Thursday, 11 July 2019

Lord Pickles: "Public participation is an important part of council scrutiny" ... a rap on the knuckles for Barnet Tories




As you may know, at a recent meeting of the Constitution committee, Barnet Tories, despite all reasoned argument to the contrary, decided to approve a motion that would effectively end all challenge of councillors by residents at future committee meetings.

That this would be a deeply regressive measure, and run counter to all notions of transparency, and accountability, and open government, and engagement with residents would appear to hold no interest for the new Tory leader, Daniel Thomas, which is regrettable.

There could be no more important moment for residents to exercise their rights to scrutinise the activities of their elected representatives in Barnet: with the perilous financial situation, the decline in the provision of council services, and the refusal to end the disastrous partnership with Capita.

The timing of this proposal is therefore crucial, and gives all the more reason to challenge it.

One of the former councillors who has always encouraged the involvement of residents in meetings, and welcomed their questions was the LibDem peer Lord Palmer, who was an effective and fair Chair of Audit, at a time when in order to guarantee independence of the committee, it was always chaired by an opposition member. As part of their regressive tactics, in more recent times, the Tory group then installed one of their own members, which has been a mistake, for several reasons.

I wrote to Lord Palmer asking for his view on the gagging attempt: he immediately replied describing the development as 'disturbing', and adding: 

'I suspect that they are not breaking the law but what they are doing is against guidance

Indeed it is, as you would know if you read the Local Government Association's guide to engagement: 'New Conversations', in which, oh dear - Barnet appears three times as an example of ... how not to do it, unless you want to end up in the High Court.

Neither the Chair of the Constitution Committee nor the Monitoring Officer, when I asked them, had read this guidance, which proves the point that the gagging proposal was formed not out of a desire to improve engagement - or due to unreasonable cost - but to censor dissenting opinion of the Tory administration by its own electorate, and to prevent scrutiny of its abysmal record. 

After some thought, it occurred to me it might be interesting to ask another member of the House of Lords, who was well aware of the history of counter democratic blunders made by his Conservative colleagues in Barnet. Yes: Mrs Angry's No 1 fan, Eric, now Lord Pickles, (former Secretary of State for local government, and keen promoter of greater transparency and engagement in the democratic process.

Some readers may recall that way back in 2011, Pickles went out of his way, in a speech to the CIPFA conference, to praise Barnet bloggers for their reporting of local council activities - condemning the Tory administration for its squandering of public money on the MetPro arrangement, and warning all authorities to take heed:

Irony of ironies - this misuse of public money was uncovered thanks to the determination of local bloggers and activists …  Including Barnet Eye. Mr Mustard. And Mrs Angry. (As she had every right to be) Exactly the same people MetPro snooped upon. 
I've got news for Barnet. Liveblogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like.


It's here to stay.

Others might remember this photograph of Eric with two former Tory members, Kate and Brian Salinger, after the appalling treatment of Kate after she was the only Tory member to refuse to endorse massive increases in allowances for themselves, at a time when they had announced austerity measures for everyone else in Barnet.

Kate Salinger is now a member of the new Barnet Fairness Commission, an idea from the local Labour party but intended to be a cross party body that will hope to address social inequality and improve community cohesion.




An email, then to Eric, yesterday: 


Dear Lord Pickles,

I hope you won't mind my writing to you about the following development in Barnet, which I think will be of some concern to you, as someone who fought for greater openness and accountability in local government.


You may perhaps recall that, some years ago, you were kind enough to praise the efforts of a group of 'citizen journalists' in Barnet, of which I am one, writing the 'Broken Barnet' blog in the persona of 'Mrs Angry' - others include John Dix - 'Mr Reasonable', Roger Tichborne - "Barnet Eye', and Derek Dishman, 'Mr Mustard' - and we should not forget the late Daniel Hope, a former Conservative councillor who produced the 'Barnet Bugle'. 


We hold a range of personal political views, but work together as a group and individually, out of a sense of civic duty, due to the absence of any other effective scrutiny.


Over nearly ten years now, we have reported on many subjects, and brought to light many injustices: for example the MetPro scandal, in which the council was illegally deploying unlicensed, jackbooted thugs to act as security guards and keep residents from council meetings, as well as covertly film us - this in turn led to the exposure of many thousands of unlawful 'contracts' used by the same administration. 


Other stories have included the cutting of respite care for young children with multiple and complex disabilities (later rescinded as a result), the fee based project by Capita that led to the unlawful cancellation of Freedom passes for disabled residents, leaving young people with autism and other special needs stranded and confused when attempting to use public transport (later rescinded after being reported by us), the extraordinary cost of a new council depot of around £13.5 million, for a site that had cost £750,000  the year before; the suppressed discovery of legionella in public libraries; the West Hendon faux regeneration, in which land worth £12 million was secretly given to Barratts for £3, and tenants and leaseholders forced out of their homes to make way for luxury housing;  the destruction of our public library service, supposedly to save money, but which has cost £14 million; the recent use of the Public Works Loan Board to facilitate a high risk council loan of £22 million to Saracens rugby club to build a new grandstand, etcetera etcetera.


