Thursday, 1 August 2019

Bound and gagged: Barnet Tories attempt to silence the voices of their own voters

A Barnet Tory fantasy: gagging the Barnet bloggers

The outcome was always inevitable. 

The extent of dissent amongst the Tory ranks was not. 

Yes, I'm talking about the other night's Full Council meeting, in Hendon Town Hall, where Barnet Tories, as noted in the previous post, proposed to end the right of residents and taxpayers to hold their elected representatives to account, by asking questions, at council meetings. 

That they had to be whipped into doing so, was evident (although this was not entirely successful): not one of them spoke in support of this shabby proposal, and all of them sat in silent shame, avoiding eye contact with the public, and the opposition, studying their phones, hiding their faces, and most tellingly, two of them leaving the room just before this item was discussed.

Outside the Town Hall before the meeting a large crowd of residents, campaigners, union members, and other supporters - including councillors from other authorities, as you can see at the end of this post - had assembled to show their contempt for what our Tory administration was about to do.

As a mark of how desperately undemocratic this proposal was, and is, the situation had required the attendance and encouraging words of one resident of the borough who happened to have been a close friend and comrade of Nelson Mandela, fighting by his side against the repression and injustice of the apartheid years in South Africa. 

This was Paul Joseph, who now lives in Mill Hill: he spoke to the residents gathered on the steps of Barnet's town hall and urged them to fight for their right to protest - and to hold their elected members to account.

Friend and comrade of Nelson Mandela Paul Joseph addresses Barnet residents

It has been a while since so many people turned up to demonstrate before a council meeting: such is the strength of feeling amongst residents in regard to the removal of their rights freely to question members on policies and decisions that affect their lives, their environment, and their public services. The public gallery was packed, and indeed overflowing. Barnet Tories have scored a spectacular own goal by galvanising the resistance amongst local residents to their administration, in this way. Hats off.

We started as usual with the pantomime procession so beloved by our Tory councillors: what is meant to be the solemn entrance of the Mayor in the moth eaten robes of office, accompanied by Cinderella's footmen in breeches, white gloves and tricorn hats, noises off provided by deeply unimpressed residents in the gallery, suitably restrained from throwing rotten fruit by a (non-metaphorical) glass wall between them and their 'betters'.

Next up an address by the Mayor's Chaplain. Ah, good. 

As someone who spent her childhood years listening to the rambling sermons of various Catholic priests, and has a lingering fondness for being lectured by clerics, I must say, frankly, this was up there with the best of them: decorated as it was with references to a pair of snowflakes celebrating their own individuality, Toscanini, Unfinished Symphonies, and so on. 

No one was any the wiser at the end of it, but as usual the Tory members sat with assumed pious expressions, as if entirely unaware that God was in His Heavens, his beady eye on them, the black hearted elected representatives of the London Borough of Barnet, when they were about to vote through the most ignominious change to the constitution which is supposed to safeguard the integrity of the local democratic process.

Time for some self congratulation: Tory members were awfully proud of having launched some 'Healthy Heritage Walks', (part of their new PR gambit, trying to co-opt lovely things and people who are lovely entirely despite, rather than because of, anything they do, hoping the loveliness will somehow become confused in the minds of voters with the unlovely Tory councillors, and an unlovely council that leaves the borough strewn with litter, unemptied bins, broken pavements and potholes ... )

The first Heritage walk - look, a lovely landscape created entirely by Barnet Tories, (in partnership with Capita)  -  starting in Hendon, and passing by the church where - (as Mrs Angry has pointed out in this blog, in fact), Bram Stoker was inspired to set one of the scenes in Dracula, in which Van Helsing drives a stake through the heart of the unfortunate, (undead) Lucy Westenra ...

Next to the church is the former beautiful, listed Church Farmhouse Museum, which the unfortunate, (undead) Tories shut, hoping to flog off the property for a quick return, but couldn't, and then ransacked the local history collection donated by residents, and flogged that off instead.

There really can't be much Heritage left in the borough that the Tories haven't tried to sell, or hand over to developers, in fact. The arts & crafts park keeper's Lodge in Victoria Park is now destroyed, the site - yes, in the park -  awaiting the erection of a block of flats, thanks to them (post to follow on this) - and of course where they can't sell it for a quick buck, or give it away, they allow someone to steal it. 

They have now admitted that, for the second time in a year, 'Heritage' items have been stolen while allegedly in the safekeeping of their own contractors: this time, the irreplaceable stained glass Grass Farm window panels from the old Church End library. They promised to remove and secure them: now we know they did nothing of the sort, and no, as the admitted at this meeting, they were not insured. What price our heritage? Walk around that one, feckless Tory councillors, why don't you?

