Nine spectacular council outsourcing failures

Alan White and Kate Belgrave give us more reasons why you don’t want the private sector in the NHS.

One of the many concepts that free marketeers refuse to abandon in the face of all evidence is the idea that the private sector is better at providing public services than the public sector. Private companies have been cashing in on this fable for years at council and government level. As we file this report, another glorious outsourcing triumph is breaking: the Ministry of Justice has asked police to investigate alleged fraudulent behaviour by Serco staff in its Prisoner Escort and Custodial Services contract.

The national news stories are coming at such a rate we can barely keep up with them. But what happens at a local level often slips under the radar. That’s why we’re crossposting and adding to this False Economy blog by Kate, which features a list of some of the many spectacular council privatisation failures of the past few years (hat-tip to Barnet Unison for the idea - they published a Top Ten Commissioning Failures list last month).

The list below shows how much councils have spent to get out of private sector contracts and/or to deal with contract disputes and cost overruns. A lot of the companies featured on this and Barnet Unison’s list are sniffing excitedly around the NHS - to which they’ll doubtless bring this long-honed craft of getting heaps of public money, ditching service the second the contract is framed and delivering huge returns to their shareholders.

Feel free to add your own, or send them through to us at

1) The Somerset county council and Southwest One dispute (via the eminently reasonable Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable)

This row was over savings not made by the joint venture partnership that the council had formed with IBM company Southwest One. The contract was to provide back office functions and services for Somerset, Taunton Deane borough council and Avon and Somerset Police.

As this Somerset County Gazette story observed: “Almost £5.5m of taxpayers’ money has been spent settling a dispute between Somerset County Council and an organisation it hired to cut costs.”

Mr Reasonable reported: “The dispute has now been settled, but the process has racked up a huge legal bill. As revealed in a Freedom of Information request, the total legal bill came to more than £2.6m. The lion's share of fees went to Pincent Masons, but it was interesting to see that Barnet's lawyers Trowers & Hamlin were also in receipt of fees in 2011/12.” (Barnet’s lawyers are worth a mention, as they’ve been much to the fore as Barnet residents, bloggers and campaigners have fought Barnet Council’s own mass privatisation plans.)

Somerset council cabinet member for resources, David Huxtable, told the BBC: "In this kind of dispute with a major international blue-chip company you wouldn't want to go forward with inexpensive lawyers."

The BBC reported overall costs to the council of the debacle of more than £5m. Tony Collins reports at Campaign4Change that some Southwest One services will be brought back into the council and run in-house.

2) Barnet Council vs Catalyst Housing

Shambles-prone Tory Barnet council is probably worthy of its own list and will doubtless continue to be as it pursues its ill-thought-out and unpopular mass-privatisation plan. But we start a few years back, nearer the dawn of Barnet’s disasters: In 2011, Barnet council was forced to pay out about £10m following a disagreement with private company Catalyst Housing over a contract dispute over care buildings.

This followed a very bitter two-year industrial dispute between careworkers and Catalyst Housing’s partner organisation the Fremantle Trust. The Trust cut careworkers' salaries by as much as £300 a month in a bid to “save” money and improve finances, but ultimately had to concede that the salary cuts and slashed leave allowances had not balanced the books.  

3) Bedfordshire County Council and the exit from the HBS contract

Still a loud warning to all in council circles. The outsourcing expert Dexter Whitfield investigated this in detail: In 2001, Bedfordshire County Council (BCC) and the HBS Business Services Group had a 12-year, £267m Strategic Service Delivery Partnership which covered financial, information technology, human resources, school support services and contracts/facilities management. There was also a loose notion of creating a regional business centre which would provide similar services to a range of public sector organisations. Unfortunately, a few years in, there was no sign of it (“no evidence of centre” Whitfield noted in his report).

