Friday, 29 March 2019
A Critical Error, or - the gun put to your head: a meeting of the council pensions' committee ...
The Man From Capita appears at the Pensions Committee: to his left, Cllr Finn
On Tuesday night, I turned up a little early at the Town Hall, and went to sit down in the foyer, before the meeting. As I did so, I noticed a small display on one side of the stairs - about Barnet Libraries. With breathtaking cheek, the council which has virtually destroyed its once magnificent, hundred year old library service had put on a half hearted exhibition of old photographs of the days when the local councillors understood the importance of access to books, and information, and supported a fully staffed, professionally run number of branches across the borough. I used to work for the service, for a few, very happy years.
In the reflection of the glass cabinet, I saw a local Tory councillor, Mark Shooter, Chair of the committee that was meeting that night, standing behind me. Without turning around I said hello, and pointed out the display. I showed him the photograph of Eileen Colwell, who had worked for the library service for decades, and was the pioneer of the internationally acclaimed children's library movement. I also spotted an early photo of a woman who had been a colleague at the end of her career, when I worked at Golders Green library, and who, like Eileen Colwell, had dedicated her life to the profession she had chosen: like many others, she saw her job as more of a vocation. Eileen Colwell worked next door, I told him, nodding in the direction of Hendon Library, unstaffed that evening; and then said I wondered what she would make of the damage he and his colleagues had done.
Eileen Colwell, Pioneer of the children's library movement, whose work is being destroyed by Barnet Tory cuts
He shrugged, and said everyone has ipads and kindles now. Then he looked at me, uncomprehending: Why do you care so much?
Why don't you? I replied. Why did you become a councillor?
He thought for a few moments and mumbled something about 'making things better'. Well, that's why I care so much: I want to make things better too.
I was there that night on my own behalf, however: to attend the Pensions Committee, having asked to speak to it and having submitted a number of questions.
Cllr Shooter was puzzled. Why was I bothering? The Pensions committee is normally over in half an hour. And there was a match he was missing. Oh, and he had been told to make sure I didn't talk for longer than exactly three minutes. I said I would say what I had to say, whatever.
Because I had something to say which mattered, not just to me, but to anyone working for the council, or who had worked at some point for the council, and whose pension benefits were in the hands of ... yes: Capita. My investment in the scheme was from the time in the library service, the service built by dedicated employees like Eileen Colwell, but whose dedication and work Tory councillors now hold in such low esteem.
My employment had been for a few years, accruing a certain amount of benefits in the Local Government Pension Scheme.
Capita's administration of the council's pension scheme has been disastrous since the start: very serious issues have been identified since 2016, and are still continuing, without any near possibility of this contractual partnership ending, and the administration returning where it should be, and where it used to be run perfectly efficiently: in house.
Earlier this week, Barnet Unison published a statement about the dire state of Capita's pension administration: as they reminded everyone, the Pensions' Regulator has already had to intervene twice in Barnet:
TPR issues first fine to a public service pension scheme
“The Pensions Regulator (TPR) has fined a public service pension scheme £1,000 for failing to submit basic information required by law…………
TPR issued a scheme return notice to Barnet Council on 9 July 2016, requesting the scheme return be submitted by 12 August. The return was not received and, further communications from TPR not replied to, so the matter was referred to TPR’s Determinations Panel on 24 February 2017.”
Then in 2018
Barnet in TPR breach as Capita misses payments
“The failure to produce 447 statements constitutes a breach of law and a report is being prepared for the Pensions Regulator that will identify the relevant non-compliant employers,” the minutes read.”
The shocking news was that the critical errors had not been addressed and now the Triannual Valuation of our Pension Fund is now at risk.
In the Data Quality report it states:
“1.3 The quality of membership data is central to the valuation process. Should the quality of data not be to the standard required by Hymans Robertson then there could be delays to the valuation process. Also, inaccurate member data held could result in erroneous benefit statements being issued.
1.4 The results show a significant number of ‘critical errors’ that the administrator will be required to address before actuarial calculations can begin.”
Remember that term: 'critical errors'. I certainly can't forget it, after what happened to me at the meeting.
Two reports that were central to the meeting, one of which addressed the issue of data quality, were not published in the required time limit before the meeting. Only after a complaint to the Chief Executive were they published. They were short reports: why were they withheld on the grounds of not being ready? This is becoming something of a habit, in the case of politically sensitive meetings.
After the complaint the reports were published, and we were told they had simply been held back due to ... 'an administrative error'. (Not a critical one). Fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, who had put in several acute questions in regard to the reports, teased out the fact that the data report had actually been 'updated' before publication.
Of course supplementary questions were asked at the meeting: and further interesting information emerged.
Before the questions were put, however, I gave my statement to the committee. Naturally the Chair stopped me from reading the last sentence, as a few more seconds are not allowed, of course, in these circumstances. (Members of the public are only there under sufferance, and must not intrude on time better spent allotted to the pontifications of Tory councillors, consultants, and Capita officers).
I want to address the committee this evening as someone who has benefits invested in the Barnet pension scheme now so badly administered by Capita.
I hope that my own experience of the incompetence of these administrators serves to illustrate to members the real impact on former and current Barnet council workers, and their financial security.
As the reports before you demonstrate, your failure to hold Capita to account for its dire performance is not only enabling risk in terms of the scheme’s long term future, but has immediate and very serious consequences for those of us with benefits tied to this scheme. As the Hyman report clearly states: “ inaccurate member data held could result in erroneous benefit statements being issued”.
This is already happening.
I received my annual statement for the last financial year towards the end of last August. I had wondered why it was so late, and decided to contact the so called helpline for further information about my benefits.
I won’t go into detail about my personal financial circumstances, but it is enough for you to know that in the course of that conversation I discovered, purely by accident, that there were serious errors in my statement. Repeated errors, in fact.
The operators used to staff the pensions helpline refused to accept this was true, as did their senior officers, or that as a result of these errors, I had lost the opportunity to access the full range of options for my benefits, with disastrous consequences for my financial security.
Only after several more phone calls, emails, and further wrong information supplied to me over a course of months, did I discover that the operators are not qualified to discuss pension benefits, and that there are no qualified advisers available with which to address concerns.
As no one would listen to me in regard to the errors in my data, I tried writing to the Pension Board: that was a waste of time. I then contacted a government pension advisory service, who were appalled, and urged me to contact the Pensions Ombudsman. I did so, and they agreed that there were apparent serious errors in my statements, and serious failures in Capita’s handling of the matter. I was urged to go through what is supposed to be their ‘Early Resolution’ service; dealt with in a matter of weeks. This took nearly five months.
The Ombudsman dealing with my case saw told Capita very early on that they are at fault. After more delays and follow ups with no response, at last: they admitted this was true. All they had to offer in recompense, however, was a dismissive apology.
The Ombudsman has warned them that this complaint will continue, and that it would be better to offer compensation for the serious financial impact of their errors. That was over a month ago. They have not responded.
It is now nearly eight months since all this began. It has caused me immense worry and had very significant impact on my current financial and personal circumstances: and it seems there is nothing I can do about it. This is not acceptable.
If this has happened to me, it is probable that there are other scheme members similarly affected, who may not yet realise. For those individuals, the risks posed by incorrect annual statements, and incorrect data, are a ticking time bomb.
What is just simply impossible to understand is why you continue to tolerate such a high level of incompetence in your contractual partners’ performance?
The only explanation is that the Tory members put their own political interests before the best interests of council employees. This is simply unforgiveable: if you have any decency you will reconsider your decision not to revert immediately back to in house administration of the scheme. To leave it in the hands of Capita any longer would be in my view, nothing less than wilful negligence.
A couple of members asked questions, including Labour's Alison Moore, who knows the background to the whole saga: she asked how other scheme members, less 'tenacious' than I, would cope with finding themselves with similar errors in the administration of their pension benefits.
I answered truthfully that it had been extremely worrying for me, at a very difficult personal time for my family. That explanation didn't satisfy one Tory councillor present, as we shall see. He wanted a higher level of proof.
As I pointed out, if this cockup has happened in my case, it may well be so for many other scheme members from the time when I worked for Barnet. Most would have no idea: I only found out by sheer chance that my annual statements had a fatally inaccurate piece of information.
A 'critical error': a mere data quality issue to Tory councillors.
Real life impact for those affected.
Not what the Chair thought; he told the meeting that the data error issue had no personal effect. This simply is not true. Apart from my case, and who knows how many others with inaccurate annual statements based on data errors, Professor Alderman had offered them the example of a Barnet employee now unable to retire because Capita have told them they cannot find his records ... This did not cause any reaction, but then - why should Tory councillors feel any sense of loyalty to former employees, rather than to private contractors?
Also not true is the claim, as reported here, in the local Times, by the Chair, that their hands are tied when faced with such levels of poor performance by Capita:
He said pension administration was “part of an overall contract (with Capita) for the whole council”, adding “we can’t pick and choose”.
Picking and choosing was supposed to be precisely the point of the 'review' or, what was it - the 'realignment' - of the contracts agreed a few months ago by Barnet Tories, when they were forced to admit the extent of failure of the contractual partnership.
That was before the secret deal made when the head of Capita came to visit, and a paltry £4 million was offered as 'compensation'. Since then, there has been a delay in the review, moving further and further out of focus, and in the meanwhile, our local services remain in their hands, providing their shareholders with profits.
When I had submitted my questions, I was contacted by the council's Section 151 officer. He was querying the question about checking annual statements for accuracy, for example in age of qualification errors. He clearly had no idea that this could happen, which proved that commissioning officers had not instigated any investigation into this risk. Yet the response to my question now claimed 'a special exercise is in progress' to test this.
When was this put into action, I asked? Recently. How recently? Was it yesterday, after I submitted the question? He couldn't comment. In other words, yes it was, I concluded.
The rest of their responses, and indeed the rest of the discussion that meeting - before I walked out - was on the line of, oh well yes, there have been serious problems, but who cares, some improvement in three years has been made, we're not bothered about the impact, and so what if we are sanctioned yet again by the regulator.
The question has to be put, very loudly, as we did so many times at the meeting, to no avail: why it is that Barnet's Conservative councillors are so deeply committed to facilitating the continuing failures in contractual obligations by Capita.
We've seen it all: failure, cockups, fraud, and all at eyewateringly high level of cost, in total contradiction of the stated reason for outsourcing: the old lie of 'better services for less money'.
Not everyone at the table, or called to the table, was quite so easily satisfied with Capita's administration of the pension scheme: Tory councillor Simberg referred with horror to 'crazy, diabolical errors', and the Labour members pulled apart various concerns which appeared to be of little interest to the other Tories, that is to say the Chair and - Councillor Anthony Finn.
One of their questions was how much the independent consultant who was being paid to advise on the data issue was receiving for his troubles, and - who bore the cost? Mr Bartle, the Section 151 officer, was obliged to admit that, guess what, the pension scheme is paying - for sorting out the cock up caused by ... the contractors ... They would not disclose the cost, because tssk: this is personal data (remember that point: the personal data of highly paid consultants are wrapped in secrecy, when there is a risk of political embarrassment for the council, but my personal data should be revealed at the committee table).
Mr Reasonable pointed out no, in fact the information will be in accounts in the public domain, of course.
The consultants brought in - at scheme members' expense - to advise on the data error issue address the committee
Oh: and then came something of a bombshell - albeit one which caused the Tory members merely to put on their helmets and carry on regardless.
Also present at the table was the Chair of the Pensions Board, Professor Geoffrey Alderman. He pointed out that the Board 'hovered over the heads' of the committee, and read out a statement that he had had minuted at a Board meeting in which he said he was 'appalled' by this state of affairs, ie the data quality error issue. 'Appalled', he repeated.
Noted. One of the consultants at the table, a sad eyed man who looked like Stan Laurel waiting for a bucket of whitewash to fall on his head - another fine mess - gave a sideways look. Otherwise: nothing happened, no reaction. Move on.
Hidden in the public seating was The Man From Capita: a man called Michael Green ,who according to his Linkedin profile rejoices in the title of 'Public Sector Account Director, Capita HR Solutions'. Not sure what the Problem was, if this is the Solution for Barnet: but still.
He emerged now, called to the table, sitting back with determined ease, and making it clear that Capita was not taking the blame for all of this. It was the employers' fault, if data was wrong, it seemed. Still: and here he surprised us all, turning round to address me - he was going to look into my case, to see what had happened.
Good, I said, whilst resolving not to raise my expectations, after eight months of nothing but obstruction from Capita, and being very probably the last woman on God's earth for whom they would want to put right any injustice. Still: let's see, shall we?
Then things took a rather more sinister turn.
Tory councillor Anthony Finn had a question for the consultant. About the term 'critical errors'.
How critical, he asked, dismissively, is 'critical'?
He then jabbered on about the definition of the word, implying it wasn't really serious, that it was just a meaningless phrase, that these 'errors' were of no consequence. In a dig at me, he referred to the date of birth being slightly wrong, as if that were the case in my 'critical error'.
The consultant, whoever he was - there was no name on the table - who had navigated the course of the meeting with the usual sort of corporate speak, 'we're seeing that back at the ranch', 'perfect storm' of pension catastrophe etc, now redeemed himself, visibly bristling at the suggestion of overstatement, and he replied to the effect that Councillor Finn was indulging in pointless argument over semantics. These errors were and are serious.
That was not what Finn wanted to hear.
And then, for no reason, as I sat behind him, without even looking at my direction, he launched into a thinly disguised personal attack. You can hear what happened, in the audio recording: around 65 minutes onwards.
What he said was this - but reading a transcript gives no idea of the sarcastic, offensive tone of what he said, or its effect:
Given that it's critical, obviously Ms Musgrove thinks what’s happened to her has been a critical situation ... she has suffered 'terribly' ... BUT It’s a pity she went to the lengths ... only (not) to discuss the individual case, but you are going to reply to her ... so perhaps with Ms Musgrove’s permission you can also tell us how critical ... what was the actual facts of the case ...
I gasped in horror - he was actually demanding that the Chair reveal my personal details, my financial situation, the context of what had happened, and simply because he did not believe the real difficulties caused by the 'critical error' on my annual statements? Errors which had already been recognised as very serious by the Ombudsman?
I could have explained, as I will here, as it is my choice to do so, that Capita's repeated 'critical error' on my annual statements has meant I have now lost the option to transfer my benefits out of their fumbling hands, to another, draw down scheme, so as to access the capital, and why I wanted, needed, to do that - but I did not want to be bullied into exposing any more of my personal case than I already had, in public, and in such an environment.
But worse was to come: he was insisting he needed to know how bad the errors were in my statements, how 'critical': what his definition of critical was, he explained as follows -
whether Ms Musgrove says it’s critically in her sense of, which is the gun put to your head and you’ve been shot in a minute ... that’s critical ...
He seemed to be suggesting that as I had not shot myself, or taken similarly desperate action, the errors in my statements were clearly not 'critical'.
The room erupted in uproar.
In all the years I have watched and listened to members at council meetings, I have never heard or seen anything like this, directed at me, or anyone else. Was he really suggesting that because I had not resorted to such a step, I was lying about the seriousness of the pension cockup, and its impact on my life?
I grabbed my things, and rushed out, on the verge of tears.
To his credit, the Chair told Finn to stop, and as I heard later, Alison Moore yelled at him that his behaviour was outrageous, and he had gone too far.
And the (female) Director of Resources rushed out after me, to see if I was alright, which was very kind, followed by John Dix.
Needless to say, I have received no apology from either Finn, or the Chair.
Jibes about shooting yourself are apparently a normal part of scrutiny, in Tory Barnet.
The meeting carried on, the business was concluded, Capita remain in place, Tory councillors in their safe seats remain in place, and - the rest of us? We have to sit and watch them do what they like with this borough.
Of course Finn may have been feeling somewhat touchy because he was Chair of the committee that was tasked with scrutinising contract performance.
He is now Chair of Audit.
As Geoffrey Alderman, Chair of the Pensions Board, commented at this meeting: without accurate data, you cannot have an accurate audit process.
As I tried to explain to Cllr Shooter, and Professor Alderman, as we chatted before the meeting - I find it harder and harder to write for this blog.
Partly because of time, and commitment to my own work: but largely because I now feel so sickened by the state of things, in this foetid political landscape.
This borough really is now a 'rotten borough' - not in terms of brown envelopes, or personal financial corruption, but because of a systemic failure in safeguards for the democratic process, and a bulging deficit in ethical standards.
Because of the obstruction of transparency, and accountability; and because of the indefatigable march onwards of a corporate, materialist culture - one that is defended over and beyond the point of madness by the Tory group, in an administration seemingly dedicated to the inversion of all the values defined by the Nolan principles - and with a total absence in leadership, in vision: and in compassion.
Here is Broken Barnet, in one meeting, on one evening, in one room of your Town Hall.
And there is nothing you can do about it.
Except this, if you are a Barnet employee, past or former: check your last annual pension statements, contact Capita and insist they confirm in writing your estimated benefits, your age of qualification, and all other personal details. If you have any doubt about your entitlements, speak to Unison.