By Tony Collins
Liverpool Direct Ltd describes itself as the largest public/private partnership of its kind in the UK. BT and Liverpool City Council formed the joint venture in 2001. At one point it employed more than 1,300 people.
Last year the joint venture had a visit from Prince Edward who met its apprentices and trainees.
Now Liverpool City Council is taking full ownership of the joint venture. BT is handing back its 60% share in Liverpool Direct to the council. But the way the dissolution is being handled is like a theatre compere smiling exaggeratedly at the audience while he pushes off stage a performer who has overstayed his welcome.
Indeed the council’s report on why BT is being pushed out has an oversized grin on every page. Too much self-conscious praise for BT, perhaps. Which may show how political outsourcing deals have become.
This is the first sentence of the council’s report on why the joint venture with BT is ending:
“BT and Liverpool City Council have enjoyed a long and successful partnership through the joint venture company Liverpool Direct Limited.”
“The ethos of the Partnership was to place the ‘customer at the heart’ of the organisation through the development of innovative new ways of working building on BT’s global brand and reputation.”
There’s much more praise for BT. From the council’s report:
Groundbreaking achievements have included:
- Establishment of the first ever 24x7x365 local government contact centre including a call centre which is top quartile
- The only ‘Benefits Plus’ service in the UK.
- A comprehensive and integrated network of One Stop Shops serving 350,000 visitors each year.
- First class ICT infrastructure.
- Creation of 300 new jobs supporting 3nd party business won by LDL.
But there’s a give-away line in one of the sets of bullet points on some of the benefits of the partnership. In 2011 came a refresh of the 10 year-old deal. The benefits of the refresh:
- Further price reduction of £22.5m.
- Increased share of third party business. Potential investment of £17m.
- Continued sponsorship of ( e.g. BT Convention Centre 2012-2017)
- The ‘write off’ by both parties of potential legal claims against Liverpool City Council estimated by BT of approximately £56m.
- Increased ownership level from 20% to 40% in favour of the council.
Spot the anomaly – a write-of legal claims against each other of £56m? So the partnership wasn’t quite so wonderful. But that was 2011. Why is the council now pushing out BT from the Liverpool Direct joint venture – what the council calls officially “The Way Forward”?
Amid all the praise for BT it is not easy to see at first glance why Liverpool Direct is being taken into the council’s full ownership. It turns out that austerity is the reason. The council needs to make more cuts than BT is willing to make, and it recognises that BT needs to make a profit. Which raises the question of whether the council was willing to pay BT a decent profit during bountiful times until cuts began to bite.
From Liverpool Council’s report:
“In the early Autumn of 2013, both parties were in active discussions in an effort to resolve the serious financial savings Liverpool City Council needed to make between 2014 and 2017.
“As a result of these discussions and negotiations, BT agreed a further price reduction of £5m contribution to the budget process for 2014/15 together with a further £5m for the following financial year.
“Whilst the Council really appreciated BT’s continued commitment to the city, the current budget deficit would require a far more substantive financial contribution from the Contract both for 2014/15 and for future years.
“Unfortunately BT feels unable to commit to any further price reduction within the Contract as they need to sustain their own financial position. Moreover, the City Council is now well placed, as a result of the long collaboration with BT and the learning gained from the Partnership, to continue to drive forward business transformation and run the services with consequent cost savings to the city.”
The result is that negotiations will continue with a view to transferring BT’s 60% share in Liverpool Direct to the council by 31 March 2014; and the good news doesn’t stop there.
“The City Council and BT both believe that the transfer will enable additional savings to flow to the council including all income from third party contracts.
“BT remains committed to serving residents and businesses in Liverpool and its long and successful relationship with Liverpool City Council will carry on with BT continuing to provide a range of services to the council. During negotiations in late 2013 BT announced it plans to recruit a further 240 staff in Liverpool to support the growth of high-speed broadband services and has recently committed to being a major sponsor of the 2014 International Festival of Business.”
A dark side?
Behind the smiles Liverpool City Council has, it seems, an unusually secretive side. Richard Kemp CBE has been a member of Liverpool City Council for 30 years having held major portfolios in both control and opposition. He is leader of the Liberal Democrats on the Council. He was Vice Chair of the Local Government Association of England & Wales for more than 6 years.
He says on his blog that has “taken the very unusual step of asking for two independent enquiries into activities of Liverpool City Council”. He adds: “The cases are related and refer to the tangled web of relationships which surround the Liverpool/Liverpool Direct Ltd/Lancashire/One Call Ltd/BT activities.
“In the first instance I have asked that the Lancashire Police extend their Lancashire investigation into Liverpool. In the second I have asked the Information Commissioner to look at the appalling record of the council in responding to freedom of information requests about any matter relating to Liverpool Direct Ltd.”
He says the council has an excellent record of responding to FOI requests – except when it comes to LDL. “When I raised this with the Mayor at the Mayoral Select Committee I didn’t get any answers …”
He also says:
“I find it amazing that I have been told that no contract exists between Liverpool, Lancashire and BT only to find that there is a legal agreement! As a layman I am unclear as to what the difference is between these two positions.
“We now need external scrutiny and investigation to examine these tangled relationships and work out not only who agreed what and when but also whether Liverpool and Lancashire tax payers are getting value for money for this deal.
“In a system where there is no internal scrutiny, Liverpool Labour members have to ask permission to raise issues in the scrutiny process, I feel that I have no alternative but to ask for help in looking at these affairs outside the council.
“In my career I have not only been a councillor for a long time but also asked to work in other councils which were in severe difficulties with their governance structures. Liverpool feels as bad as any council that I have worked in. There is no clear definition of Member and Officer roles.
“ No effective challenges exist within the system and a centralised almost Stalinist decision-making process pertains … I hope that these external investigations will take place and then that they force change in this secretive and opaque council.”
A local paper, the Liverpool Echo, has also been investigating the council and its deal with BT.
It says the deal “has been dogged by accusations of infighting between BT and the Council, after top QCs were brought in to settle disputes over how much work would be awarded to LDL under the terms of its contract”.
An internal council report obtained by the Echo before agreement for the contract refresh in 2011 “showed the it took place amid the threat of costly legal claims by BT if city bosses pulled the plug and did not stay in partnership with them until 2017”.
Private/public deals too secretive – MPs today
A report by the Public Accounts Committee published today Private Contractors and Public Spending says private and public partnerships are too secretive – and they lie largely outside the FOI Act. Indeed a BBC File on 4 investigation into the growing influence of accountancy companies such as Capita in public life reached similar conclusions. File on 4 suggested that even if the contract between Service Birmingham, Capita and Birmingham City Council were published in full it could prove impenetrably complicated.
Margaret Hodge MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Commitee, said today:
“There is a lack of transparency and openness around Government’s contracts with private providers, with ‘commercial confidentiality’ frequently invoked as an excuse to withhold information.
“It is vital that Parliament and the public are able to follow the taxpayers’ pound to ensure value for money. So, today we are calling for three basic transparency measures:
– the extension of Freedom of Information to public contracts with private providers;
– access rights for the National Audit Office; and
– a requirement for contractors to open their books up to scrutiny by officials.
It’s remarkable how council outsourcing deals are becoming more cabalistic despite many initiatives toward more open government.
It’s a pity that things have reached a point where Richard Kemp, a Liverpool councillor of 30 years, ends up reporting his authority to the police and the Information Commissioner.
Meanwhile Liverpool City Council, which is one of the most self-image-protecting authorities in the UK, ends a long-standing joint venture with BT by giving the supplier nothing but praise – in public.
Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally, either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Clearly that’s not happening properly in Liverpool – or some other parts of local government.