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Are you happy paying to help with problem Capita contract?

By Tony Collins

This week, as Barnet residents go to the polls, how many will be influenced by the continuing national and local media coverage of the council’s mass outsourcing deal with Capita?

Barnet’s Capita contracts are a local election issue. The council’s conservatives and Capita say the outsourcing contracts have saved money and are performing as expected “in many areas”.

But a former local Tory councillor Sury Khatri , who has been deselected after criticising the Capita contract, described the deal as “disastrous”. Barnet has paid Capita £327m since the deals were signed in 2013. Capita runs council services that range from cemeteries to IT.

Councillor Khatri said,  “My time at the council has been overshadowed by the disastrous Capita contract that is falling apart at the seams. Four years on, issues still keep rolling out of the woodwork. This contract represents poor value for money, and the residents are being fleeced.”

Another critic of the Capita contracts is John Dix who blogs as “Mr Reasonable” and is one of several highly respected local bloggers. He has been studying the council’s accounts for some years. He runs a small business and is comfortable with accounts and balance sheets.

He writes,

“I have no problem with outsourcing so long as it is being done for the right reasons. Typically this is where it involves very specialist, non core activities where technical expertise may be difficult to secure and retain in house.

“In Barnet’s case this outsourcing programme covered so many services which were core to the running of the council and which in 2010 were rated as 4 star (good). Barnet has been an experiment in mass outsourcing and almost five years in, it appears to be a failure.

“Last night’s [19 April 2018] audit committee was a litany of service problems, system failures, lack of controls, under performance, a major fraud. Internal audit saying issues were a problem, Capita saying they weren’t.”

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has entered the debate. He has applauded Barnet’s Unison branch for its enduring, close scrutiny of the Capita contracts. Unison this week published a report on the deal.

Capita’s share price rises

Earlier this month the national press reported extensively on concerns that Capita would follow Carillion into liquidation.

Since the bad publicity, the company’s announcement of a pre-tax loss of £535m, up from £90m the previous year, £1.2bn of debt and a rights issue to raise £662m after fees by selling new shares at a discount, Capita’s share price has risen steadily, from a low a month ago of about 130p to about 191 yesterday.

Could it be that investors sense that Capita’s long-term future is secure: the company has a wide range of complex and impenetrable public sector contracts where history shows that public sector clients – ruling politicians and officials – will defend Capita more enthusiastically than Capita itself, whatever the facts?

A list of some of Capita’s problem contracts is below the comment.

Comment

Carillion, a facilities management and construction company, collapsed in part because the effects of its failures were usually obvious: it was desperately short of money and new roads and hospitals were left unfinished.

When IT-based outsourcing deals go wrong, the effects are usually more nuanced. Losses can be hidden in balance sheets that can be interpreted in different ways; and when clients’ employees go unpaid, or the army’s Defence Recruiting System has glitches or medical records are lost, the problems will almost always be officially described as teething even if, as in Capita’s NHS contracts, they last for years.

It is spin that rules and protects IT outsourcing contracts in the public sector. Spin hides what’s really going on. It is as integral as projected savings and key performance indicators.

When Somerset County Council signed a mass outsourcing deal with IBM, its ruling councillors boasted of huge savings. When the deal went wrong and was ended early after a legal dispute with IBM the council announced that bringing the deal in-house would bring large savings: savings either way. Liverpool council said the same thing when it outsourced to BT – setting up a joint venture called Liverpool Direct – and brought services back-in house: savings each time.

Barnet Council is still claiming savings while the council’s auditors are struggling to find them.

Spinmeisters know there is rarely any such thing as a failed public sector IT contract: the worst failures are simply in transition from failure to success. Barnet’s council taxpayers will never know the full truth, whoever is in power.

Even when a council goes bust, the truth is disputed. Critics of spending at Northamptonshire County Council, which has gone bust, blame secretive and dysfunctional management. Officials, ruling councillors and even the National Audit Office blame underfunding.

In March The Times reported that Northamptonshire had paid almost £1m to a consultancy owned by its former chief executive. It also reported that the council’s former director of people, transformation and transactions for services, was re-hired on a one-year contract that made her company £185,000 within days of being made redundant in 2016.  Her firm was awarded a £650-a-day IT contract that was not advertised.

In the same month, the National Audit Office put Northamptonshire’s difficulties down to underfunding. It conceded that the “precise causes of Northamptonshire’s financial difficulties are not as yet clear”.

Perhaps it’s only investors in Capita who will really know the truth: that the full truth on complex public sector contracts in which IT is central will rarely, if ever, emerge; and although Capita has internal accountability for failures – bonuses, the share price and jobs can be affected – there is no reason for anyone in the public sector to fear failure. No jobs are ever affected. Why not sign a few more big outsourcing deals, for good or ill?

Thank you to FOI campaigners David Orr and Andrew Rowson for information that helped me write this post.

