Thursday 16 December 2010

£100 million. The real cost of BT Vital Vision?

As astute readers will have noticed, Don’t Call Me Dave has been blogging more frequently of late, despite having retired several times. He previously stated that he did not wish to comment about Barnet Council any further; partly because of his studies, partly because he felt there was nothing more he could usefully add to the debate, but also because the Borough is more than adequately represented in the blogosphere. Mr Reasonable, for example, has recently exposed some breathtaking incompetence by the council in its reporting of the costs of the Future Shape project (or whatever it is called this week).

But DCMD has been alerted to a report in The Grauniad regarding a matter he has written about previously which is of material concern to local taxpayers. It has been alleged that Suffolk County Council overspent by £100 million on its outsourcing contract with British Telecom and ignored repeated warnings from its former head of supplier relationship management, Michael Gower.

In 2009, Suffolk’s Chief Executive Andrea Hill twice accepted hospitality from BT to attend their Vital Vision ‘conference’ in America and Gower alleges that she personally blocked his attempt to change the contract as costs spiralled out of control.

Readers will recall that former Barnet Council leader Mike Freer also flew off to America with BT at a cost of over £5,000 to taxpayers. Freer, who is now the MP for Finchley & Golders Green, cheekily tried to claim that he had been awarded an MBA for attending this junket conference. Not wishing to be left out, Leo Boland, Barnet’s former Chief Executive now running the shop at the GLA for a mere £215,000 a year, also treated himself to this little jolly at our expense.

The decision to spend Barnet taxpayers’ money attending Vital Vision was never scrutinised by councillors. Freer was given ‘permission’ to go by the unelected Chief Executive. Boland, who went the year after Freer, didn’t need permission from anyone because nobody in the council had the cojones to question any of his decisions. Neither Freer nor Boland produced any public report explaining what, if anything, they learnt from these conferences, why it was necessary for both of them to attend or how their attendance benefited taxpayers.

In a further twist to the tale, Suffolk council currently employs Max Wide as director of organisational change, on secondment from BT. Wide was previously working at Barnet in a similar role, also on secondment from BT. It begs the question just how much time he spends working for his employer and how much in councils which just happen to have high value BT contracts?

DCMD wonders if Mr Wide has ever worked on secondment at Liverpool City Council who would, according to the Gruaniad article, be £23 million a year better off if they scrapped their £70 million per annum contract with BT.

All Barnet’s contracts with BT must now be independently scrutinised to ensure that everything is above board and that the council is receiving best value for money. As the council professes to believe in openness and accountability, DCMD trusts that his forthcoming FOI request for details of its BT contracts will be answered swiftly and fully. Anything less will simply increase speculation that the process for awarding high value contracts is rotten to the core.

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