There were signs of tension at a cabinet meeting this week when the thorny issue of Service Birmingham raised its head again.
Charging for green waste may be the most controversial Birmingham City Council issue on the streets, but behind the scenes at the Council House the multi-million pound IT and call centre contract with outsourcing giant Capita remains as divisive as ever – particularly among the ruling Labour group.
And a little of that tension spilled over when cabinet member for contracts Stewart Stacey was slapped down by deputy leader Ian Ward over the issuing of a further £4.5 million business to Capita-Service Birmingham.
At the peak a couple of years ago Birmingham City Council was sending upwards of £120 million of business per year to the company, as the core contract topped up with add-ons, one off projects and optional extras.
At a time of austerity the cost of the deal has come under increasing scrutiny, most notably from Labour backbencher John Clancy who argues that the council simply cannot afford a ‘Rolls Royce’ IT contract when it is cutting services.
Under the cabinet system disputes and disagreements are usually dealt with in private before the single-party committee appears in public to present a united front.
So it was surprising that, when Capita-Service Birmingham secured a pair of contracts to upgrade servers and increase IT backup facilities, two cabinet members should disagree so openly.
During this year’s budget deliberations Labour leader Sir Albert Bore and deputy Ian Ward heralded a £20 million cut in the ongoing annual cost of the core contract – but here the outsourcing company was being given a £4.5 million top-up.
Coun Stacey said the blame lay with the previous Tory-Lib Dem administration and those officers who negotiated the last version of the contract in 2010.
“We keep having to buy additional stuff because it wasn’t included in the original contract. We keep having to buy additional servers so Service Birmingham can charge us for them. There is a weakness in the original contract.”
But Coun Ward disagreed and at the same time leapt to the defence of his predecessors in the Tory-Lib Dem administration, saying they could not have forseen the progress in IT systems.
“Such is the pace of change that we can’t realistically blame the setting of the original contract,” he said.
There is an increasing feeling among grumbling Labour backbenchers that their leaders, including Ian Ward who is directly responsible for overseeing the contract, have either gone native or at least are unwilling to criticise the deal with Capita.
It seems that the result of a long-awaited inquiry into Service Birmingham, which opponents believe was deliberately delayed to get the local elections and leadership challenges out of the way, will conclude that it would cost the council too much to cancel ahead of its 2020 end and set up an alternative IT support and call centre system.
This will do little to deter the critics who will call it as a whitewash. Despite some moves to transparency the only people who know the real answer are those who have studied the contract and fully costed the implications of cancellation and the alternatives.
Birmingham’s name continues to be dragged through the mud as we allow national politicians, columnists and observers to described the city in such terms as ‘national disgrace’ over issues such as failing children’s services and the Trojan Horse scandal.
Our political leaders seem cowed by the assaults from Government, Ofsted and others – even failing to argue that after years of being told by the Department for Education to keep their noses out of academies and free schools they are criticised for doing just that.
If there was any argument for a figurehead, such as a directly-elected mayor, to show some leadership and stand up to Government on more equal terms, then this is it. But that ship has now long since sailed.
As one of the more outspoken critics of the city’s transport department’s botched handling of city centre bus lane enforcement last year I was invited by cabinet member responsible Tahir Ali to take a tour of the enforcement zones.
Far from throwing me under a bus, as some suggested he might, he wanted to show the many new larger and clearer warning signs put up around Steelhouse Lane, Old Square and Moor Street after damning criticism from the independent traffic tribunal in February.
It all seemed in order on foot, but the proof of their effectiveness will be when the enforcement cameras start issuing fines again – which I am told is just days away.
Meanwhile the thorny issue of those unfairly fined late last year is still very much unresolved.