Some of Capita’s problem contracts

There is no definitive list of Capita’s problem contracts. Indeed the Institute for Government’s Associate Director Nick Davies says that poor quality of contract data means the government “doesn’t have a clear picture of who it is buying from and what it is buying”. Here, nevertheless, is a list of some of Capita’s problem contracts in the public sector:

Barnet Council

A Capita spokesperson said: “The partnership between Capita and Barnet Council is performing as expected in many areas. We continue to work closely with the council to make service enhancements as required.”

Birmingham City Council

“The new deal will deliver a mix of services currently provided under the joint venture, plus project based work aimed at providing extra savings, with forecasts of £10 million of savings in the current financial year and £43 million by 2020-21.”

West Sussex County Council

A spokesman said, “Whatever your concerns and small hiccups along the way, I believe this contract has been and will continue to be of great benefit to this county council.”

Hounslow Council

A Capita spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the London Borough of Hounslow to ensure a smooth transition of the pensions administration service to a new provider.”

Breckland Council

“They concluded that planning officers, working for outsourcing company Capita, had misinterpreted a policy, known as DC11, which dictates the amount of outdoor playing space required for a development..”

Army

Mark Francois, a Conservative former defence minister,  said Capita was known “universally in the army as Crapita”. But Capita said in a statement,

“Capita is trusted by multiple private and public clients to deliver technology-led customer and business process services, as demonstrated by recent wins and contract extensions from clients including British Gas, Royal Mail, BBC, TfL Networks, M&S and VW.”

Electronic tagging

(but it’s alright now)

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “As the National Audit Office makes clear, there were challenges in the delivery of the electronic monitoring programme between 2010 and 2015…

“As a direct result, we fundamentally changed our approach in 2015, expanding and strengthening our commercial teams and bringing responsibility for oversight of the programme in-house.

“We are now in a strong position to continue improving confidence in the new service and providing better value for money for the taxpayer.”

Disability benefits

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said, “Assessments work for the majority of people, with 83 per cent of ESA claimants and 76 per cent of PIP claimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience…”

Miners

A Capita spokesperson said: “This issue has been resolved and all members affected will shortly receive letters to advise that they do not need to take any action. We sincerely apologise for any concern and inconvenience this has caused.”

NHS

Opticians

Dentists

BBC licence fee

Windrush

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Capita adds 500 staff to boost recovery on “unacceptable” NHS contract

By Tony Collins

nicola-blackwoodNicola Blackwood, minister for public health and innovation at the Department of Health, yesterday described failings on Capita’s GP support services contract as “entirely unacceptable”.

Blackwood told MPs at an adjournment debate on failures relating to Capita’s £1bn Primary Care Support England contract,

“It was always clear that Capita’s services needed to be at least as good as those that they replaced… Capita put forward the most credible of any of the bids accepted on the short list, and at the time both the Department and NHS England had every confidence that the programme would be a success.

“However, it is evident that Capita was inadequately prepared for delivering this complex transition.”

Under its contract with NHS England, Capita is responsible for providing GP medical supplies such as needles and syringes, transferring medical records when patients switch GPs, payments to GPs and “performers list” applications.

Capita won the “Primary Care Support England” contract in 2015, amid unheeded warnings from some GPs that the private sector would be unable to successfully deliver the complexity of support services to GPs that were being provided by the NHS.

Blackwood said yesterday that MPs were “right to be concerned that the service provided by Capita under the primary care support services contract … has so far fallen well short of the standards that we expect, and GPs have borne the brunt of these failings, as we have heard today”.

She added,

“We need to make sure that GPs and their patients receive the service to which they are entitled.

“We want to restore acceptable services, and the contract contains sufficient financial incentives to ensure that Capita shares that goal, which is an important part of the contract and process.

“Let us be clear that the problems encountered with medical record transfers [in which thousands of records have gone missing, says the BBC] and overdue payments are entirely unacceptable. The Department shares that view.

“Both Capita and NHS England are co-operating fully with the Information Commissioner’s Office in order to address the implications for information governance, and I accept the need for urgent action in order to address the impact that this is having on patients and practitioners.

“That is why I have been holding regular meetings with Capita’s chief executive for integrated services, Joe Hemming, its new managing director for primary care support, Simon England, and NHS England’s national director for transformation and corporate operations, Karen Wheeler, and I will continue to hold such meetings.

“Both NHS England and Capita openly acknowledge that the service has not so far been good enough.

“NHS England has demanded and received rectification plans from Capita for the six most affected service lines, and has embedded a team of seven experts within Capita to support it as it resolves these issues…

“… it is also about having the right resources in the right place at the right time. Capita has informed me that it is adding around 500 more full-time equivalent staff to the service, at its cost, and that it is improving the training provided to ensure that new staff understand the importance of the service to both patients and practitioners.”