When it was proposed that the council would undertake a mass outsourcing programme, we investigated the background to this and warned that it was not going, as they claimed, to bring better services for less money. 


In fact, as soon as the Conservative administration was re-elected last May, they revised their financial statements, admitted the council was facing a serious deficit, and that the Capita contracts were not performing well, and needed review. They were going to bring back many services in house. They also admitted that a Capita manager had defrauded the council to the tune of £2 million, unnoticed by the council, who had to be informed by the culprit's bank - it then became evident that there was a wide scale absence of any adequate financial controls of the two massive Capita contracts. All of this was reported by us.


Throughout the years of the mass privatisation of council services, one blogger in particular, that is to say John Dix, who is a management consultant of thirty years experience, has doggedly reviewed the financial performance of the contracts, and reported his analysis of the council's accounts. His work is taken seriously by Tory members, as well as external auditors. He has demonstrated over and over again that the Capita contracts, other than a small core of promised nominal savings, is costing Barnet residents ever increasing amounts of cash, through such waste as the huge dependence on agency staff through Capita, and having to pay Capita 'rewards' via gainshare payments.


There has recently been a change in the Leadership of the Tory group, and there is now a very worrying development as some members of the Group now intend to force through changes to the Constitution which will effectively prevent residents holding their elected representatives to account. We understand other Conservative members are quietly uneasy about these proposals.


At the last 'Constitution and General Purposes Committee' * (they have removed 'Ethics and Probity' from the committee's name - and apparently from its remit) - three Tory members voted to change the rules on engagement. 


This means that now only two residents' questions in total (not per person, but in entirety) on any item will be allowed, no matter how many are submitted. Residents may no longer speak to the committee - any comment must be written and anyway only accepted within the two question limit. The two questions per item may not be any longer than 100 words. Residents will no longer be allowed to speak to councillors at meetings, either in making comments, or answering their questions.


I asked the Tory members and Monitoring Officer if they had read the LGA guidance on engagement, ie 'New Conversations': they had not. Had they taken legal advice on their decision - in 'New Conversations', Barnet appears three times as example of the folly of not consulting properly with residents, citing three Judicial Review)? They had not. Would they please defer their decision until after they had done so? They would not.


The pretext for this repressive move was that residents' questions cost £42,000 a year. This is nonsense, as it is part of the duties of governance officers, the figure appears to have been plucked out of thin air - and frankly on a level of consultancy fees is a drop in the ocean by Capita standards ... but as I pointed out, the Tory group currently spends the best part of £1 million a year on its own political spin, on a huge Communications Team (expanded in the run up to elections) and the propaganda rag, 'Barnet First'.


Most council meetings, in fact, have no questions submitted at all. 


It is true, of course, to say that when any particularly significant or controversial issue, such as those already mentioned - there may be a fairly large number: but these enquiries should be welcomed by any authority with a commitment to transparency - these questions are not 'vexatious' in nature, or trivial, they are from well informed, concerned residents attempting to exert their right to take part in the local democratic process.


The real reason for the attempt to gag residents is of course because the current administration is fearful of being held to account, has no interest in any commitment to the Nolan principles, and actively works to prevent public debate of its decisions and policies in action. 


This is deeply regrettable. 


At a time when the Capita contracts continue to fail, there has never been a greater need for active and well informed citizens to become involved and engaged with their local representatives.


Some of us have wondered if there is anything you can do or say to persuade your Conservative colleagues in Barnet to withdraw, in its entirety, their decision to end our right freely to question their activities and decisions? We would be most grateful for any support in this matter. 


I have also written to former Barnet councillor Lord Palmer who is very concerned by these proposals: as former Chair of Audit he welcomed questions from local bloggers and residents, and indeed former Tory Chair of Audit expressed the same sentiment last year. I understand that one of my fellow bloggers will also be writing to James Brokenshire.


Rather to my surprise, a very supportive response arrived promptly this morning: 

Dear Theresa (or Mrs Angry, if I may)

I am pleased to see that you and your fellow citizen journalists and armchair auditors are continuing to highlight how councils can further save taxpayers’ money. I hope that the legal rights to report and film council meetings under the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 have proved useful.

You might find of interest that MHCLG has announced a post-implementation review into the 2014 Act yesterday, which will include looking at whether the financial information provided in local authority accounts facilitates scrutiny by local taxpayers and the local press.

https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2019-07-10/HCWS1706/


In relation to your concerns about questions from the public at council meetings, public participation is an important part of council scrutiny and helps keep councillors (of all political colours) on their toes. I will table some Parliamentary Questions on the issue of questions to Ministers on this matter.

