Have Croydon Tories provided evidence for a judicial review about their decision to award the Libraries contract to the private company J. Laing?
They referred the decision to the Council’s Scrutiny & Strategic Oversight Committee on Wednesday 5 December on the grounds that the report to the Corporate Services Committee and the decision of the cabinet member did not contain details of the library specification and for this reason it is not demonstrated that the Library service under the proposed provider will meet the councils objectives…’ (See previous blog posting.) They proposed that ‘Future commissioning reports should contain as much information in Part A of the report in order to allow Members to know whether the commissioning exercise meets the council’s commission strategy for the service’ This seems to be a clear admission of the failure to consider the issue of awarding the contract properly and in as open and transparent a manner as possible.
The Labour Opposition also referred the decision to the Committee setting out a long list of concerns about the details. It achieved an important safeguard in the operation of the proposed contract with Laing in that there will now be monthly performance monitoring of the contract as opposed to annually as had been suggested in earlier in the meeting. Labour’s amendment was obtained in the closed part of the meeting, closed because of ‘commercial confidentiality’. Having raised the issue in open session they also persuaded the Tories to agree that Laing should keep the existing library telephone numbers. This may have more significance if it locks Laing into using the Council’s telephone system, instead of installing its own.
Although both sides made it clear that the Committee’s role was to scrutinise the executive, the level of questions in the open session to the Cabinet member for Finance & Performance and officers lacked any penetration. This was partly because the Tories had got themselves into difficulty about what level of detail could be discussed in the public session and what in private, and Labour had meekly agreed. The Chair refused to let a question be answered publicly about whether library staff on short-term contracts were be transferred (Tuped) across to Laing or not. Although this was a general question that could have been answered in a general way, he argued that it was wrong to discuss staff matters like this in public.
It became clear that the way Croydon treats ‘commercial confidentiality’ is less open than that in Wandsworth. Labour cited the much greater detail on the bid information on the latter’s publicly available documents.
Just before the Chair called for the meeting to go into closed session I asked from the public gallery whether it was possible for me as a member of the public to ask the Committee to consider some questions arising from its debate. At first the Chair was thrown but then agreed it would be a good idea, so I went downstairs into the main part of the Council Chamber so I could use a microphone. I started by saying that although I was a resident of Norbury I was also a member of the Heritage Wandsworth Partnership which had been kept informed of the progress with the bid process because the Council had included the Heritage Service in its bid specification. I asked whether the difference in the choice of contractor between the two authorities could be explained by the fact that there were services in Wandsworth which were not to be included in Croydon. Later an officer explained that there were differences in the criteria for the bidders to respond to between the two authorities and that a bidder could perform weakly in relation to one service aspect for one Council and strongly for the other. Earlier it had been explained that a joint team of officers from both Councils had met to evaluate the bids and score the criteria; so Wandsworth officers were involved in evaluating the bid for the Croydon contract and vice-versa.
My next questions related to the issue of capital investment. This had been drawn attention to in the open debate. Labour wanted to be sure that Laing would have to make capital investment in the libraries. They were told that this was the case with the Council retaining freehold ownership. I asked questions relating to whether:
· the contract would prevent the provider taking legal action to have their capital investment returned when the contract was ended;
· there would be a minimum figure for capital investment in the contract as without it there could be no base for assessment resulting in penalties;
· it might be possible for some forms of capital expenditure like ICT to be taken out of the buildings when the contract ended.
I suggested that unless the contract was tightly drafted there could be loopholes which the contractor could exploit. The draft contract should be open to public debate. Parliamentary legislation had often been found to be flawed with unexpected consequences because of poor drafting.
Finally, I suggested that in its private session the Committee needed to consider how to present the decision to the public . The suggestion in Labour’s referral paper was that ‘The Papers did not consider the significant financial conflict of interest (loans and contracts) between the Council and John Laing’ and the lack of transparency and openness of information about the bids could adversely affect public attitudes increasing the suspicions about what the real reason for awarding the contract were. I was specifically asked how things could be more transparent and open. I replied that given the large sums of public money involved I was in favour of public openness of all documents, and no secrecy based on ‘commercial confidentiality’. While there might be legal limitations on the extent this could be done, as much openness and transparency should be acted upon.
As the Chair sought to put the meeting into closed session there were some interventions from the public gallery. The Chair adjourned the meeting to a Committee room promising that the Committee would go back into open session to report the decision. Some members of the public remained behind while others went to the pub returning just as the Committee was ending its final open session. The Chair then explained to them what the two decisions had been re-the telephone number and the monthly monitoring.
The main Tory justification for awarding a contract is that it will safeguard expenditure on the libraries for eight years and see improvements, at a time when the Council would continue to be making cuts across services. So what next for campaign about the Library Service?
The Labour Group will obviously have to carry out its threat to take the matter to judicial review. Campaigners may also be able to do the same, especially if it is true that not all library catchment areas were properly consulted at earlier stages, and if there has been no adequate equalities assessment in the public arena. Unless a review challenge is lodged very quickly the work will continue to finalise agreement with Laing and a contract signed. Meanwhile it is in the joint interests of both political parties to work together to ensure the tightest contract and performance monitoring documentation. For the Tories this is to ensure that if they remain in power beyond 2014 the contract is seen to deliver the improved library service they promise and not to be seen as incompetent if it does not. For Labour this is to ensure that if they take power in 2014 they have the evidence to shut the contract down.
Campaigners also need to consider ways in which they can strengthen community influence on Laing’s service delivery and the Council’s performance monitoring. Lambeth activists have shown the important role the Friends of Library groups have played in fighting previous threats of closure, and in obtaining improvements to the service and getting repairs and capital investment. Croydon’s need to develop their own agenda for action based on what is known publicly about what Laing will be contracted to deliver. They will also need to remain vigilant to any changes in policy such as the Council agreeing to sell library buildings to Laing at some stage in the future, or allowing Laing to move a library service to another building and then for the Council to sell the emptied library building on the open market.
Previous writings by me on Library issues in Lambeth and Wandsworth can be seen at:http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/is-lambeth-councils-libraries.html.
Scrutiny Committees (in relation specifically to Lambeth) can be seen at: http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/role-of-oversight-and-scrutiny-in.html.