Councillors in Hammersmith & Fulham had little alternative but to look for other arrangements following grotesque failings in some of the back office tri-borough workings, for which Westminster was the lead borough. From the start of tri-borough, Westminster took charge of an attempt to run all three councils’ routine billing and staff hours, pay and pensions administration through one contract.
Westminster Council gave the contract to BT in January 2013 telling everyone that it would save £30m and other councils would be asking to join in. At that point Westminster expected the contract to commence across the three boroughs in November 2013 (for HR) and March 2014 (for finance) and go live soon after.
It didn’t. The contract actually went live in April 2015. The reason for the delay, and what happened after the contract did go live, are unfortunately covered by strict rules about commercial confidentiality. It is however in the public domain that Westminster Council’s Audit and Performance committee held eight extraordinary meetings over this one contract (all in private sessions). Links to the minutes:
3 November 2015: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g3899/Printed%20minutes%2003rd-Nov-2015%2019.00%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
10 December 2015: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g3935/Printed%20minutes%2010th-Dec-2015%2018.30%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
12 January 2016: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g4044/Printed%20minutes%2012th-Jan-2016%2018.30%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
11 February 2016: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g4045/Printed%20minutes%2011th-Feb-2016%2018.45%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
2 June 2016: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g4063/Printed%20minutes%2002nd-Jun-2016%2018.30%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
22 September 2016: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g4150/Printed%20minutes%2022nd-Sep-2016%2018.30%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
16 November 2016: http://committees.westminster.gov.uk/documents/g4162/Printed%20minutes%2016th-Nov-2016%2018.30%20Audit%20and%20Performance%20Committee.pdf?T=1
31 January 2017 (an unofficial meeting)
The Audit and Performance committee has never previously held a special meeting over a single contract. Problems with the contract were reported to Hammersmith & Fulham’s Finance policy and accountability committee, and audit committee, which also held a special meeting on 13 January 2016 (http://democracy.lbhf.gov.uk/documents/g4834/Printed%20minutes%2013th-Jan-2016%2019.00%20Audit%20Pensions%20and%20Standards%20Committee.pdf?T=1); agendas for Kensington & Chelsea’s Audit and Transparency committee also show Managed Services frequently being reported in private session.
The LBHF annual accounts notes the production of a “Managed Services Risk report” in June 2015, a “Managed Services Programme update” in September 2015, and four documents in January 2016: the “Managed Services Lessons Learned review”, “LBHF comments on the Lessons Learned review”, a “Managed Services Outstanding Audit Recommendations report” and a “Managed Services Gate Exit report”. Leader Stephen Cowan comments on the programme on page 114: https://www.lbhf.gov.uk/sites/default/files/section_attachments/statement_of_accounts_2015-16.pdf
These issues came after problems with the home to school transport contract for children with special needs, also organised by Westminster: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/26/dangers-to-disabled-children-of-low-cost-specialist-transport. No wonder Hammersmith & Fulham Council started exploring other solutions.
But the reaction of leading Westminster Conservatives to the problems can be judged from a private presentation to the Conservative group in January 2017, which was leaked. Councillors were told that the council would be “stabilising and optimising the Managed Services Programme”, which would “eliminate waste and inefficiency”. An update to a Scrutiny committee earlier this month blithely spoke of “concerns surrounding the delivery of the payroll and pensions recovery plan”.
Councillor David Boothroyd, Labour Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance said:
“Westminster has been done in by its own hype. Starting off with sensible proposals to share back-office staff and integrate services with neighbouring councils, they let a grand vision take priority over the practical. It’s no good telling everyone you’ve instituted a revolution in local government if you forget to pay your suppliers and children can’t get to school on time. Westminster Council has indulged in this sort of grandiosity before; perhaps next time, someone will say “Let’s just keep it simple”.”