Sunday, 23 September 2018

Project Rose: the devastating report Barnet Tories didn't want you to read

Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius at a recent residents' meeting

Summer in Broken Barnet has always been a dangerous season. 

A time when devious council strategists quietly slip out any awkward political announcements; when developers submit any awkward applications to demolish yet another piece of our built heritage (more of that in the next post) - but increasingly now it serves as a lull in the storm: a time of desultory Tory inaction, some of our more privileged elected members sitting idly in the garden of their French summer homes, safe in the knowledge - or so they think - that nothing much back home is happening, can happen, and if it does happen: no one will notice.

This year, this summer, before our Tory councillors packed their bags and headed off to the sun, something already had happened - and the long break until September offered them a welcome respite from the gathering clouds that now have broken over their empty heads, only this week, in the form of further trouble, and the publication of a damning report that exposes, in visceral detail, the extent of failure in the corporate management of this borough.

Only after the elections were safely over was it revealed that the authority's pre-election financial statements were wrong, and predicted deficits actually on a catastrophic scale, far worse than previously given. The council also now admitted that the mass privatisation of council services, thrown in the hands of Capita, in the form of two enormous contracts, was failing - or rather, as they put it, required a 'realignment'. Capita itself, of course, is struggling to survive: all of which together has left the borough in a perilous state, at unprecedented risk of financial collapse.

At the same time, again, shortly after the elections, rumours emerged of a scandalous story involving a massive fraud alleged to have been committed by a Capita employee. A fraud said to be more than £2 million in value, and one that had gone undetected until the employee's own bank had reported it to the council. Little could be said, as the matter was going to court, and although the authority had commissioned a report by auditors Grant Thornton into the wider issues raised by the fraudulent activity, they would not publish it yet, claiming that it was not 'in the public interest'.

On Friday this report was quietly made available on the council's website, spotted only by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable - no announcement was made, of course. Why would there be? It would be in breach of their policy of denial, and counter transparency.

But let us set the scene for the latest developments.

A couple of weeks ago, Tory Leader Richard Cornelius returned from his long break to begin a set of three low key public meetings with residents. These engagements, clearly reluctantly undertaken, are lip service to the statutory requirement to consult the public about forthcoming budget expenditure, and the corporate plan. As such, of course, they were given little publicity, in the hope that almost no one would turn up.

Some of us did turn up.

We trailed along, in the dismal early autumn rain, up the steep slope from the tube station to the venue in Chipping Barnet, passing on the way a discarded copy of one of the many leaflets local Tory MP and Brexit enthusiast Theresa Villiers has been stuffing through residents' letter boxes, in the frantic hope that she can, in the event of a snap election - any election - retain what is now a desperately marginal constituency, and one that is staunchly Remain.

Poor Mrs Villiers, marginalised, and digging her own political grave

The venue chosen was the Old Bull theatre: once an inn, so named for the Bull's head drain that used to spout water from the roof - an inn dating back perhaps as far as medieval times, when Barnet itself was a venue for a battle that was one of the pivotal moments in the War of the Roses. 

In the window was a poster for a local society's talk on Richard III, who was of course present at the Battle of Barnet, as a young man. His beady eyes gazed out on to the street that he once must have passed along, after the battle, on his way to London. 

Inside the theatre, another Richard stood waiting on the tiny stage, about to give a soliloquy not on our glorious summer, or the looming winter of discontent, but to expand upon a vision of life as it never is and never can be, in Broken Barnet, where everything, as he put it, is Nice, or at least, parts of it are Nice, and in defence of which he intends to make sure the Nice parts remain Nice.

Sat in the audience were some well heeled residents of Chipping, relics of the days when Barnet was still a Tory stronghold, awash with fundraising strawberry teas, and Pimms on the lawn, and Brian Coleman in a deckchair, and residents' wishes instantly accommodated by local party representatives. 

The sense of entitlement was palpable: two women vied with each other to be the most outraged over the council and police failing to remove homeless people daring to sleep in shop doorways, and spoiling the high street with their poverty and mental health needs, urinating in public and Worse, as one enraged woman at the back hissed across  the auditorium. Defecation! 

No shit. 

No: shit happens, even in Chipping Barnet. And it isn't at all Nice.

The Tory leader promised to 'clamp down' on such unspeakable acts, and said they were all foreigners, anyway, theses homeless people - as some of us looked on in horror, and instantly objected.

Another resident objected to investment in the less advantaged western side of the borough: why should they have 'so much' rather than Chipping? This was a step too far even for the Tory leader, and for one shining moment - a theatrical moment as breath taking as anything ever seen on the boards of the Old Vic - Mrs Angry and Richard Cornelius agreed with each other, and remonstrated with the woman. 

An event so unexpected, in fact, that he stopped to inform the audience it that such a thing had never happened before. 

It is unlikely ever to happen again.

The event was meant to be a consultation on the corporate plan.  Fellow bloggers Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne and Mrs Angry all tried to bring the discussion back to this point, and raise serious questions about the massive deficit, and the damage from the failure of the Capita contracts, but to little avail. Cornelius seemed, under any difficult questioning, to cringe, and even shrink in stature: less of a Shakespearean performance, than a puppet whose strings have been cut. 

