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How Birmingham metropolis council’s ‘equal pay’ chapter offered cowl for ongoing Oracle IT catastrophe

How Birmingham metropolis council’s ‘equal pay’ chapter offered cowl for ongoing Oracle IT catastrophe

2024-03-06 01:12:05

Birmingham metropolis council is ready to vote by means of a raft of funds cuts amounting to £149 million. Together with £500 million of asset gross sales, this quantities to what my colleagues and I, on the Audit Reform Lab, assume might be the biggest cuts any local authority has ever made.

The proposals will devastate essential statutory providers, together with youngsters’s providers, home-school transport, early assist and grownup social care. They will even embrace a 21% rise in council tax over the subsequent two years and a close to full defunding of the humanities.

A neighborhood authority can not technically declare chapter. However it may possibly situation a bit 114 discover when it’s unable to steadiness its funds.

Birmingham did so, twice, in September 2023, citing “the price of offering for equal pay claims”, which was revealed in September as being round £700 million (between £650 million and £760 million). This new legal responsibility left the council in a unfavorable “usable reserves” place – which means it could not have the long-term funds to cowl its prices.

We’ve got performed in depth documentary evaluation of cupboard and audit committee papers, monetary plans, annual stories and different key paperwork from the previous two years. We’ve got additionally noticed public conferences for the reason that part 114 discover. Our investigations present that the preliminary announcement didn’t inform the total story.

We’ve got discovered that the spiralling funds deficits cited within the part 114 discover have little to do with the equal pay situation. As a substitute, they’re the results of a disastrous implementation of a brand new Oracle IT system, which is compounding a decade of austerity cuts that had already left providers severely overstretched.

Our findings counsel that the council will need to have identified this IT catastrophe would have triggered a bit 114 discover, however it issued the discover on equal pay claims grounds as a substitute. This raises the essential query of why.

What’s extra, the council was advised there was no dependable monetary foundation for the quantities of cuts being proposed. The council’s IT issues have meant it has not been capable of monitor its funds successfully.

Birmingham metropolis council advised The Dialog that there was in depth dialogue within the public area in regards to the IT situation and that the council chief has spoken of the necessity for a public inquiry.

A public square under a grey sky.
Birmingham’s Cetenary Sq. with the Corridor of Reminiscence and the town library.
Brian Lewicki|Unsplash

Price range overspend

Since September, the £700 million equal pay liability has been repeatedly cited, by the council and pundits alike, as the rationale for the part 114 discover being issued.

The primary level in the notice does cite recommendation from the exterior auditors, Grant Thornton, on equal pay. Nevertheless, we have now since confirmed that they weren’t the truth is supplied with the equal pay calculations till late November 2023.

In line with the agenda for the February 21 2024 audit committee meeting, the auditors have nonetheless not been capable of log out on the quantity of the legal responsibility 5 months on from the part 114 discover.

In the meantime, cabinet papers from February 27 2024 present that the majority of the claims are unlikely to be settled till after April 2025. In different phrases, a lot of the legal responsibility pertains to doable future claims, moderately than present obligations.

Not one of the in-year deficit cited within the part 114 discover pertains to the settlement of recent equal pay claims. And not one of the £149 million of cuts to providers relate to any deficit created by equal pay settlements.

As a substitute, the council’s spiralling deficit, estimated at greater than £300 million, seems to narrate to the disastrous launch of the Oracle IT system that went reside in April 2022. Initially budgeted at £40 million, the latest report by the pinnacle of economic planning to the cupboard on February 27 2024 confirmed that the Oracle finance and human assets system has now run to an astonishing £131 million.

On prime of this £91 million overspend, an extra £69 million of financial savings in 2023-24 needed to be written off as deliberate efficiencies weren’t delivered. Our investigations, which have included talking with sources within the council and reviewing cupboard and audit committee paperwork and council monetary plans, counsel a lot of this was associated to Oracle.