With best wishes,


Rt Hon The Lord Pickles


If you want to support Barnet residents' right to question their elected representatives, please sign the petition started by fellow blogger John Dix.

Many thanks: 'Here to stay': Mrs Angry, (As she has every right to be) ...

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

New Conversations: a visit from Arlene, as the Tory right takes control of Broken Barnet


Tory Councillor Jennifer Grocock and the DUP's Arlene Foster at Margaret Thatcher House, the Finchley Tories office, in Ballards Lane


It was Mr Reasonable who spotted it, hidden away in the agenda for last night's Constitution and General Purposes Committee: a report, from the Monitoring Officer, proposing measures to prevent residents of Barnet from making any further contribution to council meetings: the right to ask questions virtually stripped away in one stroke, and the right to speak to meetings for three minutes ended.

It was a grossly illiberal proposal, even by Barnet Tory standards: a deliberate attempt by to silence all challenge from their electorate; to stifle debate, and effectively to sever any opportunity for citizens and tax payers to engage in the local democratic process. 

The truth is that - the truth must be suppressed. 

We have been too successful in holding that truth to power.

As Mr Reasonable told the committee last night, 'this is personal': he knew that they were targeting people like him - and me, and Roger Tichborne, and Derek Dishman, and a number of local activists who insist on asking for the answers to questions that the Tory administration simply does not want to answer.

Now that the Tories have decided to back track on their decision to take many public services away from Capita, in house, it is even more necessary to shut us up. 



Residents are now gagged by their own Tory councillors

They are fearful of being exposed for what they are, as I pointed out in what will probably be my last comment to any committee, as this will no longer be allowed:

The last time I visited North London Business Park, I noted, on my way out, a large poster, proclaiming, in large letters:

“Informing our public 
We want Barnet Council to be 
Open, Transparent, Proactive”

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Some members of this administration - new members excused - and some officers, are determined to make it impossible for residents to hold their elected representatives to account, in blatant disregard of the Nolan Principles which are meant to inform the conduct of government, but do not apply, in Barnet.

The name of this committee is: ‘Constitution and General Purposes’. It used to be ‘Constitution, Ethics and Probity’. You changed it, happy to abandon Ethics and Probity, as these qualities have no value in your eyes, and play no part in this rotten administration, ripe as it is with so many secrets and lies, conflicts of interest, and even fraud.

Barnet residents’ questions are made in the public interest, something recognised when some of us were singled out for praise by Eric Pickles, when he was Secretary of State. We’ve exposed much wrongdoing and many failings which otherwise would have been covered up: MetPro, the Capita assault on Freedom Passes, the Abbots Way depot sale, legionella in libraries, to name only a few.

You continually tinker with the Constitution, in order to prevent residents asking difficult questions, purely from political sensitivity.

Most committees and Forums have too few questions: if there are more, on certain contentious subjects, that is something to applaud, not silence. What have you got to hide? 

Many of the questions put to meetings wouldn’t be needed if you were transparent and engaging honestly with residents. 

If you’d paid attention to the forensic auditing and careful questioning of John Dix, you wouldn’t be in the financial mess created by your own fecklessness. 

If you as councillors were competent in your role of scrutiny, many of our questions would not be necessary. We ask them out of civic duty, because you fail to inform residents properly, and take decisions without proper consultation.

If more restrictions are put on the way in which we hold you to account, this will only cause further breakdown in the relationship with your electorate. 

You will also be laying the foundations for legal challenges, as was the case in the One Barnet JR.

The cost argument you present is absurd. You complain about £40K – but are happy to blow the best part of a MILLION pounds each year on council spin, political propaganda campaigns & the Barnet First rag, all paid for by us. 

How dare you waste our council tax on your own political reputation, while seeking to silence the perfectly valid questions of residents on the issues that matter to them? 

Want to save money? Stop throwing it in the open money pit that is the Capita partnership. Cut your own allowances. Reduce the top heavy structure of management.

But this isn’t about cost, or money: it is purely about your fear of dissent, and bad PR, and political damage. The truth hurts, and awkward questions hurt most of all, because they expose you for what you are, or at least what you have created: a failed administration marked by a defensive, secretive culture, in which those who have most to be ashamed of, make the most effort to keep it out of the public domain. 

I challenge you to prove me wrong: throw out these proposals tonight and demonstrate you really do have a commitment to openness and transparency.


After making this comment, there were a few supplementary follow ups which we are - we were  - 'allowed' to make.

I asked if either the Chair, or the Monitoring Officer whose name is on the report, had bothered to inform themselves of the guidance issued by the Local Government Association on the subject of engagement with residents: 'New Conversations', is the title: all about making residents participation wider, and more meaningful, and preventing local authorities from becoming inward looking, and defensive.

