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Report slams London Mayor's car charge zone contract

Systems don't seem to be entirely working after all...

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Capita, the contractor responsible for the congestion-charging system that has previously been categorised by Mayor Ken Livingstone as an outstanding success, has been fined £1 million by Transport for London for poor customer services. Mayor Ken has subsequently rowed back a little, describing Capita's performance as "completely unacceptable," but still faces a caning when the London Assembly's Budget committee considers a report on TfL's contract with Capita at its meeting this Thursday.

In light of events since the introduction of the charge the report will not make comfortable reading for Livingstone and TfL. It notes that although 441,000 penalty charge notices (for being in the charge zone without paying) have been issued, only 209,000 have been paid, mainly at the discount rate of £40. 129,000 have been disputed, and 66 per cent of these objections are accepted, meaning only 59 per cent of notices were paid in the first five months.

The Assembly has faced substantial difficulties in extracting the terms of the Capita contract from Livingstone (you can read about that by tearing through some of the other agenda papers here,) and its report does not particularly like what it found when it succeeded. It is critical of the initial contract, and suggests pointedly that "the events of the past year with the Congestion Charge contract have shown that there is a legitimate public interest in key performance data being made publicly available at an early date." It also compares unfavourably Ken's reluctance to share in this instance with his demands for information about the government's public-private partnership arrangements concerning London's Underground.

Indeed. Livingstone, who told the Committee in September that he came close to firing Capita, renegotiated the contract. The previous one would have involved paying £81 million to Capita in the event of termination, but the report isn't impressed by the new one ("We do not view this as a good deal") either. Now, Capita gets a further £3.5 million for IT systems, which were originally deemed to be successful, and the upgrading costs of which "should have been met by Capita and not TfL." In addition, Capita gets a 138 per cent increase in its share of penalty charge revenue, up from £2.06 to £4.90 per penalty paid.

According to a TfL forecast of last December Capita would receive £297 million over the five year contract, representing 70 per cent of total scheme costs. Revenues for the scheme have been lower than expected, contributing substantially to TfL's large money hole, which Livingstone would like the government to plug.

Snapshots of the scheme in operation over the past few months have not exactly inspired confidence in how well the technology is doing. Capita has confessed that it has problems distinguishing between zero and O, and has admitted a less than systematic approach to enforcement.

Charge co-director Malcolm Murray-Clark is here quoted as saying that drivers who enter the zone without paying every day of the week were only receiving a penalty notice once a week, and that: "We'd want that to rise to at least three, possibly four, a week." This, clearly, is not a fully automated, bulletproof system firing on all cylinders, but one that requires a very worrying level of manual intervention. Last week, Livingstone admitted that a whole seven vehicles had been impounded since February, which also seems a tad of an underachievement, given the number of zeroes (ah, that's why...) on the end of the unpaid penalty notices tally. Clearly, the vaunted scheme is a bit broken - how broken, we presume, has yet to emerge. ®

Related stories:
The London charge zone, the DP Act, and MS .NET

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