This evening I attended a meeting organised by the Trade Union that I recently joined, Unison, about the One Barnet program. I attended a similar meeting a few weeks ago on the same subject, but this was open to all councillors, and to their enormous credit, a couple of Conservative councillors came as well.
The One Barnet scheme is a program that will see 70% of council services privatised. The aims are to make Barnet a "commissioning" council, whereby services are delivered by external companies, like Capita and BT. And not just things like street cleaning, but whole departments like Education. If that isn't frightening enough, the way that these contracts will be tendered are a farce.
They could be up to 10 years long, with severe penalties for what seems like practically anything. These massive contracts will be negotiated by our lawyers (shared with Harrow) who on Tuesday didn't even know that planning meetings couldn't go past 10.30, against the mighty legions of well paid contract lawyers of the likes of Capita and BT.
Then comes the service delivery. We were treated to some shocking examples of where these contracts had gone wrong. Firms like Connaught going bust and leaving councils with no replacement for important services (can you imagine if the providers of childcare services went bust?). Or examples like Bradford Education, who kept missing their targets, and the council kept shelling out more money to retain the contract. Examples where the companies had cut costs to make more profit, making services worse. One of the most worrying was from Liverpool, who overpaid on a contract by millions of pounds a year, because the monitoring was faulty.
And that leads me on to the next point. The council will struggle to scrutinise performance because the collection of data and management of information will be devolved down to the companies that deliver them. It's sort of like a patient going to a doctor and the doctor asking the patient to examine themselves. How can we performance manage? The council will be left as a shell- only employees being those who report back to councillors what is going on. Everything, from who commissions the contracts for everything else down is outside the council.
Where is the accountability? How do councillors represent constituents to private companies? How will we get better service delivery from companies who need to maximise profit (which is their legal duty), the easiest way of which is to not deliver the full range of services. How do we know when it is going wrong? How do we discard a contract that isn't working if the clients have such legal prowess arrayed against the council?
What is more is that Barnet do not have a good record when it comes to these kind of contracting. Just look at MetPro. And what is worst about this commissioning is that if there is market failure, then it will be impossible to bring these services back into the council. We will have lost the expertise, just as what happened with Bradford Education. Barnet wants to be another Westminster, Wandsworth and Hammersmith but those councils, however much I dislike their brand of service delivery, are far better than Barnet at doing this. They have even brought services back after contracting out if they don't work. They maintain control of the services they want control over, Barnet are giving those away.
Power transfers during the signing of a contract. Before the contract is signed, the council has the power and the provider has to make their promises and say they will deliver. As soon as the contract is signed that power goes to the provider, because it is then impossible to bring those services back, and they are negotiating from a position of strength.
This is a huge worry, with many other worries to come. I hope people are waking up to how horrendous these plans are, and I hope the council will scrap them.
Update: Spell checks and minor changes to improve readability and clarity (12.27)