Wednesday 18 April 2018

Getting a Good Deal for Barnet residents?

This week the Barnet Conservatives published their manifesto, claiming they will be "Getting a Good Deal". This is what their manifesto says

Click on image for more readable version
Given that the Barnet Conservatives have been running the council since 2002, we have a record to judge them against. As such it is fairly simple to see if we can trust them to get a good deal. Lets look at what they say in the first paragraph
"It is no good us paying more into the Metropolitan Police budget than any other borough while getting the fewest police officers per head in return"
To my eyes, this says that the Barnet Conservatives have managed to bungle their way to getting us the worst deal from The Mayor of any Borough in London. I was quite staggered to read that they think boasting about how bad they are at getting a deal would win votes. In the second paragraph they state
"Barnet will not spend more of your money on extra police when you have already paid for them. Labour’s Mayor owes you those officers and we will fight to see that they are delivered"
For some reason, the Barnet Conservatives have an obsession with the Mayor of London. They even passed a motion in Council labelling him an "enemy of the people". In my business career, I've done several courses, including one on negotiating. The first rule when trying to get a good deal is to build a relationship with the other party. Calling them names is guaranteed to make it as hard as possible to get a good deal. As I said at the start, we have to judge the manifesto against the record. The record shows that the Barnet Conservatives do not have the common sense to work constructively with the Mayor.

Then there is funding from the Conservative government (which has been running the country since 2010 in one form or another). How good a deal have the Barnet Conservatives been getting?
"Where a Barnet voice is required in negotiating with Government or City Hall, a
Conservative Council will not sit quietly. As it stands, direct Government funding to the boroughs is unfair; Barnet gets £200 per head whilst Camden receives £505 per head"
Sadly for the Barnet Conservatives, they can't blame the Mayor for this one. They've had eight years to get a better deal. There own manifesto demonstrates that they can't.

Then they move onto how they manage contractors. They say
"We will continue to seek good value for money and will work with
our staff and contractors to make sure Barnet gets the services it deserves."
The figures tell a different story, with huge overspending on contracts with Capita and Re.

Over £116 million in overspending since 2013. Does that demonstrate that they can get a good deal? They go on to say
"Contractors will be robustly monitored to ensure continued value for money. 
This is at odds with reality. In 2014, they sacked the staff who monitored highway repairs. The result is a plague of potholes in the Borough. Anyone who has ever employed builders will know that if you don't check the work they do, then it isn't done properly. They go on to claim
"Contingency plans will be maintained to ensure that, whatever happens in our borough, the emergency will not catch Barnet Council out."
On January 15th, following the collapse of Carillion, I sent an FOI request to Barnet Council asking whether a contingency plan existed for the collapse of Capita.  I am rather surprised to see that the page on the council website, does not note that I appealed against the response from Barnet Council and that my appeal was upheld. The response pointed to documents released on 27th February, which were over a month after my request.

It was clear from my discussions with Barnet Council that no  propercontingency plan existed on 15th January, apart from some contract provisions (that would be very hard to enforce against a bankrupt company). This email states

 Dear Mr Tichborne
I write further to our email acknowledging your request for an internal review into the handling of your request for information.

You have requested an internal review of the Council's response in relation to your request.  I have undertaken the internal review and uphold your complaint, the outcome of my review is set out below.  Your complaint is upheld in part.
The request was overlooked and not logged until 23 February 2018 for which I apologise.  The failure to log caused a delay in getting the information to you, but we did agree to backdate the date of the request to when you originally sent it as the fault was on our side so to the extent that the statutory due date was not met I uphold your complaint.

Therefore at the time the Council started processing your request, the information was held by the Council.  I can further advise that the report to PCMC summarises the contingency arrangements, as set out in the relevant contracts.  The report also describes how those arrangements would be exercised, in the event of an insolvency event.  So, in terms of the information held as at 15 th January, it would be the contracts themselves, which are already published on the council's website.
There was an undocumented, internal discussion about how the arrangements would be exercised on Monday 15 th January.  The arrangements were also discussed in June 2017, as part of the consideration of a contract pre-payment, and in December 2016, for the same reason.
Thank you for your interest in Barnet Council.
Your Rights

If you remain dissatisfied with the handling of your request, you have a right to appeal to the Information Commissioner at:
The Information Commissioner's Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF

Telephone: 0303 123 1113
I was of the opinion that this response was still insufficient.  Barnet supplied a further clarification, as you can see, getting a response is like getting blood from a stone. 

Dear Mr Tichborne
Further to your email requesting clarification on the points you have raised about the attached respone sent I can advise the following:
1) You state that there were discussions on the subject in Dec 2016 and June 2017. Are you seriously trying to suggest that there was no documented output from these meetings and that there were no preliminary measures put into place? Surely that would be negligent.
The documented output from those meetings was appended to the relevant Committee reports, which were published at the time.  Links are:
Performance and Contract Management Committee, 15 th November 2016 '  agenda item 8.
Policy and Resources Committee, 27 th June 2017 '  agenda item 15.
The 'preliminary measures' are those documented in the contracts and set out in the report to the Performance and Contract Management Committee on 27 th February 2018.
2) Why on earth would you have an "undocumented" meeting on January 15th? This is not credible given the issues.
Our original response refers to an 'undocumented, internal discussion', rather than to a 'meeting', i.e. it was an informal discussion between officers about arrangements that were already in place and, as such, a record of the discussion was not made.
Yours sincerely
R***** C*****
Information Management Officer
Commissioning Group
London Borough of Barnet, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP
Barnet Online:
As you can quite clearly see, claiming that "contingency plans" were in place is quite misleading. The Conservative administration has been forced into action after five years (the contracts started in 2013). As far as I am concerned, not having a contingency plan for five years, to run the Borough if your main contractors goes bust, was negligent. They now have a plan in place, but it was only because bloggers etc such as myself forced them to.

We finish with the claim from the manifesto that they spend money prudently
"Above all, we will always remember that it is your money we are spending, and will do so prudently. " 
As you can see, they spend it very prudently on their allowances and top execs

Of course Barnet Council should pay competitive salaries at market rates to attract the best talents, but if this was the case, surely we wouldn't be seeing huge overspends on contracts, Childrens services failing, the IT resilience infrastructure being rated as inadequate and we wouldn't be seeing children excluded from libraries and potholes all over our roads. As for councillor allowances, some councillors get the basic £10,000 and do nothing at all. I would like to see all councillors required to publish a monthly timesheet detailing the work they've done for their allowances. I have no issue paying allowances to councillors of any party who work hard. If they can prove it fine. It seems to me that they are not delivering value for money. The state of roads and pavements is all the evidence I need to see that.

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