ip&e features on BBC One Sunday Politics as Shropshire Council fails to show

Shropshire Council’s private company ip&e featured on Sunday Politics this morning. The company was set up three years ago as a way of cutting costs and making money for the council. Since then, it has been dogged by controversy over its secrecy and whether it can make significant money.

The Sunday Politics segment features Ludlow campaigner Joyce Brand, myself and Catherine Staite from Birmingham University’s Institute of Local Government, and Joanne Gallacher from the BBC.

Joyce_Brand_Sunday_Politics

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Freedom of information and ip&e – FoI is not ‘bizarre’ as council leader claims

Shropshire Council is busy transferring many of its staff and services to its wholly owned company, ip&e. This company still must respond to freedom of information requests, in almost the same way that Shropshire Council does even if those requests are ‘bizarre’ in the eyes of council leader Keith Barrow.

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Teckal iceberg could sink Shropshire Council’s private company ip&e

There are two arguments that Keith Barrow, leader of Shropshire Council puts forward to justify transferring ever more public services to ip&e, the council’s private company.

The first is that it will cut costs to the council.

The second is that it will make a profit for the council.

Neither stacks up in my view.

Cuts to costs could happen and have happened within the existing council structure. At present, staff in ip&e have the same terms and conditions as those in Shropshire Council. That could change, particularly on pensions. But if ip&e wants to attract highly qualified people in a tightening labour market, it may well have to pay above public sector rates. It will need healthy bank balances to fund that.

Dreams of making a profit are such a high risk that council finance officers won’t take account of them in the council’s future budget projections. I can’t see how this company can make enough money under Teckal rules to justify the risks involved.

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ip&e – Shropshire Council’s ****** company keeps itself ******

Three years after it was founded, Shropshire Council’s private company ip&e is finally making itself public. It has a new website. This looks cute as a sales pitch. It falls short on explaining what the company is up to. It doesn’t say what it might deliver for the people of Shropshire rather than its hoped for clients.

We need to know this information. Shropshire Council owns this company – though there are no rules stopping it being sold to the likes of Serco and Capita. Shropshire Council only owns this company on behalf of the electors of Shropshire – you and me. So surely we should expect to know what’s going on with ip&e?

Alas no. The company does not hold annual general meetings. It publishes its accounts as required by law, though you can’t find them on either Shropshire Council’s website or that for ip&e (here they are). It does produce a business plan – but you are not allowed to see that. Continue reading “ip&e – Shropshire Council’s ****** company keeps itself ******”

Health promotion to move into hidden world of Shropshire Council’s private company

Shropshire Council is rapidly reducing public oversight of public services paid for with public money. Its latest move is to create a new non-profit enterprise to manage public health services. That’s a good idea. But it wants transfer the new enterprise into its shadowy company ip&e. That’s a bad idea.

In April 2013, the government transferred responsibility for public health to local councils, including Shropshire Council. Public health services are about improving and protecting the health and wellbeing of communities. They aim to prevent illness by addressing the causes of ill-health, including lifestyle, living and working conditions.

In July this year, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet resolved to create a new non-profit enterprise – Help2Change – to integrate health prevention services in the county. It will embrace services such as NHS Health Checks, Help2Quit and Help2Slim.

Next Wednesday 3 September, a special meeting of the Cabinet will be held mostly behind closed doors to agree the transfer of Help2Change to ip&e, the council’s semi-secret private company. No paperwork is yet online for a meeting just 72 hours away but we need have no doubt that the Cabinet will approve the transfer.

The idea of grouping help prevention services into a not-for-profit enterprise is a good one. But I am concerned that it is disappearing into the ambit of ip&e, the council’s shadowy company.

ip&e was set up in May 2012 to be a delivery vehicle for the council’s ambitions to “become a ‘strategic commissioner’ of local public services” and to generate income for the council. It doesn’t hold AGMs. Its website tells us nothing much. Its accounts are rolled up into a single line entry in Shropshire Council’s accounts. It is subject to freedom of information laws, but it’s hard to target an FoI request when so little is known about the company.

Transferring services to ip&e reduces public oversight of public services paid for with public money. I think that’s wrong in principle and it continues Shropshire Council’s slide into a black hole of democracy.

It worries me too that the governance and management of ip&e isn’t that stable. Eleven directors have been appointed in the 27 months since it was established. Seven of those have resigned having averaged less than ten months each. A managing director was appointed in October 2012 and departed nine months later. Council leader Keith Barrow told the BBC he “couldn’t truthfully say that [the MD’s departure] had always been the plan,” but said the council would be looking “somewhere down the line for the right person to take the company forward.” There has been no new MD appointment and the company is down to four directors against the eight required by the company’s articles of association.

ip&e has a poor track record in governance and its operations are largely invisible to the public eye. That’s why I am against transferring something as vital as public health into its remit.