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Bore, Ward and Capita Service Birmingham: Curiouser and Curiouser

Bore, Ward and Capita Service Birmingham: Curiouser and Curiouser

🕔15.Jan 2014

This is an extended version of a similar piece that appeared on David Bailey’s blog on the Birmingham Post in light of Albert Bore’s comments today.

One of my main criticisms of Sir Albert Bore and Ian Ward, the current Leader and current deputy leader of Birmingham City Council (BCC) respectively, has been about the lack of openness and frankness about the Capita Service Birmingham contract and the wider state of the city’s books.

As readers will know, the £120 million-a-year Service Birmingham contract is the vehicle through which Capita PLC delivers the outsourcing of BCC’s ICT, Call Centre and Billing.

The last month has done little to dispel this sense of a lack of openness and frankness. If anything, it’s got worse. Sir Albert Bore and Ian Ward have on one level been dragged kicking and screaming in to 2014, and forced by an online petition into a commitment of sorts to publish the contract at some point.

They have also publicly admitted for the first time that this contract costs £120million. That’s welcome. But on another level they have shown a quite deliberate lack of candour.

Both of these have come in the context of public consultation. Thankfully, attempts to keep the details of the contract and its spend secret did not get past the public who turned up in numbers at meetings or logged on to the consultations and asked awkward questions. It wasn’t for want of trying to keep it secret.

Sir Albert and Ian Ward have finally decided they might, at some as yet unspecified future date, publish some of the contract. You might have thought that a decision to get this into the public domain would have been accompanied with a statement accepting that the council has decided to respond to clear public concerns about transparency and have decided to meet that challenge by getting as much as possible into the public.

Instead, we got mealy-mouthed, reluctant and churlish suggestions that there had never really been a problem….what in earth was all the fuss about? ….they were always going to publish it…..in fact, it had been announced last October that they were going to publish… why even bother to have a petition?

It is actually OK to respond, even back down, under the weight of public concern. People tend to give politicians credit for this most of the time. Instead we got politics at its most adolescent.

The suggestion that there was an announcement last October this contract was going to be published stretches credibility to snapping point. There was no press briefing, and no document of public record to back this up.

As to openness about the cost of the contract, probably my biggest criticism of how this whole matter has been handled (and it has been handled amateurishly) is the attempt in the consultation documents and early public statements in the consultation by the council leadership to suggest that the Capita Service Birmingham contract was actually taking the strain of the cuts. Again, nobody actually believed that.

The document and press briefings suggest that ‘the biggest cut’ in the whole budget proposals was the intended (and still not agreed, by the way) £20million cut in the Capita Service Birmingham contract. The contract cut was expressed to be of £20million from the core contract of £50million.

I think that was the most extreme example of somewhat desperate attempts to spin like a Tasmanian devil in a spinning competition that Capita Service Birmingham had been cut drastically as part of an “all-in-this-together” strategy.

When I suggested that this little swerve away from the reality could actually put the legality of the whole consultation in danger the penny finally dropped for Bore and Ward and there then seemed to be a move by the leadership to realise that they’d better come clean.

In the New Year online webcast part of the consultation Ward for pretty much the first time put it out there that this contract really does actually cost us £120million. He promised to try to pare down costs beyond the core-contract, too – but there was no hard commitment or deal to do so.

‘A pocketful of mumbles such are promises’, as the Simon and Garfunkel classic goes.

Birmingham City Council Chief Executive Stephen Hughes ,when pressed that the contract was in the region of £120million in October on Adrian Goldberg’s BBC Radio WM programme, said that he “did not recognise those figures”. Why?

The acceptance that it would publish, and the decision to be straight about the full contract costs should have started the public consultation, not finished it. Publication of the contract should have been the first part of the consultation process. Full facts about the full spend should have been next. Instead the pretence of a massive cut to the £50million contract was what was presented first.

But two big questions remain: when will the contract be published and when will the full facts be known?

I would suggest that if this is not done by the end of this month, then the legality of the entire budget setting process (and the public consultation) is put into play. The decision about next year’s budget cannot validly be made unless the citizens of Birmingham and their elected representatives have been given the full facts about how much the council is intending to spend on this contract.

In particular, how much the council would have to pay contractually to cancel the contract and upon what notice terms MUST be made public. These cannot be redacted from the contract.

These terms are crucial to the determination by Birmingham’s citizens as to whether the council should keep or dump this contract, or cap its costs, and hence is critical to the #BrumBudget14 consultation.

And such cancellation terms cannot in any sense be regarded as a trade secret in the way that this has been interpreted and developed in case law. In particular: they do not form part of any intellectual property; they cannot be regarded as commercially confidential; no harm will be caused by their disclosure; they do not protect some legitimate economic interest; and there is no public interest in keeping these terms out of the public domain outweighing that of disclosing them. Indeed, in the context of setting a city council’s budget the opposite is the case.

The publication of the cancellation provisions and amounts would simply not adversely affect any perceived confidentiality owed at statute or common law. Failure to disclose on the basis that they do will be robustly challenged.

This is even more critical given that on 15th January, on the Radio WM Adrian Goldberg show, Bore stated for the first time that if the proposed £20m cut was not forthcoming from Capita then the Council would look at terminating the contract (all of which suggests that the £20m cut deal has been done – in which case why wait until April? Get on with it now and save £1.5m a month).

And in fact, alongside the ongoing petition, I and others will anyway be putting in a Freedom of Information request to Birmingham City Council specifically on the issue of Capita Service Birmingham cancellation costs and notice period. A failure to respond will be met by an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

We will wait to see what level of openness and transparency and with what timeliness the council publishes this contract. I welcome the step taken, but if we get a half-hearted, reluctant and obstructive publication, people will spot it immediately.

Sir Albert and Ian Ward are in danger of remaining in a world which has disappeared. In 2014, politicians really can no longer hide information away and ask the people to trust them.

Citizens demand openness and demand that politicians are accountable not just at the ballot box but in the transparency of the information they give to them day-to-day.

Around 330 people have signed the petition calling for the Capita Service Birmingham contract to be made public. It can be found here.

Professor David Bailey works at the Aston Business School in Birmingham and has written widely on corporate accountability.

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