculated to arrive at the net figure. To what extent is the additional income from the additional 2,732 households treated as part of the calculation and why is 100% of the net income paid to Capita in Gainshare. 
  • Can you clarify if Capita have achieved the 98.5% council tax collection rate and how that impacted on the Gainshare payment.  
  • Why did you set a guarantee target in 2015/16 that is £3.3 million lower than for 2014/15 when recurring savings on renegotiated contract continue to attract gainshare payments for Capita?
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix H(iii)
  • Please could you clarify of what the £242,615.87 true up payment comprises?
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix I
  • Who authorised the spend of £276,094 for an accelerated refresh of employee computing devices so all devices are refreshed after 18 months instead of 5 years. Was the procurement handled by Capita and did they generate a gainshare saving on this purchase?
  • Please can you clarify what the £9.7 million contract true up of third party contracts comprises?
  • For the library service call cost of £453,000 what does that work out per call?
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix J
  • How many letters of action have been received in the last 6 months and how does that reconcile with the risk - Resident Engagement - ORG0029 being rated as medium to low 
  • Risk  - Increasing costs of Adult Social Care - ORG0042  states that there is a risk that the pressure on Adults budgets caused by increasing demographics and complexity will not be contained within existing budgets and the risk matrix suggests the probability of this happening is “unlikely”. Do you think that is an accurate reflection of the current situation
In relation to agenda item 8 Appendix J
  • Do you really think that extending the NSL contract till October 2018 sends the right signal to Barnet residents given the parking contracts scores so badly on the resident satisfaction survey
In relation to agenda item 12
  •  In light of the referral from Audit Committee and given that Internal Audit recently said:

a)    There is a lack of formal documentation held by the Council of the first line defence activities operating at Capita. For example, this may include access to procedure manuals to assess whether the control framework in place mitigates the Council’s key risks. This was highlighted as a finding in relation to the accounts payable process where there was no up to date procedure document in place.
b)    That currently Internal and External Audit activities provide the only evaluation of the design and operation of the controls in place within Capita processes to mitigate the Council’s key risks... These form part of the third line of defence in the assurance framework. This testing approach is generally retrospective and would only identify issues after they have occurred, possibly a significant period of time following the initial non-compliance. We did not see evidence of real time monitoring of the operation of Capita controls.
c)     Although some second line management oversight activities were found to be operating effectively, there are some second line activities which are currently recorded as the ‘first line’ of activities within the Commercial team’s analysis. These should be moved within the updated version of the assurance map.
They also noted thatperformance management information is not independently validated by the Council” and that “not all SRO’s have an allocated deputy. Placing reliance on one individual may result in contingency issues when officers leave the Council either permanently or for extended periods”
On that basis are you sure that the clienting arrangements are satisfactory?

In relation to agenda item 12
  • Do you think it is appropriate for Council Senior Responsible Officers to be commissioned to assess delivery of the contract against outcome specifications, method statements and contractual commitments given that they are fulfilling this role already. While it will undoubtedly be useful to take their evidence surely it would be more appropriate for someone independent such as internal audit or an external body to make that assessment of delivery?
  • Please can you clarify the contents of the benchmarking survey and can you confirm that it will also include examples from private sector partnerships?
  • Will any members’ working group meetings be open to the public?
  • When will the public engagement take place and what steps are you going to take to ensure that the public are actively involved in the process?
  • Who will be responsible for reconciling whether the commitments set out in Schedule 35 of the contract have been delivered?
  • What contingency plans have been made to consider terminating part or all of the contract if the 3 year review is unsuccessful and agreement on changes cannot be reached?
  • When will you be taking evidence from the Leadership Panel?
  • Will you be publishing Capita’s proposals of new opportunities for improving service quality and reducing costs throughout the Contract Period?

I will update you after I receive answers to my questions.

Friday, 29 April 2016

£173.3 million paid to Capita - so where are the savings?

Updated below:
The March supplier payments have just been published and we now have a clear picture of payments for the whole financial year to Capita. Between the two contracts, CSG and Re, Capita have received a total of £66.3 million. That is up £14.5 million on last year's payments, a 28% increase.

The budgeted cost was £41.7 million so the extra £24.6 million is for other payments including special projects and gainshare.  At a recent committee meeting it was conceded that on some of the Special Projects we are paying consultancy rates for work that would have previously been done by salaried council staff. The core contract is cheaper but we pay for everything over and above that contract and that is where Capita make their money.

One of the other massive overspends is on the interim and agency staff contract with Comensura.

Back in 2012 the contract was costing us £12.5 million but it was at a time when the council was in the midst of the outsourcing process and staff were leaving to avoid being made redundant. With the appointment of Capita it was anticipated that the agency staff costs would fall but in reality they have done the opposite. This financial year they have hit an all time high of £17.9 million. Last year I said this was a contract out of control and sadly that has proved the case. To make matters worse Comensura is on of the contracts on which Capita are paid gainshare. They are supposedly saving us money for which Barnet pays them a hefty share, now in excess of £1 million.

In total, since the start of the Capita contracts in 2013, they have been paid a total of £173,384,365.48 Yes £173 million in just two and a half years.

Yet again, I repeat my challenge to Richard Cornelius in that I will pay £250 to the charity of his choice if he can show me how this contract with Capita is saving us money.