Both the Chair, Melvin Cohen, and the Monitoring Officer, David Tatlow, admitted they had not read this. Or rather the MO said he couldn't remember. They asked if I would send them the details. I said I would - but please would they adjourn any decision until they had read the document. Clearly they then made the decision without sight of this crucial advice. What else would you expect, from Barnet Tory councillors? They do not want to follow best practice. They want only to follow the least necessary lip service to openness and transparency, and to silence any questions that might shed light on some of their covert activities. 

This move to shut down criticism or challenge of the council coincides with the appointment of a new, right wing Tory leader, Dan Thomas, who has never won any election other than in a safe council ward, and the leadership vote, unchallenged. His icy cool demeanour perfectly represents his political attitude, and represents a return by Barnet Tories to an inward looking, merciless tendency, Brexit favouring, defensive, backs to the wall: back to the era of Coleman, and Freer, and all the things that we do not need, in this borough, at this time.

Barnet Tories are split in several ways now: not just within the group, but also the borough associations. Hendon is and always has been a backwater, with factionalism and low membership keeping it in the doldrums. Chipping has also suffered from falling membership, and the days of genteel fundraising events and cohorts of elderly canvassers queuing up to help the party are well gone. Finchley and Golders Green? Again dwindling membership, but - oh boy: look what is happening now - 




Finchley Tories here, hosting a member of the party which opposes equal marriage, LGBT rights, and abortion, thinks the world was created in seven days, does not believe in climate change - etcetera etcetera.

Posing in her lovely union jack dress is Councillor Jennifer Grocock, who is a big Brexit fan, it seems. 

What are they saying by arranging and publicising this visit? More than they meant to, anyway. 

Personally I prefer to recall some other visitors to Margaret Thatcher House, not so long ago, marching in solidarity with Barnet residents fighting to stop Barnet Tories destroying our once magnificent library service: 



The late, great Davy Hopper - and the Durham Miners Association banner outside Margaret Thatcher House.

While Finchley Tories were busy hosting the DUP,  library campaigners and other residents were at the Town Hall watching in disbelief as their Tory councillors voted to end their involvement in the democratic process: 



Labour councillors tried their best to reason with Tory members. 

Why, asked Labour leader Barry Rawlings, if you are confident in your policies, are you frightened of questions?

Melvin Cohen appeared not to be able to answer this, nor any other argument put before the meeting. He stared down at his notes, and avoided eye contact, and response. The other two Tory members said virtually nothing: former leader Richard Cornelius looked bored, and keen to get home, and new boy Alex Prager merely suggested tinkering with the wording. 

When it came to the decision, even though one other new Tory member, Cllr Richman, had not turned up, by using two votes the Chair forced the new draconian restrictions through.

There was a furious reaction from residents, who yelled at the shamefaced Tories, and promised to ensure they would regret their actions.

And they will.






Sunday, 23 June 2019

Barnet As It Never Was: another week in Broken Barnet


Barnet as it never was ...

Last year, immediately after they had been safely restored to power, the Barnet Tory administration admitted that the borough's finances were in a state of crisis. 

Not only were the Capita contracts failing to perform, there had been a massive fraud by one of their managers, which had not been spotted by anyone either within Capita, or by the commissioning side of the council. 

It was only discovered by the culprit's bank, who had to inform Barnet that they were being defrauded. 

This in turn led to a truly shocking exposure of a total absence, within the contractual relationship, of any adequate system of financial controls.

It was then agreed that action had to be taken to bring back in house many of the services that had been outsourced. 

Time passed, and nothing happened.  

Capita's Chief Executive made an unpublicised visit to the borough, and an offer was made to offer a token repayment of £4 million - a slap on the wrist, in terms of punishment - after which it became evident that the Tory administration was now back-peddling on the reclamation of services.

Even when the abysmal record of Capita's administration of pensions became critical, with the revelation of a massive catalogue of data errors, as well as all the other breaches, there was no move to end the arrangement and return the scheme into the hands of the council. There will be no return of the scheme, unless it totally collapses, it seems. And the contracts will now more or less continue as they have been, left in the hands of Capita.

Even when, as this local Times report explains, resident satisfaction is so poor:

Dismal user ratings of services provided by Capita have led to fears councillors are not being given the chance to hold the firm to account.

The outsourcing company, which runs a range of Barnet Council services from IT to finance, failed to meet all its user satisfaction targets – and its performance worsened in three areas.


Capita has never met the contracted user satisfaction levels since two major outsourcing deals were struck with Barnet Council in 2013 – although the council says there have been “incremental improvements” in some service areas.

Clearly then, the continuation of the contracts, to any sensible person, is a totally irrational reaction, and puts at even higher risk the investment of residents' hard earned council tax, thrown with such generosity into the hands of Capita, and is a feckless gamble with the services upon which we all depend. 

A change of Tory leader has only confirmed the decision to carry on, despite everything that has happened. 

