It was past 9pm last night, Bank Holiday Monday, when the official Croydon Council Twitter feed spluttered into life (double time for someone in the press office, perhaps?), offering a link to some new content on the official council website.
“Library contract decision called in for scrutiny”, said the well-within-140-characters Tweet from Big Brother at Taberner House.
Inside Croydon reported on Saturday that Tim Pollard, deputy leader of the Conservative group which runs Croydon Council, had sneaked out quietly – hoping no one would notice? – a controversial report that he had chosen, for a second time, John Laing Integrated Services to run the borough’s public libraries.
This is despite JLIS being shown to be the most expensive and least capable of three original bidders, and even after the company had effectively demanded that our council should make the pension arrangements for its erstwhile staff less onerous for their new employers, the contractors.
When we posted our report, we noted that there was no news of this important report, regarding around £30 million of public procurement contracts, to be found on the council’s website.
We also noted that if anyone within the council wanted to question this highly questionable decision, then they would need to refer the matter to the official scrutiny committee by this coming Friday, May 31.
So when we went to the link proffered by the council’s official Twitter feed, we were a little surprised to find that it was, in fact, a press release to announce the decision, and it is dated Friday May 24. There were no Tweets to announce this press release ay any time before very late on Monday, May 27. We are not alone in observing that this press release could not be found on the council website before the Bank Holiday weekend began. But then, most content management systems permit editors to manipulate the timings, and dates, of their posts.
But the real surprise came when, after wading through the self-justifying piffle about the decision – “Savings and improvements to services will result from a fresh recommendation to appoint John Laing Integrated Services (JLIS) as preferred bidder to run the council’s library service” – we got to the bit that says that the decision to refer this decision to scrutiny had been made by …
Lewis Carroll could not have made this up: the senior council cabinet member who made the unilateral decision to hand £30million-worth of public contracts for library management to a subsidiary of a building company has then referred his own decision to scrutiny. “Is he off his head?”, as Carroll’s Queen of Hearts never said.
Maybe Pollard thinks he is playing a clever game: by paying lip-service to the scrutiny procedure, where he clearly expects the in-built majority of Conservative councillors will rubber-stamp his decision, he believes he will be covering his arse when JLIS’s management of the libraries fail, or the contract is cancelled (as Labour promises to do if they manage to win control of the Town Hall in 2014), whichever is the sooner.
That the scrutiny committee hearing is a foregone conclusion is betrayed in the final line of the council’s press release: “… it is anticipated that the new service will start from the beginning of October”.
The four Tory councillors who sit on the scrutiny committee – chairman Steve Hollands, who is supposed to represent the residents of Kenley ward, Jason Cummings (Heathfield), Terry Lenton (Coulsdon East) and Michael Neal (Croham) – must be delighted that their subservience is taken for granted so easily, all paid for out of public money with their £11,000-plus in annual “allowances”.
In the press release that may have been drafted after reading the Inside Croydon report, Pollard has chosen to be quoted as saying, “I’m very pleased that we’ve reached this point so quickly after the recent delay.” This will be the delay caused by your preferred bidders, Tim, because they’d failed to assess the pension liabilities in the year-long tendering process.
“My intention now is to ensure that the basis of my decision is examined fully, and that’s why I’ll be ensuring this matter is taken to our scrutiny committee.” But Tim: when you question yourself at the scrutiny meeting, will you ask yourself why you have been so secretive about this process over the past four months?
Will you ask yourself why you have avoided having the library privatisation discussed openly in the council chamber?
Will you answer the question of what it is that you have to hide about the deal you are handing to JLIS?
“This will give councillors from both parties the opportunity to understand how we’ve arrived at this point and what the benefits will be of entering into this new contract.”
And will Pollard put before the scrutiny committee the full facts of the tenders for this valuable public contract, including the amounts bid by JLIS and the rival bidders? Answer: don’t be silly.
And will he compare his assessment with the assessment of the tenders by Tory-run Wandsworth Council, which said quite openly that JLIS was the worst of three tenders in terms of both cost and service provision? Answer: why does he need to, the hearing is a foregone conclusion anyway.
- Laings quit £30m Croydon libraries privatisation deal
- Questions Pollard must answer over libraries shambles
- £30m libraries privatisation could be sent for judicial review
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Watford or Redhill
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