BCC was forced to pay HBS £7.7m to terminate the outsourcing contract prematurely. According to The Register, the local authority was "deeply dissatisfied" with HBS's performance and served a written termination notice on the company for alleged breach of contract. The Register also reported that Unison produced a dossier of evidence to back up its claims that the quality of the council's services had suffered, not improved.

4) Barnet Council, again

Once you start looking at Barnet council, it’s hard to look away. This one is about IT.

Earlier this year, Barnet Council had to pay thousands of pounds for “emergency” IT services after its regular provider went into administration.

The local press reported:

“The authority has been forced into a costly interim arrangement with business processes firm Capita after IT company 2E2 Ltd called in administrators. Finance officers are now looking at how the authority can reclaim £220,000 in advance payments to 2E2, which passed a council credit check days before it collapsed.” (You could say this actually represented a slight procedural improvement from the council given that during another scandal - the council’s failed contract with security firm Metpro - it didn’t check the company’s finances at all).

As the excellent Barnet blogger Mrs Angry reports, the council decided that the way out of the 2E2 problem was to give more than £72,000 a month to Capita to pick up the “service”:

To get themselves out of a hole quickly, Barnet Council have appointed Capita, without any form of tender, on the basis that it was an emergency and they had already had discussions with Capita to take over the running of this service. This new contract will cost £72,595 per month.

Mrs Angry also made this interesting observation:

The Council states that they did undertake a risk analysis of 2e2 in January “using Experian reports” and that “the report stated the company was satisfactory”. However a quick check on the internet would have shown that suppliers have not been able to get credit insurance on goods supplied to 2e2 for some time and that 2e2 were handed a number of County Court judgements in 2012.

5) Swansea city council and contractor Capgemini.

A salient lesson in the importance of listening to staff, or indeed to anyone with any sort of expertise. Staff took strike action from the moment that Swansea CC revealed that it would outsource IT. The Register reported: “they warned that the move would lead to a less effective service and lost jobs.” Sadly, none of that stopped the council from cantering towards the inevitable conclusion - a conclusion that was so inevitable that even PriceWaterhouseCoopers was compelled to take the long view of the Swansea foray during a later analysis:

Said Computer Weekly in 2007:

Swansea City Council failed to apply key principles of IT management properly when it agreed an £83m outsourcing deal that is struggling to deliver anticipated benefits, a report by auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers has concluded.

The council's original outsourcing contract with Capgemini, to replace back-office systems and create online public services, promised to deliver £70m savings over its 10-year life when it was signed in 2006.


the council scaled back the contract to a £40m project a year later, predicting savings of £26m over 10 years. To date, it has achieved savings of £6m, PwC revealed.

The Register quoted a Councillor Mike Hedges who said that after outsourcing, “the email system was so unreliable he has switched to using his Yahoo! account for council business. He said email notifications of shut-downs of up to 24 hours are now a weekly occurrence.”.

6) Cornwall council’s mega-outsourcing deal

Cornwall hit all kinds of self-erected hurdles with its plans for a mega-outsourcing deal with BT or CSC – and council leader Alec Robertson was ousted - before a smaller deal was finalised this year.

Tony Collins wrote on Campaign4Change about the costs of the fiasco:

The council’s own budget for the outsourcing project so far has escalated. An independent panel set up as a “critical friend” to scrutinise the council’s plans for outsourcing has learned that the costs to Cornwall’s taxpayers of planning for the scheme were £375,000 in July 2011.

In March this year the “Single Issue Panel” members were told that the costs for the project would need to be increased from £650,000 to £800,000.

The current estimate of the cost of the procurement process at the time of writing this report is £1.8m,” says the panel in its July 2012 report.

7) Birmingham, “Service Birmingham” and Capita

As large as it is unreal. We’re adding this one, because we don’t really know what is going on with it. There is a lot of confusion about how much the Capita “Service Birmingham” venture is costing, although people seem to know it’s costing a lot.