That decision was due to be approved this week, at a Policy and Resources committee meeting. 


Before the meeting: People's Mayor Mr Shepherd inspects the 'Barnet Pot Hole of the Year Competition', sponsored by Crapita Re Highways Service

Fellow blogger John Dix, ie Mr Reasonable, and other residents had submitted a number of despairing questions about this inexplicable decision, (one resident doing so by proxy, as she was, as she pointed out, with grim irony, in a message read out at the meeting, stuck in another country, thanks to an Easyjet cockup, - that is to say thanks to the business annexed by sometime Leader of the council, now local MP Mike Freer, for his so called 'Easycouncil' model of local government, which we were now watching bleeding to death on the carpet in front of us in Committee Room One. And Two.

All the residents, in their different ways, asked the same question: Why? 

Why are you now doing this, in the face of all reason, turning your back on the disaster you acknowledged last year?

Questions. There have been too many questions, from residents, it seems. 

After the day of the meeting we were informed of a proposal, to be discussed next week, to once more attempt to stifle the voice of any residents intent on holding their elected representatives to account. This grossly illiberal proposal is yet another sign of the deepest fear of this rotten administration: fear of exposure, and further damage to their already tattered political reputation.


New Leader Dan Thomas, keeping his head down, watched far left by the Monitoring Officer, whose report next week proposes to limit residents' participation in meetings

If you don't like so many questions, councillors, perhaps attempt to fulfil the role of scrutiny you are paid to undertake with some level of competence? 

Questions were raised last week by Labour's Kathy Levine about the number of scrutiny committee meetings that have been cancelled this year: an astonishingly high number, in fact: twenty two in total. I note that at this crucial point, with such a high level of concern about the Capita run scheme administration, next week's Pension Board Meeting has been cancelled too. 

New leader Dan Thomas was the Chair at the Policy and Resources meeting last week, but seemed curiously subdued, and not at all his usually ebullient self - and markedly not talking up the contracts he has promoted with such vigour since they were first proposed. Deflated, in fact, and offering no defence of the continuation of the partnership: most curious.

It was left to two Tory members to try to rebuff the criticisms.

Gabriel Rozenberg, son of Joshua, the legal journalist, tried pretending he was at the High Court, and suggesting that the plaintiff, m'lud, ie residents and campaigners, had failed to submit documentation central to its argument. He saw no evidence presented, he said, 'in this session' that proved the Capita contracts had not saved money. Despite flailing his arms around in histrionic fashion, and despite being one of the more decent and vaguely sensible Tory members, it was an unconvincing performance for the defence. 

Sorry, Gabriel. You ain't no Michael Mansfield, bruv.

Cllr Rozenberg was advised, loudly, and at some length, both 'in court' and later on Twitter, of the years of evidence collated by fellow blogger John Dix, that other than the core contractual savings - a strictly limited number of agreements, the services were continuing to mount in cost at an alarming rate. 

There have also been endless submissions (ignored) by staff unions, reports by academics (ignored), and numerous examples from around the country, eg Sheffield and Birmingham, of authorities who have pulled out of their own contracts for exactly the same reasons Barnet should be acting here. 

Gabriel and fellow Tory councillor Peter Zinkin (who, as Comrade Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, never fails to remind him, in case he has forgotten, or would like to forget, is the namesake cousin of the former editor of the Daily Worker), did their best to bang on about the core savings, while failing to acknowledge that any thing saved from those agreements is massively outsized by the monstrous scale of fees, gainshare payments and mounting bills generated by the rest of Capita's succubus like power over the prone body of Broken Barnet.

Why is Capita able to do this? Because the many thousands of pages of the contracts were never read or properly scrutinised by the feckless Tory members who approved them. That chore was left to the same firm of lawyers who erm, drafted the contract. But hidden in those thousands of pages were sleeper clauses, contract variations which, as noted by one of their own former colleagues, Hugh Rayner, who accidentally deselected himself at the last election, are where the contractor always makes the most profit.

Mrs Angry, over on the Twitter, tried to explain to Cllr Rozenberg how the 'core savings' claim displacement activity works, in terms he might understand:


He didn't quite grasp the comparison, possibly because he has never bought a tin of baked beans, or visited Tescos, and lives on a diet of oysters and champagne, like all Barnet Tories, especially the ones who live down the posh end of my road, across the border, in a Tory ward, where the pavements are laid like fitted carpets, and the road surface is as smooth as silk, and potholes are filled within minutes of their birth, by a special team of Capita Highways managers in top hats and tails, bowing in the direction of North London Business Park ...

Gabriel's (ill advised) gambit now was to suggest that we were so averse to outsourcing, that we likely believed we should make our own laptops. 

My neighbour in the public seats hissed something unpublishable, at this point.

Oh dear.

