Council forced to report monthly on Laing library performance

It took a special meeting at the Town Hall last week to insist that the management of Croydon’s public libraries should be monitored monthly, rather than the annual reporting period proposed by the Conservative-run council as its privatises the service under a £30 million, eight-year contract for John Laing Integrated Services.

library booksWith such a new way of running the borough’s 13 public libraries, regular monitoring of Laing’s performance will provide a vital safeguard for the interests of Council Tax-payers, who own the properties and whose money will be used to pay for Laing’s management.

Unusually, the library issue had been referred to Croydon Council’s scrutiny and strategic overview committee on Thursday by both the Labour opposition group and the governing Tories. The Conservative councillors, who only on Monday had all voted through the privatisation at the main council meeting, seemed to concede – as Inside Croydon has long highlighted – that the process had been far from open and transparent.

According to sources at Wandsworth Council, which had conducted the bidding process jointly with Croydon, Laings is the third, and worst, bidder for the service on grounds of performance and cost. It was conceded at Thursday’s meeting that a joint team of staff from both councils had evaluated the bids and scored the criteria; so Wandsworth officers were involved in evaluating the bid for the Croydon contract and vice versa.

Labour’s amendment to the reporting requirements was achieved in the closed part of Thursday’s meeting, closed to press and public because of “commercial confidentiality” – in other words, Croydon Council is far too embarrassed to admit to the details of its latest outsourcing experiment with public services.

Although both sides made it clear that the committee’s role was to scrutinise the executive, the level of questions to Steve O’Connell, the cabinet member for finance and performance, and council staff lacked much in terms of penetrating quality. This was partly because the Tories had got themselves into a difficulty about what detail could be discussed in public. It was compounded because Labour meekly agreed.

The chair of the meeting refused to let a question be answered publicly about whether library staff on short-term contracts were to be transferred (“Tuped”) across to Laing. Although this was a question that could have been answered in a general way, he argued that it was wrong to discuss staff matters in public.

In Wandsworth, this sort of detailed bid information has all been included in publicly available documents.

One member of the public, Inside Croydon contributor Sean Creighton, was given permission to put questions to the meeting, and he asked about Laing’s capital investment in Croydon’s libraries. With Croydon Council already deeply committed to a £450 million “urban regeneration vehicle” deal with builders John Laing, there is understandable concern and suspicion that the borough’s libraries may ultimately be folded into that property portfolio.

Labour wants to ensure that Laing is obliged to make capital investment in the libraries. They were told that this was the case, with the council retaining freehold ownership.

Creighton suggested that unless the contract was tightly drafted, there would be loopholes which the contractor could exploit. The draft contract should be open to public debate to assist that process.

In referring the decision for scrutiny, Labour had stated that the council’s 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.

Croydon’s Labour group will now consider its threat to take the matter to judicial review – get a judge to rule on whether the whole business has been handled properly, fairly and legally. Library campaigners may also be able to do the same, especially if there has been no adequate equalities assessment in the public arena or full consultation of all library areas affected.

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6 Responses to Council forced to report monthly on Laing library performance

  1. Was there any mention of Tony Newman’s threat to cancel the Laing libraries contract if Labour is returned to power in 2014? Or was that all so much hot air?

    • The threat was made by Timothy Godfrey, David.

      We will have to wait until 2014 to find out how real such a threat might be and judge any new administration, as we do this one, on its record for delivery.

  2. Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  3. A judicial review is not an idle threat but a very real possibility and completely justifiable on a number of counts if this progresses any further. This would be damaging to the already flagging reputation of Laings and Croydon Council. It would undoubtedly cause a real backlash when the facts are exposed to the full glare of the media.

    Scrutiny was absolutely appalling; a damp squib! I cannot yet fathom whether councillors were genuinely so out of touch that they tabled such ridiculous questions or whether this was an intentional move, seeking to deceive. The highlight of the night was Cllr Hopley asking whether qualified librarians would run the service, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in her local library there is little access to qualified librarians, as is the case across the borough, to greater or lesser degrees. Can a councillor really be so terribly out of touch yet still accepting monies from the public purse? And, sadly, she was not alone.

    All has been noted, as it has been throughout the process, thanks to the resolve and vigilance of Croydon residents who know what has occurred is far from right. The Save Croydon Libraries campaign will fight on for our libraries, whatever the outcome.

  4. Our position is clear. We, Labour, will cancel the contract in 2014. This is because it doesn’t deliver what we want it to. We want Libraries to be the beating heart of local communities, to work in partnership with local communities to deliver their priorities.

    Labour wants to know what local people want from their local libraries, how they want to develop them. We know one thing, that one solution will not fit for each library. We will be announcing our consultation process very shortly, and want everyone from across Croydon to feed in to this.

    The second major issue is that the John Laing contract is £4million more expensive than the bid from the staff owned company, Greenwich Leisure (£500,000 a year). This information was private, but the Council published this as part of Labour’s ‘call in’ of the decision to privatise.

    What the privatisation does show is that my proposals from 18 months ago to run the library service for around £3million was accurate and affordable. The Tories have been lazy and inefficient in wasting 18 months to achieve savings, and in handing it to John Laing are costing Council Tax payers £4million more than could have been achieved either ‘in house’ or in partnership with Greenwich Leisure.

    We have also pledged to publish the contracts if we are elected, as we need to throw light and openness onto these major contracts. The public have a right to know what is being done in their name, and we are determined to use residents to ensure value for money in all we do.

    Councillor Timothy Godfrey
    Labour Shadow Cabinet Member for Culture, Sport & Libraries

  5. Councillor Godfrey

    I apologise for misattributing your contract-cancelling initiative earlier.

    And I am fascinated by your spirited defence of your position.

    I appreciate your frustration at the cack-handed way in which Fisher and Friends have gone about this. I can’t imagine which council officer advised them – or maybe I can.

    But can you actually do anything? Whatever your justification, can you cancel a contract legally entered into by the present administration without exposing the council to possible lengthy litigation and even eye-watering compensation claims?

    The idea of a judicial review sounds more effective, assuming the costs are reasonable.

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