Transport for London’s cycle hire sponsorship contract with Barclays really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Between the news that Barclays is quitting three years earlier than previously announced and the mini-media storm caused by revelations that the bank got its name on the phase 3 bikes without paying the £10m wanted by TfL, I ran a story on the bank’s latest deductions from its sponsorship payments.
The story has been overshadowed by subsequent events but something told me TfL’s internal discussions about the release might make for interesting reading so I FOI’d all their internal correspondence about the handing of the original, much delayed request.
Once again the response came after the statutory deadline but it was worth the extra wait.
The full disclosure of emails runs to 66 pages and can be found at the foot of this article but here are the most interesting points and comments:
One of my favourite contributions comes from James Mead, Head of Operations.
A colleague responsible for drafting the FOI response helpfully included some additional information which went a bit wider than my original request.
In most bodies – especially those committed to transparency, openness and accountability – this would be considered good practice.
But Mr Mead is a senior manager at TfL so, instead of praising the openness, he quashed it and insisted the response be as narrow as possible.
On January 8th he said:
“I’d delete columns c, d & e as they simply beg more questions around the KPI regime. Martin is asking about payments only, so that’s the only information we should give. He’ll undoubtedly come back with more questions, but let’s at least make him do that.”
What’s great about that line is it proves the much denied claim that TfL will only ever release the information it absolutely has to and never a sentence more.
Most deliciously, it completely undermines their many public statements about wanting to reduce the number of information requests they get – ‘let’s withhold this extra bit and force the guy to make another FOI request if he wants it’ is not the approach a body truly seeking to open itself to scrutiny would take.
And given it costs £400 to answer an FOI, it’s odd that an organisation claiming to want to cut the costs of data release would rob itself of the opportunity to release some extra, but related, information on the cheap.
It would be remiss of me not to include some of the lovely contributions made by senior members of the TfL press office who – under TfL’s standard FOI policy – get to shape responses before they’re approved.
It’s not entirely clear that Parliament intended FOI releases to be vetted by spin doctors, but TfL are uniquely worried about me writing negative things about them and so all my requests go via the press office to ensure they have advance notice of stories long before I’ve actually written them.
Nothing iffy or “Pyongyang” about that.
Press officer Tom Canning wanted (15 January 2014 14:08) to insert the following into the response:
“TfL and Barclays are now working together to resolve any outstanding contractual issues and payments following their decision not to extend the original contract to 2018. This includes looking to secure additional funding to provide TfL with the full original £25 million as originally agreed with Barclays.”
But his colleague Matt Brown, a long-time TfL press officer who has recently been making lots of lovely noises in my direction, asked his colleagues:
“having thought about it do we really want to announce this through martin?”
Remember, the whole point of sending FOI responses from known journalists to the press office is to ensure accurate media coverage. But here’s the TfL press office discussing whether they really want to do that in this case, because it’d mean releasing new information through MayorWatch.
Canning then asked “could we say something in here about us getting additional money from Barclays to cover phase 3 which will recoup this money?”
and later shared his gem of a thought:
“Martin is likely to use this to create a negative story about Barclays holding back more money, so saying this (or something akin to it) could allow us to defuse this, plus get out the fact that we are working to get the best deal for London.”
But Harriet McDonald from the Commercial Development team was concerned that adding any such statement would bring more snooping.
At 15 January 2014 18:05 she warned that:
“The only thing for us to be aware of is the fact that he may then delve deeper and imply that they have got Phase 3 free of charge, given that this is now included in an overall figure of £25m which was the original figure for phases 1 and 2
“This isn’t the case and can be managed should this be the case.”
In the end Matt Brown and Harriet McDonald seem to have got their way because there was no press office statement included in the response.
Maybe holding their noses and deigning to release information through MayorWatch wouldn’t have been such a bad thing after all?
A week later on January 20th, by which time this FOI was already two weeks overdue, TfL’s head of finance Steve Allen wanted to insert a line suggesting the bank’s deductions had been off-set by deductions from scheme operator Serco.
According to his PA, Allen had commented:
“Should we not then say explicitly the performance deductions from the sponsorship payments have been more than covered by the performance deductions in the Serco payments?”