Labour members brought up the terrible state of the Pensions scheme administration. The best that Cllr Finn could come up with - that would be Councillor Anthony Finn, who is for no reason I can understand, a member of this committee, and suggested that the data errors in my case could not be serious because I had not shot myself - a suggestion for which he later had to apologise - was the consoling thought that it wasn't all bad news, as Capita only controlled the administration of the scheme to members, and had nothing to do with the investments: well - thank F*ck for that. Can you imagine?



The other point that puzzled Cllr Rozenberg, and his colleagues was, even if there was a need to exit these contracts, well: how? Again he flung his arms up in the air, and again members of the public howled suggestions, on the lines of well, try following the well trod path taken by other authorities, like Birmingham, who gave Capita the order of the boot.

Here we must return to Mrs Angry's favourite metaphorical reference for use at times of Barnet Tory inertia: our Tory councillors sitting around helplessly, unable to find the exit clause for the Capita contracts, like the dinner party guests in Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, abandoned by their servants, and inexplicably unable to leave the room ... (just for you, Jack Cohen ...).

The newly edited version of Dan Thomas, post Leadership promotion, did his best to move on, with an understated summary of the meeting so far. The discussions, he thought, had been 'helpful and healthy'. Mrs Angry looked on, worried that Cllr Thomas was perhaps feeling a little light headed. 

Now he continued, trying to remind us of the successes of the Capita partnership. Call centres, he suggested - (yes, that labyrinthine hell you enter at your own risk, should you foolishly try to contact any Barnet Council/Capita department). Here he ran out of ideas. There were others, he added, lamely. We didn't believe him. Nor did he. 

Name them, I asked, unasked, from my seat in the public gallery. He didn't. He couldn't. 

Labour's Alison Moore brought up the crashing disaster that is the administration of the Pensions Scheme, which is so bad the Chief Executive has had to draw up contingency plans to take over, in the event of complete failure, a circumstance which you would think no one with any intelligence would even contemplate and would bring the service back in house immediately should this even be a possibility.

Labour members also reminded the Tories that they had deliberately excluded  any in house option from the original tender process for the mass outsourcing. They asked for an undertaking that in the future, at the next options appraisal, the in house case would be included. 

Let's put on record now, for the purposes of this future process, that the Leader, Dan Thomas agreed to this, the inclusion of an in house case - at 8.22pm, on the 17th June, 2019. Check the minutes, when published.

We left then: nothing more to see, or hear. 

In the lobby of the Town Hall, as we left, before stepping over the confetti from the wedding taking place in another room, one of the activities the pimped out building must host, in place of its former role as the seat of local democracy, and whose guests were wandering about the building in a state of well lubricated curiosity, I noticed there was a small display, from the borough archives: 'Barnet as it Never Was'. 

The main exhibit was a lovingly detailed, watercolour mock up of a town hall for Finchley that was proposed, but never built; from an era when extending the role of community engagement in the democratic process seemed important, fished out of the archives, to be seen, or unseen, in the remaining space of the lobby, whose function now is to be the loveless backdrop for a myriad of state sanctioned weddings. 

Whom Capita hath joined together, let no man, or corporate legal adviser, put asunder. 

No need for a location dedicated to the function of local government anymore: the Battle of  Barnet is over, and we are just an outpost of the last days of the empire of Capita.

The last comment has to go to one of the few remaining humans of Late Capitalisation, in Broken Barnet - Barbara Jacobson - and the conclusion of her address to the assembled Tory councillors, already resolved, for reasons best known to themselves, to continue with the Capita partnership:

You got screwed - and unfortunately so did every resident in this borough.

Nothing else to say, really, is there?

Thursday, 13 June 2019

There's a rat in the library, what am I gonna do? Barnet Tories forced to agree a wider review of their savage cuts in service


There was a meeting, on Tuesday night, at Hendon Town Hall, of the committee that now deals with what is left of Barnet's library service. 

I can't remember the name, without looking it up: hang on. 

Ah. 'Community Leadership and Libraries'. 

In other words, two things Barnet Tories don't care about, shoved together, in the hope no one will bother to turn up and ask questions. 

(Residents at the meeting might have thought that some Labour members don't care much about it either, as two of them didn't turn up, and nor did the two substitutes - with no explanation. This must not be repeated at any other meeting where issues of such importance to residents are being discussed).

Thankfully the two that did attend, that is to say Sara Conway and Reema Patel, more than made up for any absences by their skilful handling of the engagement with the many library campaigners present to demand a full review of (what is left of) the library service, post cuts - and then Sara Conway (who is the Labour PPC for Finchley and Golders Green) engineered the adoption of a motion that widened the proposed scope of said review.


'Kids need independence ... and books' says Labour's Sara Conway. Unison's John Burgess back right looking on

That this was agreed by Tories as well was due to several reasons: the reasonable, and impassioned arguments to do so from library supporters and Labour members; the need for Barnet to demonstrate to DCMS that the review idea cooked up by both of them in response to a complaint to the Minister about the nearly annihilated service was going to be apparently above board; and because most of the Tory members present didn't have a clue what was going on. 

