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Outsourcing of council services


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Interesting article in The Guardian today confirming how bad things will get - sounds familiar in Herefordshire. The local authorities are just conduits for passing taxes, monies and grants to private companies, partnerships and unelected bodies such as The Marches Local Enterprise Partnership.

The gutting of Barnet council means even births, deaths and marriages are managed elsewhere. Your town hall may be next.
Ignore the economists quibbling whether public spending is returning to the era of George Orwell. If you want to see the future of your local public services, it’s already here: in the north London suburb of Barnet. I visited last week – and it’s not pretty.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the area. I’ve known Barnet forever; it has provided me with countless walks, and the odd Saturday job. It remains the home of Jewish grandmothers holding forth on both Keynesianism and why you haven’t finished your supper, and second-hand record shops run by greying Don Quixotes.
But what’s fast changing in Barnet is how residents access their local services – everything from parking tickets to paying council tax to how their corpses are disposed of. In the past few years, the Tory-run council has taken almost every public service it can lay its hands on – and outsourced it.
Between January 2012 and October 2013, Barnet farmed out its care for people with disabilities, legal services, cemeteries and crematoriums, IT, finance, HR, planning and regeneration, trading standards and licensing, management of council housing, environmental health, procurement, parking, and the highways department.
This evening, a full council meeting will vote on whether to consider cuts and “alternative delivery models†for another tranche of services, including libraries, rubbish collection, street gritters and children’s speech therapy, among others. Should they go the way of the rest and be outsourced, the local Unison branch calculates that Barnet council will shrink from having 3,200 staff in September 2012 to just 332.
That is one hell of a municipal disappearing act. Residents now find it easier to list what their council doesn’t directly provide than what it does. Which means that if you want to see what the next five years of cuts hold for your local services – whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband get in will make little odds for town halls – you’d best pay close attention to what Barnet is doing.
And a tour of the neighbourhood teaches you that when cuts reach a certain magnitude, it’s not just services you lose; it’s an entire democratic institution. Residents can show you lots of missing services: the borough is right now consulting on plans to squeeze the vast majority of libraries to around 540 sq ft, or the size of a Hampstead Garden Suburb living room.
But the really big change is that the new-model commissioning council is no longer a local arm of government but an agglomeration of mostly privately provided services. And the two biggest contracts, worth around £500m and lasting 10 years apiece, have gone to Capita. The £7bn FTSE 100 giant now handles everything from council tax collection to new roads.
For those who live and work in Barnet, their local affairs are now handled remotely by people hundreds of miles away, who know nothing about them or the area. Payroll for what remains of council staff is done in Belfast, while for schools it’s Carlisle. Pension queries go to Darlington. Benefits end up in Blackburn. Parking notices come from Croydon. Calls to the local library are first directed to Coventry. Even births, deaths and marriages are managed in Brent.
Got a complaint? Then you have speak to someone you’ll never see – that is, if you can speak to them at all. Capita has admitted previously “capping†phone calls: throwing callers off the line when things get too busy. So rather than rely on their local institutions, residents increasingly depend on their councillors to intercede.
A Labour councillor, Paul Edwards, has just finished a case for a woman who wanted to pay for a bench to be installed on a local hill in her parents’ name: what should have been an easy bequest ran aground on the confusion of a call centre employee who knew nothing about either the hill or how to handle such gifts. Edwards also recalls the sick woman whose council tax arrears had been overestimated by thousands – but whose outsourced case worker wasn’t interested in discussing the issue. It went to court, and the woman won, at a huge cost both to her own mental health and the council.
This is what happens when you lose locally accountable public servants. It’s also the cost of losing local expertise. Take the legal department, now run out of Harrow. The result was that in early summer, Barnet councillors were given the wrong reports to vote on. The resulting mockery led to the commissioning of an independent report that stated on its first page: “There is no one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet. Barnet employs no lawyers.â€
Yet, however broken their new structures, Barnet residents are stuck with them. Those two Capita deals, for instance, will carry on for at least the next decade, with many of their details shrouded in “commercial sensitivityâ€. Whoever locals vote for in the next two council elections, they will get Capita. And given that the local authority is now shedding its own staff, winding down its own IT systems and moving out of its offices, it’s hard to see how any new administration could take back control even if it wanted to.
The rationale for all this outsourcing is to save money – a million pounds a month, claims council leader Richard Cornelius. He rightly points out that lots of other authorities are now following Barnet’s lead: just last month, Tory-run Northamptonshire declared it would outsource 95% of its work and go down to a skeleton staff.
So, a case of cutting coats according to cloth? Two snags with that argument. First, the outsourcing proposals were first floated by local Tories even before Lehman Brothers collapsed and Britain’s crisis began. Second, these deals are always touted as saving money, and they rarely do.
Dexter Whitfield, an economist, points to Sefton, in Merseyside, which launched an outsourcing deal with Capita in 2008. It was meant to deliver £70m savings and 100 new jobs. When neither unicorn materialised, the contract was transferred back to the council last year.
Meanwhile, the costs of the outsourcing are already being felt by the likes of Tony and Janet Solomons. Their son, Benjy, has severe learning disabilities and can neither walk nor talk. He attends a local day centre, where he gets close personal attention from “excellent, remarkable†staff. But the service was outsourced a couple of years ago, with some fantasy business model.
When it promptly collapsed, careworkers were hit with a near-10% pay cut. Employees I spoke to reported “morale on the floorâ€; one former care assistant admitted to taking on two more jobs to make up the shortfall. As the Solomons point out, such cuts in service, and employees under stress, are bound to affect Benjy’s level of care.
“How will a new agency worker understand his routines, or when he wants to go to the toilet?†asks Janet. Yet Benjy can’t report back, and his parents will never know for sure what’s happened. Unknowable, unaccountable and potentially costly: a stark metaphor for Barnet’s outsourcing regime.
I also read that yesterday that Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe is driving an idea to reduce more than 30 forces in England and Wales, to create nine super-forces, based on the regional boundaries. I imagine these will be riot poice.
The police are showing interest in those attending public meetings as here at Canterbury Christ Church University.
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In reply to your specific comment megilleland regarding the current structure of UK policing. It is generally considered that a merger and reduction of the number of forces is well overdue and the same can be said for the fire service. It's been done within the ambulance service who are by far the busiest of all three emergency services.