The financial savings supply charge, for instance, was 91% within the yr earlier than the Oracle programme was put in and was round 70% over the previous 5 years. In 2023 that charge dropped to simply 18%.

Lots of the paperwork present the council was not capable of monitor its funds successfully. An operational assessment of Oracle by the auditors launched in January 2024 confirmed that greater than 70,000 transaction errors have left the council in chaos, unable to arrange primary monetary data. By way of the 2022-23 monetary yr, council tax and enterprise charges weren’t being successfully collected.

The auditors stated on January 31 2024 that: “No funds monitoring stories have been offered to Directorates throughout 2022-23 or 2023-24”. On February 27 2024 the chief monetary officer, in the meantime, said: “Reliance couldn’t be positioned on probably the most primary of economic data from the system, with Directorates unable to obtain monitoring stories which mirrored the true in-year monetary place.”

Political and monetary penalties

We’ve got reviewed the exceptional financial support package offered by the Division for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It now appears clear that by July 2023, senior executives within the council ought to have been conscious that the Oracle catastrophe was set to set off a bit 114 discover.

We will verify that if the council had waited for the audit of the equal pay legal responsibility to be accomplished, it could have in any case wanted to situation a bit 114 in relation to a £400 million gap in usable reserves and a projected £240 million “funds hole”.

These figures are over and above the £149 million of cuts the council has now recognized. Because of this, even when we put aside the equal pay situation, it could not have been a place to set a lawful funds.

This implies that the council could have successfully jumped earlier than it was pushed.

This has two essential penalties. The primary is political. Putting the blame on a headline-grabbing equal pay legal responsibility places the issue on the door of the town’s commerce unions and the elected Labour get together management.

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Against this, accepting the part 114 discover on the premise of a failed Oracle implementation – a lot of which seems to have been withheld from elected members and the council’s audit committee – would have put the blame squarely on the door of the council’s senior govt staff. Paperwork and webcasts of council committees by means of 2022-23 appear to indicate senior employees taking part in down the Oracle situation, with any issues being “batted away” in keeping with one audit committee member.

The second is monetary. Accepting a bit 114 discover on the again of the failed Oracle implementation would have essentially undermined the present programme of cuts. It’s because, as each Grant Thornton pointed out to the January 2024 audit committee, and the chief monetary officer repeated in February 27 2024 cupboard papers, there isn’t any dependable monetary foundation for the sums proposed.

To cite the exterior auditor’s January report to the audit committee: “The council is a number of months from having an auditable set of accounts for 2022-23. There isn’t any dependable forecast outturn for 2023-24, or a dependable baseline price place in opposition to which to set the 2024-25 funds.”

The “income outturn report” units out the precise expenditure for the yr. Not having this for both 2022-23 or 2023-24 means the council doesn’t have essential accounting data on its monetary place.

It has additionally not performed any significant public session on the cuts, nor had any unbiased assurance over their monetary sustainability or worth for cash.

Our research shows that these new proposed cuts might trigger a price spiral resulting from mounting pressures on statutory providers and severe enterprise continuity dangers. It might ship the council over a financial cliff edge.

It is extremely doable that if Birmingham metropolis council had waited to situation a bit 114 discover linked to Oracle, this may have pressured central authorities to underwrite the council’s place till its monetary place might be correctly assessed. It might have delayed a lot of the ache till 2025-2026, by which level a brand new, nationwide funding settlement for native authorities would have been an actual risk.

With councils like Birmingham going through a steep rise in price pressures, and an present £4 billion funding gap across the sector, a brand new funding settlement for native authorities might be an pressing precedence for any incoming authorities following the overall election later this yr.

In response to the factors made on this article, Birmingham metropolis council stated: “The implementation of Oracle has been the topic of intensive dialogue within the public area.” It additionally highlighted that within the cupboard assembly on February 27 2024, “the council chief spoke of the necessity for a public inquiry into the matter.”

Oracle has been approached for remark.

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