On the Tory end of the committee table was stalwart councillor and Nelson Mandela tribute act Brian Gordon, who quite likes libraries - or at least his children do, and he is on record as saying they spend hours studying in their local one, or rather they did, but these days, of course, anyone under 15 isn't allowed in the unstaffed library without an adult. 

Gordon, tutting at the sight of People's Mayor Mr Shepherd ostentatiously reading the Morning Star in the front row, instead of listening to his words of wisdom, (in fact Mr Shepherd listens to everything from behind his paper, and makes perfectly timed and pithy observations of varying degrees of impertinence on the issues under discussion) took issue with veteran library campaigner Keith Martin, (pictured above) for daring to suggest that the loss of a library committee, and the gradual downgrading of the service to a mere adjunct to another committee represented the contempt Barnet Tories had for the idea of public libraries. 

Cllr Gordon thought Keith was being 'a bit trivial'. In truth, this is exactly representative of the Barnet Tory attitude: they cannot understand the value residents place on their library service - they are unthinking materialists, who see no point in anything that is not a commercial enterprise, and cannot, or will not, understand the importance of libraries, reading, literacy, and social interaction to the community they were elected to represent. 


Communities, as the committee title implies, are to be led, not engaged with, and people moaning about library cuts and the impact on their community must keep quiet and listen to the wishes of their Tory masters, who know what is best for them. 

The rest of the new Tory members sat looking on, without comment, throughout the entire meeting: clearly at a loss to know what all the fuss was about. 

One of them, Roberto Weedon Sanz, who thinks he looks like Justin Trudeau (you don't), and was almost President of the Oxford Union, reckons he is going to be the next GLA member, in place of Andrew Dismore. (You won't).

The Barnet Tory approach to this election consists of choosing a fresh faced young man, or Dan Thomas, who can carry off the blazer and pocket handkerchief look, keep his mouth shut, and look the part. Well, it didn't work with Dan Thomas, and it won't work with Roberto. 

Dan Thomas, of course, having been rejected by voters (twice) in Neil Kinnock's old constituency, and then at the GLA, has managed to stand (unopposed) for the Leadership of Barnet Tory group - and at last (unopposed) he won an election. Congratulations. To those who had the sense not to stand. Commiserations to Dan Thomas.

He had no competition for the role because no Barnet Tory with any sense wants the poisoned chalice this represents, in the midst of the wreckage of the Capita contracts.  

Thomas, of course, is the last standing defender of those contracts, because he was such an enthusiastic supporter of them, and now cannot backtrack without admitting he was wrong, despite the majority of his colleagues now privately admitting this - and the newer intake of members being appalled by the mess they have inherited from former Tory administrations.

Last year, after the Capita fraud was exposed, as well as the catastrophic absence of adequate financial controls; as services continued to decline, and contractual fees increase, for one brief shining moment it seemed as if many services, if not all, would be brought back in house. 

Not now. Despite everything, including further revelations such as the almighty cock up of the administration of Barnet's Pension scheme (including my benefits, in regard to which I've submitted a complaint to the Pensions Ombudsman) - guess what? We learn that our Tory chums now intend to Carry On Regardless. Even Highways are now not going to be returned, despite the plague of potholes and broken pavements all over Broken Barnet. 

The gross stupidity of this is beyond belief: or it would be, anywhere else.

Back to the meeting. 


Reuben Thompstone, as Chair of any meeting, favours the approach of speaking like an automaton, as if he were alone in the universe, with no one listening, passing out instruction to a thankless, Godless world in his inimitable, brutally clipped, antipodean tones. 

Time 'allowed' for residents to take part in any council meeting is of course strictly limited, as they don't want to encourage That Sort of Thing, and the council's constitution is constantly being tinkered with in order to make it more and more difficult for residents to hold members to account: time limits, limits on issues which may be discussed, limits on the meetings which may be questioned. Other tactics are deployed to prevent effective challenge from residents, including meetings held with almost no publicity, questions batted off with evasive responses, or promises of written responses which cannot be challenged, FOI questions constantly obstructed or delayed for no good reason, or redacted to the point of absurdity - etc etc.

At this meeting there had been lots of questions submitted, and several people had asked to speak. This is normally done before any supplementary questions. Keith Martin and Barbara Jacobson and others spoke - (largely unheard as the Chair kept his mike on and theirs was not working). 


A little girl called Sia also spoke, very quietly, but determinedly, about the impact the library cuts had on her. Her mother is a nurse, and works long hours. Sia can no longer visit the library after school, or when there are any staff there to help her. She is one of thousands of children in this borough similarly affected: this is clearly going to have a direct impact on their lives and educational achievement.

