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Barnet council’s mass outsourcing plan and the perils of privatisation

Update 18 November: PLEASE NOTE VENUE CHANGE for tomorrow's screening of The Billion Pound Gamble, the new film about cuts and privatisation at Barnet council. The film will now screen at: Palace of Westminster, Committee Room 12, House of Commons. Same time: 6.30 for a 7pm start. Full details here.

Update 15 November: Disabled Barnet resident Susan Sullivan and her father John are seeking a judicial review of the One Barnet privatisation plan. John Sullivan explains the family's reasons in a video interview here. The family will also attend Monday's screening of The Billion Pound Gamble to talk about their bid for a legal challenge and their concerns for Barnet services.

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A history of the fight against Barnet council's mass outsourcing plan and the problems with privatistion:

Big, bad privatisation plans and failed private-public projects have caused near-meltdowns at Cornwall and Somerset councils in recent times, but that hasn't stopped Tory Barnet council from storming towards oblivion with a plan called One Barnet. One Barnet is a deeply unpopular proposal to outsource swathes of council services which has brought the council to its knees before it has even begun.

With just a few weeks left before the first major One Barnet contract is decided, this post looks at the controversy and a bit of Barnet council's outsourcing history.

Protestor at Fremantle strike rally 2007Photo: a protestor at a march and rally for Fremantle careworkers, 2007 (By @skinnyvoice)

I first became aware of the problems faced by people who were on the rough end of Barnet council's privatisation deals in 2007.

That was when I started to spend Wednesday evenings at union shop meetings held by Barnet careworkers whose lives had been wrecked by outsourcing.

The careworkers were a group of low-paid staff (mostly women) who were in the middle of a bitter industrial dispute with the Fremantle Trust (a partner of Catalyst Housing) - the so-called not-for-profit organisation to which Barnet council had outsourced care for elderly people.

Earlier that year, the Trust had slaughtered the careworkers' salaries and terms of employment. Their wages and working conditions had (supposedly) been protected when the council privatised care and TUPE-transferred staff to their new, outsourced employer - “they said it was all going to be super duper and we were going to be fine,” careworker Carmel Reynolds told me in 2007 – but in December 2006, the Trust made its move.

Staff were presented with a harsh new employment contract and told that anyone who refused to sign it by April 2007 would be sacked. With the new contract, the Trust cut careworkers' annual leave allowances and reduced their sick leave to a statutory minimum. Worst of all was the abolishing of the weekend enhancement payments that many careworkers relied on to make up a reasonable wage. Barnet Unison estimated that after those cuts, some careworkers lost 30% of their pay.

When they complained, staff were told by management that they could make up their lost pay by working extra shifts. 'I said [to management] - how do you expect us to be able to cope [with these cuts]? What [management] said is that you have to do extra hours to make up your pay. But what about the quality of our daily life?'' said careworker Lango Gamanga in 2007.

The truly appalling part of all this, though - the part should not be forgotten in light of Barnet's current outsourcing quest and claims that One Barnet will save money and deliver good-quality services - was the revelation, late in 2007, that the cuts to the careworkers' salaries and conditions had very possibly been for nothing.

In a 6 December 2007 cabinet resources committee report, the council admitted that the "high profile" change (the careworkers' much-publicised industrial dispute over the new contract) had not helped Catalyst blunt financial losses and that those losses presented “an ongoing and increasing budget risk to the council.” Catalyst lodged a claim for further funds from the council – and was ultimately awarded £8m in arbitration. So. The moral of this grim tale is that outsourcing often goes arse-over for everyone involved, except those selling it. Don't take my word for it - here's a list of outsourcing catastrophes for you to read and weep over. The point in this post is that the Fremantle-Catalyst endeavour was a Barnet council debacle to beat the band.

One Barnet

Unfortunately, that experience has not deterred Barnet council from pursuing new and even bigger potential outsourcing disasters.

As we speak, the council nears a decision on that now-infamous (even before it is launched - not a good sign) One Barnet project – an amazingly unpopular plan to pay private companies the best part of £1bn to provide a mass of council services. There's £275m up for grabs for development and regulatory services and a whopping £750m for a new, if ill-defined, support and customer services “organisation” from which services like council estates, finance, human resources, IT and revenues and benefits will, allegedly, spring.

In the face of monumental opposition from residents, five legendary local bloggers, an extremely motivated and informed union branch secretary and council staff and union members, the council will, on December 6, decide which (very lucky) private company will win the £750m contract. The second contract will be awarded in January.

The scale of the proposed private sector entanglement terrifies people. Recent scandals like the G4S Olympic security failure demonstrated a) how spectacularly private companies can fail to meet obligations and b) that in the end, when this crap gets really serious, you need the public sector to come in and clean it up.

And One Barnet could be a very messy pile indeed. Estimates are that 70% of the council's services could be tied up in ten-year contracts with the private sector if One Barnet gets the green light. Unison expects hundreds of job losses as a result of outsourcing and “efficiency savings” - the sort of numbers that can only have a negative impact on services.

Pointed questions have also been asked about Barnet's ability to keep a grip on all or even some of its relationships and contracts with private companies. I've already talked about the Fremantle-Catalyst wreck. Last year, there was another scandal, when Barnet bloggers revealed that the council had spent more more than £1m to hire a private security firm company called MetPro. The council engaged the firm without putting the contract out to tender, or running basic security and financial checks (not long after, the company went bust).

I had the pleasure of that firm myself at a very feisty (ie full of pissed-off locals being denied the right to attend the meeting by overzealous private security guards) 2011 Barnet council budget cuts meeting. Security guards confiscated our laptops and cameras, bullied people who wanted to sit in on the public council meeting and overrode police decisions to let members of the public into chambers. The report into that scandal found serious risks in the council's contracting and monitoring arrangements, which didn't bode particularly well for a council that was looking to get into contracting on the major scale, or the taxpayers who'll have to cough up for it.

So.

There are just a few weeks left before Barnet council decides on that first major One Barnet contract. The council could hardly be in worse shape for it. Chief Executive Nick Walkley resigned at the beginning of October. The jury's still out on the reasons for that one - depending who you talk to, Walkley's departure was either a great career move, or a running jump off the sinking ship (the two probably go hand in hand).

Then, a week or so ago, council leader Richard Cornelius faced a no-confidence vote.  Then controversial (many other words work as well) councillor Brian Coleman publicly slammed One Barnet as an “officer-driven juggernaut” and a turkey which needed to be lined up Christmas. Only this week, a disabled woman has started legal proceedings against the council, saying that One Barnet does not give due regard to the needs of disabled people. Just last night, the fabulous Mr Mustard published the impressive (as in size - it's nearly 60 pages long) One Barnet risk register. He told me on twitter that it *only* took him ten months to get it.

And if you think Cornelius has lost control now – just wait until he signs off on this thing. There won't be many people looking to make it work.

On Monday in London, there will be a screening of The Billion Pound Gamble: a documentary which explains the privatisation plan and the impact that Barnet council cuts are having on people's lives.

And here is a fabulous short animation that Barnet residents made recently to explain One Barnet and the many problems with privatisation:

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.

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