Local councils make ABS bid as bulwark against outsourcing, while Kent pauses its ABS plan

Wild: open minded on best model for Kent

HB Public Law (HBPL), the merged legal teams of the London boroughs of Barnet and Harrow, is to seek an alternative business structure (ABS) as a defence against outsourcing, it emerged yesterday.

Meanwhile, Kent Legal Services (KLS), which was the first council legal team to express ABS ambitions, has its plans on hold pending a review of the best approach to developing its practice.

HBPL, which employs 80 lawyers, revealed yesterday that it has also entered a partnership with Bevan Brittan after the firm beat other law firms in a tendering exercise held by the authorities.

Head of law, Jessica Farmer, said: “The idea is that we will jointly bid for work and then be able to do it at different rates. So HBPL will be able to do it at a lower rate than Bevan Brittan, but we will be able to divide up the work between ourselves.”

Ms Farmer described the venture as enabling highly competitive bids. “We can make a unique offering to the market for work to be done at a much lower rate.” The partnership would “hopefully help with the kinds of work we can bid for”.

She said HBPL’s ongoing ABS application would have gone ahead regardless of the agreement with Bevan Brittan, as a bulwark against future outsourcing of its work “to bodies like Capita and Serco”. “We are acutely aware that it may be outsourced… at some point in the future… We can already offer our services to other local authorities, the ABS would enable HBPL to offer [them] to the private sector,” she explained.

Kent County Council’s director of governance and law, Geoff Wild, said KLS’s future shape was still undecided, but would be finalised by April 2014. While plans to launch an ABS were on hold, its public/private collaboration, formed in 2010 with Geldards, Law:Public, continued to bring success.

On KLS’s future he said: “We are actually going through an internal review at the moment to look at what the market can offer, so a whole range of options in addition to ABS are being considered at the moment.”

A three-year programme to deliver £3m in savings to the council was ahead of target. “In the first year alone we delivered £1.3m worth of savings and efficiencies… by virtue of the measures we took to reduce demand. [We] pushed work down to the lowest possible level, introduced technology, and all sorts of other methods. And that’s in addition to the income target which we exceeded, and brought in £2.5m.”

He continued: “I think it demonstrated what an in-house service can achieve, and you don’t necessarily achieve savings only by externalising or creating some joint venture or having private sector involvement. I think you can design and deliver highly efficient internal services, especially when the pressure is on.”

But the tie-up with Geldards to provide a “combined offering” in joint pitches in tendering exercises had been profitable and offered “clients the best of both worlds”, he said.

Asked which way he was leaning for KLS’s future, he said: “I’m genuinely trying to keep an open mind… it could range from anything between maintaining the in-house service, to completely externalising it, to entering into joint arrangements with other bodies whether public or private sector.”

Mr Wild welcomed the HBPL moves: “I think it’s refreshing to see that the public sector is embracing different models of service delivery. No one size fits all, so what works in one area will not necessarily work in another. For Harrow and Barnet clearly this is their preferred solution.”


    Readers Comments

  • Squeezed Middle says:

    I would be suprised to see a Local Authority in-house team spin-out into an ABS, as the stark reality is that they are heavily subsidised with council tax. They’d never admit it, but if they tried to offer their service on a level playing field with private practice firms in their region, they’d soon have to increase fees, or close doors.

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