But Mr Mead of the ‘let’s make the bugger ask again’ contribution squashed that suggestion, telling his colleagues on the morning of January 22nd:
“We’d prefer this line is not included, as these are not comparable numbers, and put scheme performance in a poor light unnecessarily. The vast majority of the money withheld has been due to not hitting trip targets, which is completely unrelated to Serco, the Serco contract, or the performance of the scheme.
“In fact, we’ve missed no Barclays performance KPIs since September 2011. We have agreed within TfL and with the GLA that we need to change the narrative on the scheme, and bashing Serco is counter-productive at this point, undermining public and stakeholder perception of the scheme in the short term. Longer term, this perception of a “failing” scheme could also impact the value of future sponsorship bids.
“Also, I think we’d struggle to defend this the next time Martin asks the question. Hoscik is not going away on this, and the next Barclays invoice will also show money deducted, with no KPI or Serco failings.”
So that’s a clear ‘no’ to trying to equate the deductions from payment to Serco with the bank’s deductions from the money it pays TfL.
Yet not everyone was content to leave things there.
At 17.02 on the 22nd, Allen’s office said he wasn’t happy to leave the draft response as is, they quote him as saying:
“I have no wish to ‘bash Serco’ I just want to be able to demonstrate that overall we are not out of pocket which is of great interest to City Hall”
But there’s a problem with this – TfL ARE out of pocket on the deal.
You don’t have to take my word for it because on the morning of January 23rd, Mead told the chain participants:
“I’ve copied Nick here as it’ll be his call. I understand the desire to demonstrate we’re not out of pocket, but the fact is we are out of pocket regarding the Barclays contract. If we want to say something different, fine, but I think everyone needs to be lined up.”
And it’s not just Mead who thinks they’re out of pocket.
An hour later, Nick Aldworth – head of bike hire at TfL – emailed to say:
“I guess this is Steve’s call if he feel strongly that we should continue to make this comparison of numbers which in truth are 95% unrelated. I would simply remind people that very shortly we WILL be out of pocket so we risk drawing attention to our somewhat misleading linkage of Serco deductions to those of Barclays. We’ve only recently been accused of making misleading statements in regard to the Barclays extension so we probably need to be very careful here.
“It’s also the fact that the vast majority of the Serco deductions were more than 2 years ago which further risks our statement looking disingenuous.
“All that said, I’m happy for Steve’s additions to go forward but would ask that Garrett has a chance to approve.”
So there we have it, TfL now confirm what I and many Assembly Members have been saying for years – that the deal with Barclays represents poor value to the taxpayer and has left them “out of pocket”.
Ordinarily this vindication would be a good place to end but the quotes above show that there was a discussion at the very highest levels of TfL to knowingly mislead by comparing two sets of figures which are “95% unrelated”.
And they show that at least one person thought it was fine to insist TfL wasn’t out of pocket – despite knowing it was – so long as everyone involved agreed to spin that line.
What they eventually sent on February 12th was a much simpler response with a table which included sums paid by TfL to Serco and a 1 line comment drawing my attention to it:
“The table above also shows the sums paid by TfL to Serco, including a total deduction for service failure penalties (SFPs) of £2.78m.”
Sadly the email chain doesn’t show who eventually pared back the response to the bare minimum and ultimately ruled out the carefully considered inaccuracies.
Update: John Biggs, Labour’s Budget spokesperson on the London Assembly, has called on Mayor Boris Johnson to “get a grip” of TfL’s managers and to ensure any future sponsorship deal provides better value for taxpayers.
Responding to the emails’ publication, Mr Biggs said: “Today’s revelations are a damning indictment of TfL under Boris Johnson and confirm that they were ‘out of pocket’ on the Barclays deal. Not only have they handed over millions of pounds of free advertising to Barclays, but they discussed whether or not to let the public know. Boris needs to get a grip of his apparently errant senior managers.
“In February we discovered that Boris failed to get funding from Barclays for a major expansion of the bicycle-hire scheme and handed the company free advertising. The Mayor and TfL are currently looking for a replacement sponsor, we need to make sure that these shoddy mistakes aren’t repeated, otherwise the London taxpayer will be out of pocket yet again.”
And Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon has said: “Getting to the bottom of how the cycle hire scheme has actually been funded has been a continual battle. I congratulate MayorWatch for getting closer to the truth of what actually has happened over the last four years.”
“The bike hire scheme is a brilliant development but from day one it is has been hindered by a poor sponsorship contract. Secrecy over the sponsorship deal has let down Londoners.”