Donated from the Heal family to the people of Finchley: stolen while in the care of Barnet Council 

This emerged during the long, long sequence of questions - eighty five in number - which Tory members allow themselves, but is not a right extended to the people they are meant to represent. Total hypocrisy, to lecture residents about daring to submit questions about bona fide matters of public interest, when indulging in this back-slapping posturing, many of the Tories' questions being designed entirely for, yes more undeserved self congratulation, or rhetorical, cheap, political points, admiring their own questionable achievements, or giving unsatisfactory responses to the genuine enquiries of the opposition.

On to the item in question: the gagging proposal. 

A more than usually sheepish Cllr Melvin Cohen, Chair of the Constitution Committee (and father of Dean, the er, erm, Chair of the Environment Committee) read out a faltering justification of this shameful motion, claiming to jeers from the public gallery that the fuss about it was 'a storm in a teacup' ... and appearing not to understand the implications of his own proposals, or, as fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, explains here in his account of this meeting, to have checked the accuracy of the accusations made, in order to defend the gagging: for example the number of questions asked in the period used as an example:

The report was factually incorrect stating the period in question was 5 months when it was in fact 6 months and over stating the number of questions asked by 100. But in Barnet facts don't matter, just say something often enough and people will believe it.

Mr Reasonable's chart disproving Tory claims of misuse of public question time

As you will see, the questions posed - by a range of residents - are on hugely important matters: the Tories have chosen this rather arbitrary period, in fact, because: most unusually, it includes a unique example of when a record number of questions were submitted to a meeting. This was because - uniquely - it was a meeting where several hugely significant issues were being discussed: the review of the Capita contracts, and the massive Brent Cross Cricklewood development, being two of them, each in itself of unprecedented importance. 

At a rough guess, in the eight months of this year I have asked a grand total of, oh dear: as much as ... well, in fact only 20 or so questions; and I think given a couple of three minute comments. A shocking misuse of council time, apparently. 

Those questions included a few made at the last Audit committee - knowing I would be blocked in the future from doing so, on such issues as the failure by the authority to replace ANY of the 1800 Grenfell design fire doors in our social housing, and about the risk posed by senior Capita planning officers who are able to leave the service and immediately begin work as consultants dealing with their former colleagues, and/or for clients with whom they have previously acted on behalf of the authority. Also about failures in the administration of the Pension scheme, and, oh, how the proposed gagging of questions would be compliant with the authority's own Code of Governance, and the requirement to consult with residents.

I cannot begin to wonder why 20 such questions in seven months would be considered excessive, can you, reader? Unwelcome, yes, but: excessive?

In the future, no more than two questions will be allowed on any item - in entirety. 

It doesn't matter how important or complex the item might be, for example, the Brent Cross Cricklewood development, the Library review, the Pensions crisis: the first two questions to arrive will be the only questions considered, and they must be of less than 100 words. No one else may ask anything.

There will be no speaking to your elected representatives. How dare you even think of it? No eye contact, either. Stare meekly down, as if you were an extra in the Handmaid's Tale.

At this last Audit committee, it should be noted, in the same week Lord Pickles criticised Barnet Tories for their attitude to public scrutiny and the plans to gag residents, the external Auditor also went out of his way to praise the involvement of people like us in holding the authority to account, as did Lord Palmer, the former Libdem Chair of Audit.

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman came to give his support to Barnet residents: talking here to Labour councillor Reema Patel: in the background, John Dix - and a suitable display: 'Barnet as it Never Was' ...

At this week's meeting, the new Tory 'Leader' Dan Thomas launched into a frankly childish rant, looking across at me and John Dix, raving about 'unelected political activists' being to blame for asking too many questions.

I might be accused of being politically active: at least I hope so. But my questions are made out of a sense of civic duty, and utter horror at the incompetence of the local Tory administration, rather than driven by disagreement with their political agenda - to reach that point of polemical debate they would have to be capable of carrying out their own policies with some level of competence. 

They can't, and they don't. 

John Dix, Mr Reasonable, the most reasonable of men, it must be emphasised, has no political allegiance, and asks detailed, patient and forensic questions about budgeting and accounting matters, and most importantly, about the dire performance of the Capita contracts. 

This is based on his long years of experience in management practice, professional experience, and an ability to add up, and draw conclusions - a quality sadly lacking in those among the Barnet Tory administration who have been tasked with scrutiny of their own accounts and contractual performance.

I've been gagged, says Mr Reasonable

Unelected? This from the chap who cannot get himself elected to the GLA, or to a parliamentary seat, holds a safe Tory council seat, and reportedly stood for Leader of the Tory group unopposed!

Poor Thomas is not, you might say, the sharpest knife in the box: he has no real contribution to make to political debate, but looks very nice in a blazer and cravat, and is therefore a worthy group leader for the mass of empty headed Barnet Tories. 

