A really bold decision was made by Conservative-run Barnet Council's Cabinet last night to contract out the running of an array of council services – such as payroll, information technology, HR and the call centre. The ten year contract with Capita will save £120 million.
The decision is being opposed by the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, a front organisation for various trade unions. The campaign is misnamed. If the council were not achieving these substantial savings on admin then it would be front line public services that would suffer.
Naturally the unions have yet to come up with an alternative way of saving £12 million a year. Nor are they likely to. They retain an objection to any staffing reductions at the Town Hall, a position divorced from financial reality. All they can do is waste Council Taxpayers money with a Judicial Review – meaning less money for the Public Services and more for wealthy lawyers.
The Labour Party, following their paymasters, oppose the contracting out. They say it is a "huge risk" and there is "no guarantee" of savings. The contractual safeguards look pretty robust to me. But let's hear Labour' alternative for achieving the same level of savings that would be guaranteed free of risk.
It is important to emphasise that the new arrangements mean not only requirements to save money but to improve services. New technology (costing Capita £8 million) will enable residents to see and manage all of their interactions with the Council’s customer services in one place.
There will be better treatment of vulnerable people to ensure their requests are responded to "without repeat contacts being needed." A more sophisticated approach will allow the needs of individuals to be catered for.
Schools will be able to find out more information themselves without having to make a special request. By charging schools less for council services there will be more money to spend in the classroom.
Inefficiency does not just waste money it also means frustration for residents trying to use council services.
Labour claim the deal is "the end of democracy" but the changes will give councillors more information and greater power to check performance targets are being met. What if Labour win in 2014 and the Red Flag flys over Finchley and Totteridge? They object that they would be stuck with the Capita contract which would be an obstacle for them in implementing their alternative plan (if they had one.) But if this is an issue of principle would the same argument apply if it was a five year contract covering half as many services? Should no local authority be able to sign a contract extending beyond its next elections?
Certainly Barnet Council have made mistakes. The Conservatives lost a council byelection there after putting up parking charges. There have been slip ups over councillor allowances, efforts to restrict hostile bloggers and various difficulties with Cllr Brian Coleman (whom I always judge leniently for his pioneering work getting rid of humps.)
But last night was a big decision which the council got right. Those who sniping without offering an alternative do not have credibility. The Council leader Cllr Richard Cornelius is to be congratulated for safeguarding the future of his borough.