By Tony Collins
Somerset County Council has settled a High Court legal dispute with IBM-led Southwest One. It will bring some services back in-house.
The Conservative leader of Somerset council John Osman said, “This agreement will save Somerset residents millions of pounds and will make the contract fit for the future.”
Osman added that the agreement involves settlement of Southwest One fees, which the council had been withholding, for a mutually- agreed sum.
“Most importantly the cancelling of the gainshare agreement will save Somerset County Council residents millions of pounds in the future as those sums can now be kept by the Council,” said Osman.
But as the deal includes payment of an undisclosed sum by the council to Southwest One it is unclear which side is the beneficiary in the dispute. [See Dave Orr comment on this post.]
The council says the settlement will bring benefits for the council including securing “greater strategic control and capacity back with SCC in terms of Procurement, Property and ICT”.
The agreement also “removes some barriers to ensure successful delivery of our Change Programme – with greater alignment to the operating model, commissioning capacity, service reviews, and technology enablers.”
And the settlement allows officers to focus on improving services rather than on a series of disputes.
Southwest One had issued a writ against the council – what the authority calls a “substantial claim” – and a date for a High Court hearing was set provisionally for November 2013. Yesterday [March 27 2013] the council agreed to settle the High Court claim, and an unspecified number of other disputes.
IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council, and Avon and Somerset Police set up Southwest One as a joint venture company in 2007. IBM owns 75% of the company.
Somerset’s officers said in a report yesterday:
“Following a series of discussions between the Council and Southwest One we are now in a position to settle the disputes and the Procurement legal proceedings against SCC will cease.
“The agreement includes a settlement payment to SWO which is substantially lower than the claim against SCC and releases payments to SWO that were held by SCC as part of the dispute.”
Somerset County Council will take back several services and about 100 people who had been seconded to Southwest One. The council says that taking back staff and services will “reduce the potential for further disputes and align those services much closer to the operating model the Council has adopted”.
Services returning to SCC include:
• Strategic and Operational Procurement
• Property Services
• Estates Management
• ICT Strategic Management including some web management posts
• Some business support posts for the above functions
The council says there will be little change in day to day activities and no changes to locations of staff. Somerset’s staff will have their secondments terminated and revert to the council’s terms and conditions.
The High Court action was because of a disagreement about the quality of Southwest One’s procurement service and what payments Southwest One was entitled to as a result of savings made through the joint venture.
Whereas a High Court hearing would have been open to the public, the sum paid by Somerset to IBM as part of the settlement, and the risks of bringing staff and services back in-house, are being kept confidential because of what the council calls “commercial sensitivity”.
Some of the settlement’s main risks for the council are listed in yesterday’s report:
• The confidential nature of the discussions held to secure an agreement has
meant that full consultation with a wide range of officers and partners has not
• The transfers of staff and functions will take place during the new financial
year. The proposed transfers create some risk due to SAP changes required.
• There will be some risks in the hand-over of programmes of work.
• Despite all efforts to mitigate risks to services, it is possible that some
disruption may occur. Transition workshops are planned to identify and preempt such instances, which significantly reduces the risk.
• Implications for partners have also been estimated. It is possible that partners
may take a different view of the implications for them.
Osman blamed the previous Liberal Democrat administration for the problems which he said were owing to the way the contract was worded, the actions of the previous Lib Dem administration transferring services to Southwest One that should never have transferred and the failure to clarify the savings sharing element of the agreement. Osman said this was the “equivalent of the Lib Dems writing a blank cheque”.
The 10-year joint venture, which started in 2007, will continue.
As the terms of the settlement and the risks associated with transferring staff and services back in-house are being kept secret nobody outside an inner circle of the council can know how bad the joint venture and the dispute have been for Somerset council’s taxpayers.
If anything is clear it is that IBM held the dominant legal hand all along. It issued a High Court claim, and now it has received a payment from the council.
It seems to be a feature of big council outsourcing deals and joint ventures that councillors are easily swayed by promises of enormous savings, often upfront savings, and are not too concerned about the risk of things going wrong because they won’t be in office when or if any mud hits the fan.
Yesterday Cornwall Council’s Interim CEO, along with the Chairman of Cornwall Partnership Foundation Trust and the Director of Finance at Peninsula Community Health signed a contract for a joint venture with BT.
As Andrew Wallis, an independent councillor in Cornwall, says
“Lets hope the Council does not regret this day.”
The Southwest One joint venture was flawed joint venture from the time a rushed contract riddled with literals was signed in the early hours of a Saturday morning in 2007. For years afterwards, Somerset Council has been trying to dig itself out of a hole. It is now near the surface – except that yesterday’s council report says there is a potential for further disputes.
Will other councils learn from Somerset’s experiences? Cornwall’s deal shows that any learning will be very limited.
And the secrecy that tends to go with big outsourcing deals and joint ventures means that a small group of councillors can sign joint ventures and outsourcing contracts without proper accountability - and can settle any legal disputes later without accountability, and indeed with impunity.
Whenever a major supplier offers a council large upfront savings from an outsourcing deal or a joint venture why would the authority’s inner circle of councillors say no?
Thank you to campaigning Somerset resident and former county council employee Dave Orr who provided the links and information that made this post possible.