The Chair then wasted much of the remaining time by insisting on reading out endless lists of people who had put in questions but were not there to ask follow ups. Emily Burnham, who coordinates the Save Barnet Libraries campaign, continually explained there was no need to do this as they knew who was going to speak: he ignored her and carried on, using up the time. This meant that Mary Beer, who had been going to speak, was told she could not do so. She had already provided committee members with documents that related to her brilliant exposure of the fictional 'savings' that had supposedly been the purpose of the cuts. But she was silenced. 

She sat at the table anyway, and despite all the commands from Thompstone to be quiet and sit down, read her speech, drowning out his bleated orders, until he shut up.

He had interrupted a distressing statement read by Jennifer, written by a disabled user of a library who has MS, and was unable to attend the meeting in person - in fact, as she explained, she can no longer visit her local library, unstaffed, with no toilet access*, and no one to help her: the Chair suddenly interrupted and asked why this needed to be read it out. It was grossly insensitive, and represented the attitude of Barnet Tories to all those affected by the cuts in service, in staffed hours and in the reduction of space: disabled residents, disadvantaged residents: the elderly, and children. Members of the public protested that they wanted to hear the statement, and he gave up.

* One mother, when access to the same library toilet was refused, was forced to take her child to urinate in the library car park.


People's Mayor Mr Shepherd

Labour's library lead Sara Conway raised concerns about the disproportionate impact on these groups - as well as worries about safeguarding, after the recent incident posted on social media of a man openly watching porn on a PC at an unstaffed Church End library, filmed by a passer by, and the revelation that nothing had been done since the cuts to ensure the necessary filters were in place. This is not an isolated incident, but action was only taken after this example was reported - and a reporter from the Standard asked questions. Oh, and Sara mentioned that her local library in Burnt Oak was not cleaned for a period of a month, and that a dead rat had been found in one of the shelves ... 

After all the comments by members of the public, and the issues raised by Labour members, Cllr Conway proposed her motion to toughen up what would otherwise be a nominal review into the current library service. And for once an opposition was not automatically rejected. This is a big step forward: but now we have to see that this review is independent, fair, and inclusive - not another Barnet nonsultation, not merely lip service to the obligation to hold a review, but an exercise that answers truthfully the question of impact of the devastating cuts. 

After the meeting, Mary Beer stood on the stairs of the Town Hall and again read out the points she was prevented from making in the meeting. The text is here: easy to see why they didn't want her to read it out in the committee room:


Mary Beer


You responded to my question by claiming:



"The library service budget has reduced by £1.61m p.a. Commercial spaces are currently let within East Finchley, Edgware, Golders Green, and Hendon libraries. Current rentals total £188,000 p.a with a further circa £60,000 under lease negotiation."

But let’s look at your first example, East Finchley for a minute:

Here is the sign from 2017 when you removed the ground floor study space claiming it would be converted to ’lettable space'

Here’s what it looked like before, and it was well-used.




Here’s the contract in which you agreed to pay a contractor, SW Bruce, the sum of £271,961 on 4th April, 2017 to remove this space.  



This space has remained empty and inaccessible since 2017. 

Your claim, therefore, that across four libraries a total of £188,000 has been earned in revenue cannot offset even one library’s ‘reconfiguration’, even if you include ‘under negotiations'.  

Surely, the truth of the matter is that this expensive removal of study space and diminishment of much needed public service has yielded absolutely no profit whatsoever.

Indeed, if you look at the removal of space in Edgware library’s reconfiguration, which cost £311,688 paid to Mulalley and Company Ltd on 11th May, 2017 and the cost of removing space from Chipping Barnet the sum of which was £462,541 paid to Carmelcrest Ltd on 1st June, 2016, you have spent £1,046,190 on removing public space for just 3 libraries.  

How can you claim that a total of £188k per year in the last two years has offset over one million pounds in the cost of removing this space?  

How can you truthfully claim the removal of East Finchley’s ground floor study space to turn it into ‘lettable space’, when the space has sat empty for two years, represents any kind of cost savings?  


When you consider the 2017/2018 procurement contract, it shows the costs of diminishing Barnet’s library service to be about £14m (per your own document)?  

Yet this doesn’t include the failure to realise any additional rental income to offset the space removed from public use nor the additional costs of security guards to keep people out of the library.  

Therefore, surely your claims of ‘savings’ are disingenuous at best? 



In fact Mary has highlighted here the essential deception not only of the library cuts, but of the greater part of the 'Easynomics' financial strategy of Barnet Tory policy - an assault on public services in the name of 'savings', that ends in not in net gain, but loss: this is what has happened with the Capita contracts, and in almost every venture they set in motion. 

All we can do now is to continue to assert our right to scrutinise what they do, and hold them to account. 

Even if they refuse to listen now, sooner, rather than later, they are going to face the consequences of their own folly.