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Be very careful what you wish for.


Whilst the official line from WMAS, is everything is great......frontline staff tell a very different story since Hereford and Worcester merged to become part of West Midlands Ambulance Service.


It's true - they are by far the busiest of the emergency services.


It's also true that many of our crews end up spending most of their shift in Birmingham. But that's OK....we are all part of the "West Midlands" network now.....well, until there's no cover left in rural Herefordshire.


This march towards regionalising absolutely everything continues unabated.....all under the guise of saving money. Call me old fashioned, but I feel saving lives should take priority.


Trust me, this could well be a ticking time bomb.


Please google "The Spectator.......Revealed. The Hidden Crisis In Britain's Ambulance Services". By Mary Wakefield.


This article,plus the hundreds of comments from frontline staff, gives a good indication of the problems this service faces. (Sorry I can't provide a handy link!)

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Well said Dip, totally agree


You mention the official line and it's the official line that needs to be challenged. Where does the official line come from?


People are not angry with local Councils because of a lack of funding from Central Government. They are angry with the likes of Cllr Johnson because he and others like him facilitate these lies that everything is working and things are better than they were before.


What would make someone peddle a myth a lie? Preservation. The Official line is not plucked from thin air it comes from people higher up the food chain wanting to protect their personal wealth and status and I am convinced they believe their own press.


I can live with a reduction in front line staff and I would gladly give up my job if I was promised every single penny saved would be spent on a child in danger, or an elderly person in need of care. What I object to is time after time I see front line staff lose their jobs under the guise of we are protection the vulnerable with the money we save. Well actually you're not because on the back of those redundancies you consistently increased your management structure. You already had too many mangers to begin with earning much more than their worth but they drew up those proposals that saw the real backbone of Councils lose their jobs and you rubber stamped it.


The next time you go reporting back to whoever wants to know that all is well and everything is better than before take a long hard look in the mirror because the only person you are concerned with is starring back it you, I hope you like what you see.

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Sadly guys I disagree. Yes it's true that some of the team do go up to Birmingham but there are many reasons for that. Having previously worked as a voluntary responder for WMAS and full-time with another the changes made a few years ago had to be made. We have had a hidden crisis in the NHS for many years but this was the right thing to do for the ambulance service. The job has changed and there WILL always be moaners as seen on Hereford Voice but trust me that in order to create an effective service this had to happen otherwise the traditional county service would have been left behind. I have mentioned before the fine service that is put in by the voluntary teams that operate within Herefordshire including the docs from MARS & BASICS some of which cut their teeth in the military. If people are worried about levels of care then please make a personal contribution and not just from the armchair. THIS COUNTY WOULD NO LONGER FUNCTION IF IT WERE NOT FOR THE SIGNIFICANT VOLUNTARY GROUPS OPERATING WITHIN IT.

I have spent thirty five years in and around the NHS and a lot of that was in operating theatres. In 1979 a consent form for an operation was one side of an A4 piece of paper whereas today it's a story because that's the way things are! Everyone has a perspective which is just fine but for me someone who has been associated with public service (NHS/Military)private service(medical companies (pre hospital emergency care) and finally voluntary service I feel I'm pretty wise to how things are basically stacking up. The WMAS service employs more people than ever with most coming in as graduates. This is not to everyone's liking but again that's just how things are. Not all paramedics like voluntary responders because they see them as job takers and a method of dealing with response times...Well that's just how things are. For me the WMAS and the front ranks do a great job and I think the other two emergency services could learn something.

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