Cornwall outsourcing backers accused of 'undemocratic' tactics

Cornwall County councillors are concerned that backers of a controversial BT outsourcing deal have been using "undemocratic" tactics

Councillors from Cornwall Council have become concerned that backers of a controversial BT outsourcing deal have been using "undemocratic" tactics to influence councillors ahead of a December vote that will decide its fate once and for all.

Councillors voted on 23 October to suspend plans for a "strategic partnership" worth £800m, instructing CEO Kevin Lavery to explore other options, and to report back in December.

But Computer Weekly has learned of growing concerns about some of the tactics the BT proposal's backers are using to influence the debate ahead of next month's vote.

Cornwall Council leader Jim Currie expressed his worries about the proposed BT joint venture (JV) in an email to councillors.

"I have made it clear to senior management that, whilst maintaining circumspection, my previous attitude to the JV has actually hardened," he wrote in the email.

"This is due to the relentless hard sell of the JV, with no counter-arguments. This is democratically unacceptable. Members have a right to all the evidence available and this has not been forthcoming," wrote Currie.

Currie's comments were leaked on a blog by Andrew Wallis, an independent Cornwall councillor, who co-ordinated a public petition that helped precipitate the council's original suspension of the proposed BT deal.

"Many staff are being briefed that the hard-JV is the only option," said Wallis. He did not say who was doing the briefing, or how.

Currie's full email, since obtained by Computer Weekly, also said: "Let the buyer beware."

Currie became Conservative leader on 16 October after Alec Robertson, his predecessor, was deposed by councillors in protest at the outsourcing plan

He told Computer Weekly he remains firmly sceptical of the deal because he has still not seen enough evidence to convince him it is a good idea.

"Beforehand [my position] was sceptical. It still is sceptical. The thing that's missing is we still haven't got any numbers we can form an empirical decision on," said Currie.

"Rules of evidence – I'm very keen on that. Things should be done in a proper manner that one could expect from a government organisation. The government at all levels and in all places has certain rules, and one is rules of evidence. We would expect a level that respects the idea that best evidence should be available. That is a concern," he added.

Things should be done in a proper manner that one could expect from a government organisation

Jim Currie, Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council's chief executive officer Kevin Lavery said in a brief to councillors this week that his review would use established methods of appraising options fairly against criteria. He did not specify the criteria.

But Lavery said he would report by the next full council meeting on 11 December, and the review would be conducted by his assistant, Paul Masters, who had not been engaged on the original BT proposal. 

That proposal, which has been on the drawing board for more than two years, can now only go ahead if it wins a vote of support from the full council. Lavery is believed to favour the BT proposal.

The terms of the review, approved by councillors on 23 October, established that all options would not only be required to "make efficiency savings" but also "generate income".

BT's proposal foresees building a "Global Centre of Excellence" for telehealth and telecare in Cornwall, created by outsourcing assets acquired from Cornwall's NHS Trusts, along with taking over provision of other council services.

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