The Birmingham Mail reported earlier this year:

The venture, run by the council and private sector contractor Capita, operates the authority’s call centre, IT infrastructure, Library of Birmingham IT and support and the collection of debts and council tax until 2020. The arrangement was formed in 2005 with £55 million-a-year running costs. But costs were thought to have spiralled to about £120 million-a-year following a renegotiation in 2011 and the addition of extra services, including council tax collection.

That story also said that “new checks will be carried out on Service Birmingham’s accounts amid complaints that councillors had 'little idea' of how much the arrangement was costing.”

In an extraordinary statement which we trust is genuine (it was made close to 1 April), Councillor John Clancy said Birmingham City Council members were being “deterred from getting a grip” on the nuts and bolts of the “complex” deal because the facts were unclear.

“Nowhere is there a clear, total figure for what we are paying and what we should be paying,” he told a scrutiny meeting.

“The biggest issue is transparency, we have little idea of what is going on.”

8) North Tyneside council and Capita

As recently reported in Tim Minogue’s excellent “Rotten Boroughs” page in Private Eye, Jim Allan, the Labour group leader at North Tyneside council has been found guilty of bringing the council into “disrepute” after a standards investigation by law firm Eversheds on behalf of the council and its consultant chief exec, Graham Haywood.

Allan expressed disappointment over social media last year that the council’s then-Conservative cabinet hadn’t investigated the risks linked to an outsourcing contract worth £260m with Balfour Beatty and Capita Symonds.

He claims he was merely stating facts. As Minogue reported: “Part-time chief exec Haywood had told him members needn’t worry about the risks in the contract because they were the ‘responsibility of officers’. Haywood was previously chief exec at Sefton council, where in 2008 he helped negotiate a £70m outsourcing contract with, er, Capita Symonds. This year Sefton brought services back in-house after cutting short Crapita’s contract years early.”

And as Minogue points out: “The report into [Allan’s] three tweets ran to 223 pages, took more than six months to prepare and cost an estimated £15,000. Terrific use of taxpayers’ money at a council seeking to make more than £21m savings this year.”

9) And a recent big one: Sandwell Council to part ways with BT and end £300m contract

Said the local Express and Star paper:

Sandwell Council has been in a 15-year partnership with BT called Transform Sandwell, in which the company manages services such as finance, customer contact and communication. The current deal, signed in 2007, sees the council paying BT around £15m a year.

In July, the authority told the telecommunications giant it wanted to bring its contract to an end, unless BT addressed issues raised by the council within 30 days.

And today it can be revealed that both parties have begun to thrash out how they will end their contract by March next year.

Those details will be interesting.

The council was apparently unhappy with BT’s service and began dispute proceedings last September.

Ones to watch (feel free to send others):

There’s a growing list here of local and council services that have been privatised this year. One potential wreck is Capita’s new contract with Lambeth council. Undeterred by the famous failure of the ALS-Capita court interpreting service, widespread loathing of the company at Barnet, or whatever is going on with Service Birmingham, Lambeth council and Capita signed a nine-year deal last week. The contract is for, among other things, ironically-named “customer service support.” Time will tell whether the customer is first served, or Capita. Lambeth has cut tens of millions from its budgets in the last three years, too. You can see why people mutter that there is always plenty of money around for companies like Capita, if not for children’s services, etc.

There’s also Cheshire council’s outsourcing of youth services. In July, Children and Young People Now reported:

Cheshire youth services will be delivered by independent organisations in the future, following a local authority decision to outsource its youth work provision.

We’ll be watching that - when you remove services from council, you remove a lot of the democratic accountability around them, as those of us who report on these things know too well. Earlier this year, we and families of service users were chucked out of a care cuts meeting when the board in charge of the service said it didn’t have to speak to people because it represented a private company.

And. . .

We might as well finish with Barnet council. Two major contracts worth (price tag varies) £500m with Capita. Service users hate it, residents hate it, staff hate it and local journalists hate it. This can’t end well. Or cheaply.

The NHS logo outside St Thomas's Hospital in London. Photo: Getty
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide