Somerset MP calls SouthWest One corrupt
31 March 2008
A Somerset MP has branded the shared services company a "mad, corrupt, barking scheme".
Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Conservative MP for Bridgwater in Somerset, said ministers should investigate how a "non-elected chief executive, Alan Jones, forced through such a mad, corrupt, barking scheme".
Speaking at a debate in Westminster Hall, Liddell-Grainger said the company was planned as Somerset County Council bid to become a unitary authority, absorbing the area's district councils, but this was not successful. Southwest One had then approached Devon County Council and Cornwall County Council as potential partners. "Both, as I understand it, gave Southwest One an instant, and correct, thumbs-down," he said.
Liddell-Grainger said that the only reason Avon and Somerset Police had agreed to join Southwest One was the "rock bottom bargain basement prices" offered to them.
The corporate director for Somerset County Council, Roger Kershaw, admitted in a statement that the police had got a more favourable deal.
"In fact, all the authorities have benefited from the police joining through obvious economies of scale and reduced infrastructure costs generated through sharing IT and other systems," he said.
Responding to the MP's accusations of Alan Jones, chief executive of Somerset County Council, forcing through negotiations, Kershaw denied Jones had been involved in the negotiating process.
"Throughout the process, our chief executive, Alan Jones, has shown resolute leadership but has not been involved in any of the detailed negotiations that set this contract up," he said.
Avon and Somerset Constabulary is paying up to £185m over 10 years, with 600 staff transferring to Southwest One, an approximate cost of £31,000 per employee. The two councils are paying around £400m over 10 years, with 800 staff transferring, a cost of £50,000 per employee. Southwest One has said the two deals are not comparable, with the councils adding services that are not staff-related.
Liddell-Grainger also revealed that the IBM bid for Southwest One was evaluated by a private sector consultancy, whereas the bids from BT and Capita were evaluated by the public sector. Kershaw also denied this and said a review by external auditors in November 2007 gave it a "clean bill of health".
"The review gave Somerset County Council, as the lead authority, a clean bill of health saying the arrangements were robust. The review acknowledged a previous independent review of our procurement process which described it as 'exemplary'," he said.
The MP also said due to the levels of secrecy surrounding the company, "Joe Stalin would have been proud."
"Southwest One is an outfit born in secrecy and reliant on secrecy. Trade unionists who ask responsible questions are branded traitors," he said.
Criticising the cost of the project, the MP said: "Southwest One is destined to gobble up more than £400m of public money providing just two councils with services over the next 10 years.
"[I have been] bombarded with documents from Somerset County Council hoping to convince me of the savings. I read them all.
"They all mentioned the magic word "guarantee", but it is all aspiration - it is not an explanation of what is going on.
"Somerset people are being asked to believe in fairies, and we do not. Painless savings cannot be made unless there are real economies of scale, and they certainly cannot be guaranteed."
Somerset County Council has responded to Liddell-Grainger's speech by saying it is proud to be part of Southwest One.
Sam Crabb, county councillor for resources, said the company would make savings that would be ploughed back into front-line services.
He said: "The Somerset and Avon areas will get better services and staff will gain through assured employment and by working with colleagues from the world-class IT and business management providers, IBM."
In a joint statement, Jill Shortland, leader of Somerset County Council and Ross Henley, leader of Taunton Deane Council, said: "Southwest One has been set up with the express purpose of transforming and improving the delivery of services, making them more accessible and driving down costs.
"It's through collaborative working like this that we can deliver excellent customer-focused services, cost-effectively."