Sunday 26 September 2010

Government frankness

I do love the blunt speaking of the Local Government minister - Eric Pickles. I reproduce a section from a parliamentary committee minutes. It shows a typical scene from a major contractor trying to to give less than value for a government department. The only question I have is how the contractor gets repeat business!

Q109 Chair: Secretary of State, thank you very much to you and your colleagues for the time that you spent with us. I understand that you would like to say something briefly on fire control just in finish.

Eric Pickles: I just thought I would quickly bring the Committee up to date with the contract. As you know, this Committee has expressed some concerns and worries about the contract. Indeed the Fire Minister met with Mr Gallois who is EADSs European board member with the responsibility for fire control. He apologised for the delays and stressed the organisation’s commitment to fire control. He promised to commit resources as necessary. He confirmed that EADS cannot meet the June delivery milestone which we activated and offered a further alternative suggestion as to how EADS might deliver the schedule if the fire service were willing to accept a system of reduced functionality.

I am really telling the Committee that I am very concerned about this. I do not think that EADS are treating this at all with the degree of seriousness that I would expect. As you will recall our team went to locate at Newport with EADS and they include expert secondees from the fire and rescue service. That team now, including some 15 uniform secondees, is currently located in portakabins on EADS car park, having been moved out of the main building and denied direct access to their counterparts in EADS.

We are worried that they seemed to be forming a pattern that they are employing lobbyists to try and get us to change our mind to accept a different and a smaller contract than the initial contract, for something that we did not want. Mr Betts, I really wanted to put on to the public record that this Government has no intention of rolling over and having our tummy tickled on this. We expect them to deliver their contract.

If I could just crave you indulgence I have to tell you this, there are two things. When they came before this committee they promised that they would pay compensation damages for any delay. They have now withdrawn that offer but have kindly agreed that the extra time that they are spending in order to rectify the mistakes on the contract that they have made they will not actually bill us. This is a rare thing because the last time they appeared before you they sent the Department a bill for £12,000 to cover their costs. I have to say, my predecessor and the previous Government refused to pay that and we will not be paying that £12,000.

If I could just go a little further and say, one of the things that that we are worried about is that they have produced a tool kit for the fire service to record their assets. There is a problem with it in that it does not recognise fire engines. By and large I think it is a good idea for assets to be able to recognise fire engines. This is a practical problem in so far that we need to be able to route fire engines, fire units, where there are low bridges we do not want them to go through it and find that they are missing their ladders. There is a particular problem; it has to be said, for you Mr Betts and me if I had been living in Keighley, because the only town that the system recognises within the whole of Yorkshire is Wakefield. That in itself is slightly worrying, but when you consider that the only place that the system currently recognises in London in Southwark. But kind of understand the problems that we are up against.

There is good news that the mobilising kit that they delivered to local fire stations which randomly turned itself off has now been fixed. Unfortunately the latest version has a tendency to overheat and is a fire hazard. The on board computers of fire engines currently have out of date maps and are not able to change the route easily. You and I could wonder down Victoria Street and go into a large retailer and get ourselves something for £180 that would do precisely that. I have given you these examples, admittedly slightly light-hearted but are a mess. The substantive message I think I need to give this Committee, and we have shared with the Chairman the detailed documentation, we are doing to have to come to a decision pretty soon. Our message is that a big European company like EADS should not mess us around anymore. We expect them to come to the negotiating table and fix what they have so far not fixed.

Q110 Chair: Is there actually a contract in place now? A firmly agreed contract with them.

Eric Pickles: Yes. We issued a point in June to say, "Can you deliver this?" and they cannot. They cannot meet the deadlines. They are looking for a lesser function than we currently are. They are employing lobbyists to do that. Frankly I think they should be employing people to fix the problem with the contact. If it suits members of the Committee I intend to keep Mr Betts completely in control. I think we are coming to a point where we need to know whether they are serious. Obviously we will keep the Committee fully informed on this

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