Unelected they may be, but the four Barnet bloggers between them have had a huge readership over a period of ten years, and maintain a wide reach on social media. Other informed residents like Barbara Jacobson, of Barnet Alliance, who care passionately about our community, and our services, pose intelligent, probing, necessary questions as what should be a healthy conversation that forms the basis of any relationship between government and voters. This is a good thing: this is what democracy looks like, Barnet Tories. Did you know?

That the Tories choose to spend nearly £1 million a year in spin trying to counteract our reporting of their own cockups proves the point that Daniel Thomas avoids: the effectiveness of residents' involvement and engagement in that process of government.

A million pounds, FFS! What's the (fake news) price of £42K for residents' questions by comparison?

Barry Rawlings telling Barnet Tories, to loud cheers from the public gallery, to withdraw their gagging proposals

Labour leader Barry Rawlings tried reasoning with the Tory numpties on the other side of the chamber. He pointed out their proposals were in breach of their own constitution. Meh. So what? Well: almost certainly none of them have ever read any of it. 

Labour's Kath Mc Guirk tore a strip off them, demanding to know what on earth they were so scared of, observing that the questions usually came from people who knew better about the issues than they did. Well - yes, that in fact is what they are scared of: it becoming widely known that they are simply not up to the job of governance.

The gagging plans were voted through, of course, to a riotous response from the public gallery.

But it is not the end of the story.

One thing of note, during the course of the meeting, and from watching the footage later uploaded, is highly significant.

As confirmed today by governance officers, two members of the Tory group were not present when the gagging vote was taken. 

Roberto Weeden Sanz, the young man who wants to be, but will never be, the Tory GLA member for Barnet and Camden got up just before the item, and returned after the vote.

Veteran Tory member, and former Hendon MP, John Marshall also left at this point: and did not return. This is unprecedented.

It was evident from the fact that no other Tory member spoke to support the gagging, and the looks on many of their faces, and the fact that several have told us privately that they do not agree with it, that there has been strong disagreement over this ludicrous proposal.

It does not bode well for the new Leader that, within only weeks of taking his post, he was unable to maintain a grip on his own group. That two members had the courage to follow their conscience is quite astounding, by Tory standards. Let's hope it catches on, that sort of thing. The splits in the Tory group are real, and will tear them apart, eventually. 

And there were other tensions evident: Gabriel Rozenberg, probably the brightest member of the group, or at least - yes, steady on, Mrs Angry - along with John Marshall, the only one capable of intellectual thought, was evidently uncomfortable throughout the meeting, hid his face entirely during the gagging item, and was at loggerheads with his own leader over Brexit preparations - Gabriel is fiercely for Remain, whereas Thomas entirely relaxed, not to say brimming with excitement at the prospect of  a No Deal Brexit. 

Tensions too over the preference for tenants' rights (Gabriel Rozenberg) versus landlords' best interests with Brian Gordon, who appeared to ask - and answer - most of the 85 councillor questions, in another sign of how much to the right Barnet Tories are moving. 

Here we were, I reflected, with Cllr Gordon, the one time Nelson Mandela 'tribute act', watched in the public gallery by one of Madiba's closest friends, who had come to give support to those opposing the removal of their civic rights: from the sublime to the ridiculous, in one council meeting. 

Cllr Marshall, on the other hand, who had absented himself from the vote for the repression of residents' rights, had once paid his own tribute to the great man, spoken with moving words, at a special council meeting to commemorate his passing, speaking of his visit to Robben Island, and the tiny cell where Mandela was incarcerated for so long.

Tory councillor Brian Gordon's 'tribute' to Nelson Mandela

The message is clear: goodbye to the paternalistic, laissez faire Conservatism of Richard Cornelius; to the hope of some sort of coherent political leadership guided by intellect, or vision, or even compassion - hello to the world of Trump and Johnson and empty rhetoric; the denial of truth, the repression of free speech, the betrayal of heritage, and history, a panto season of clowns, fools, and slapstick politics.

Why does it matter so much to our Tory members to silence the voice of their own residents? 

Because it reflects the brutish nature of their political regime: and for a party that so much enjoys the act of bondage to a contractual partner, for up to fifteen years, it is a natural step to take, to throw in the added thrill of gagging. 

Outside the chamber of horrors of Hendon Town Hall, however, there are ways and means of seeking address for those who abuse the rights and privileges of the people they are meant to represent. 

The fight continues.

Residents may have lost access to the process of democracy, but there are still ways of holding these eejits to account, and we will not stop reporting, at every point, the truth, and exposing the nasty little secrets of this shabbiest of backwater council administrations.

Watch this space.

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.

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?