The minster denied that patients had been harmed (by GPs not having patient records).

“I know that these problems have caused great inconvenience and distress, but with reference to risk NHS England has assured me that it is not aware of any direct cases of patient harm that can be attributed to service issues.

“However, NHS England is working closely with regional and local medical directors so that we can be assured of patient safety. In particular, Dr Raj Patel, medical director of NHS England Greater Manchester, has joined the embedded team to ensure that clinical risks and concerns are appropriately addressed.

Backlogs

“The priority now is to deal with any backlogs, particularly with medical record requests, and to ensure that services are stabilised with the capacity to deal properly with new requests.

” There has been progress on that, which is encouraging. The backlog of medical record requests has reduced from 17,262 to 3,465 in the past two weeks. Capita assures me that it has an effective triage system in operation for new requests and is confident that the situate”ion will not recur. However, I will be monitoring the situation closely.”

Shortage of supplies

Blackwood continued,

“I am aware that some GPs were left short of basic supplies as a result, including syringes, and that they have had to source those from other suppliers at their own expense.

“NHS England tells me that it has reimbursed practices for any costs incurred from having to buy local supplies of needles and syringes.

Contact centre shortcomings

“I know that many of the members’ GP constituents have experienced frustration with Capita’s contact centre. I share those frustrations.

“Capita assures me that the contact centre has improved the way it responds to urgent queries by investing in more staff, improved processes and enhanced training. Capita is confident that these measures will deliver a quality service to customers. We will monitor its progress closely, including through meetings.

Late payments – compensation?

“I recognise that GPs, and ophthalmologists in particular, have suffered financial detriment as a result of late processing of payments.

“NHS England is working with Capita to explore what can be done to support affected stakeholders, and I have made it clear to Capita that I expect it to consider compensation as an option.”

Absence of medical records

Another Coventry MP Colleen Fletcher said that people who have requested a copy of a late relative’s medical records from the primary care support service have had to wait for more than twice the maximum 40 days that it should take to process such a request.

“It is utterly unacceptable to put anyone through that kind of delay, but it is inexcusable for it to happen to anyone who is already in an extremely vulnerable position following the death of a relative.”

New charges to the public for medical records

Geoffrey Robinson said,

“I have nothing against the private sector making profits—I am all for it—but the irony is that the companies cannot make a profit from a proper service, so they turn to such measures as imposing a £40 charge for access to a deceased relative’s records …

“They do not have to impose that charge. I think it used to be left to the GP’s discretion — but they now insist on it, and people have to pay postage and delivery charges on top, which is a disgraceful pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of the people they are meant to serve.”

Reinstate the old NHS support service?

Blackwood said,

“Some have suggested that the old model for provision of primary care support should be reinstated, but we must remember that it relied on localised services that did not connect with one another, with much duplication across processes.

“The quality of these services varied greatly—in some areas, it was outstanding; in others, it was quite poor. That was simply unsustainable.

“Furthermore, the system was unable to generate useful management information and so, honestly, issues such as the ones that we now face would be very unlikely to have surfaced. They would have gone unreported.

“A new model, with efficient and modernised processes, is the right approach to deliver to our primary care providers the service that they deserve.

“The Department and I will continue to closely scrutinise Capita and NHS England as they work to resolve current problems and build a quality service that is sustainable.”

A long way to go

“I acknowledge fully that there is a long way to go before the service can be considered acceptable and that Capita has much to do to earn the trust of practitioners and patients.

“This is clearly a live issue. I want to be clear today: I am listening. The issue is at the top of my priority list and will remain there until I am satisfied that an efficient and effective service is being delivered that meets the needs of patients and providers.”

Lessons

Coventry Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, who secured the adjournment debate, told the minister,

“These contracts are gaily handed out to companies that do not have the skills, preparation or sheer commitment necessary to provide the service.”

He questioned whether the contract would make the intended 40% savings.

“… the irony is that we have ended up with a terrible service that is costing more than the previous service ever would, because the company was not properly prepared, did not have a commitment to providing the service, and was unable to do so, and because of the competing and irreconcilable claims about short-term gains in the form of profits and illusory savings for the health service…

“We should not have badly planned impositions from the private sector, which does not know what it is going to do or how to do it.”

He said that minsters and civil servants pride themselves on awarding a contract that they have won a hard-nosed negotiation.

 “We got them down from Y to X and we saved all this. It is great. We really screwed the private sector, didn’t we? That is all a total illusion.”

Labour MP Kate Green said that NHS England trialled the new system in west Yorkshire and it provided unsatisfactory. “Yet the contract was rolled out regardless.”

Savings?

Robinson said,

“How can the Minister talk of savings? How can any savings have been made when 9,000 patients records have been missing for more than two months, without which they cannot attend doctors surgeries? It is illusory to speak of savings.”

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