He denied that successive Tory administrations had been guilty of financial incompetence. He insisted the Capita contracts were making savings. He blamed all financial shortfalls on funding shortages, without attributing this to the policies of his own party in government. Yes: a load of old bull, spouting forth, at the Old Bull. 

In short, Cornelius, and Barnet Tories generally, are in a state of absolute denial. Or at least that is their public facing approach - to deny to others what they must know to be the truth - that the borough faces financial meltdown, and may well end up in the dire straits facing Northamptonshire and other council authorities. Stare it out, deny it: bad news is fake news. 

A twitter follower spotted something rather alarming about the photo of Barnet's Tory leader at his recent stand up/sit down roadshow ...

In order to maintain some sense of equanimity, they have adopted a defence mechanism of total silence - a sworn allegiance to the code of omerta, defiantly maintained in the face of the earlier revelations - immediately after the local elections - of the gravity of our perilous financial position. This was inadequate then: after what has now emerged in the course of Friday's revelations, they find themselves with no cover at all, and exposed for all to see as they really are.

Eventually the Capita fraud case was brought to court, and the culprit pleaded guilty to 62 incidents of fraud, involving payments for non existent cases of Compulsory Purchase Orders of properties in regeneration schemes -  to the value of more than £2 million. He was given a five year prison sentence.

The council had commissioned a report from Grant Thornton to look into the circumstances in which this incredibly serious fraud had occurred. But they refused to publish it, or disclose the contents to members, citing as an excuse - preposterously - that it was 'not in the public interest' to do so. Why not? 

Tory leader Cornelius, Chief Executive John Hooton and senior managers earlier in the summer

Because, they said, it 'contains financial and business information about Re and Capita'. 

Quite clearly public interest is not the same as the commercial interests of Capita: but such is the extent of power, the inversion of power, between customer and contractor in this perverse relationship that Capita has been allowed to move into the more dominant position, leaving Barnet Tories too frightened to hold them to account. And of course the contract requires the council to promote the reputation of its own contractor, making it even harder to hold them to account. 

What sort of fools would sign up for such a contract, you may ask? 

Ask them yourselves: most of them are still sitting at the committee table.

By September, the report had still not been published. 

On 3rd September, Mrs Angry had decided to submit a Freedom of Information request for the report: 

Please give me a full copy of the report of the investigation undertaken by
Grant Thornton into the recent £2million+ fraud perpetrated by an employee of

Please do not claim it is not in the public interest for this report to be
published, as quite clearly that cannot be true, and the ICO will not allow such
a pretext.

Please do not refuse publication on the pretext of future publication as the
report should already have been published, in the public interest, and anyway
no date has ever been given for publication.

There was nothing to lose by formally requesting the report: and it would force the authority, if refused, to explain itself to the Information Commissioner, a body which has always been very supportive when dealing with complaints about Barnet's attempts to obstruct the disclosure of material that is demonstrably in the public interest, and indeed has put the authority into 'special measures' when found to be in breach of statutory requirements.

And it was a timely test of Barnet's culture of counter transparency, as over recent months, almost every politically sensitive FOI request made to the authority by me and others appears to have resulted in delays, delayed demands for 'clarification', and other difficulties.  Last week patience ran out, and a complaint was made to the ICO about two such requests, on two matters that are of serious significance, and should most definitely be put in the public domain. 

This seems to have had a beneficial outcome in one way at least. Within days, the Grant Thornton report was - with no public announcement - at last published on the council website, and Mrs Angry informed that her response had been supplied - and five days early - albeit, as we know, with some redactions. The timing may or may not be coincidental. 

It is now clear, however, why it has taken the authority so long to release this document. 

The report - which you can find here - commissioned under the code name 'Project Rose' - is a devastating exposure of both contractual failings, and the failings of the commissioning side of the council to manage with any measurement of competence, the safeguarding of its own financial investment in services, and the process of privatisation. 

Ultimately, of course, it is an absolute indictment of the Tory group, and the Tory leadership. 

It must be noted, as observed within the report at several points, that Capita does not lend its endorsement to the contents, and that the report had to be redrafted no less than seven times. One hesitates to guess what the original version was like, bearing in mind the state of the final one.

'Project Rose', then.

O Rose, thou art sick.

Where to begin?

First of all it is confirmed that the massive fraud, perpetrated over an eighteen month period, was only detected by the employee's own bank. It was not spotted, throughout this period, by any manager, in either of the two Capita organisations: CSG, or the joint venture Re, or anyone in the commissioning side of the council, or in internal audit, or CAFT, the Corporate Anti Fraud Team. 

The way in which 'the Individual', as he is referred to throughout the report, managed for so long to perpetrate this series of fraudulent acts, was by taking advantage of the inherent vulnerability of a privatised council with complete disregard for basic accounting safeguards,  let alone any adequate system of financial control - or indeed any proper mitigation of the risk of fraud.  

This open larder of opportunity was made all the easier to access, due to something we have so often reported in this blog: the multiplicity of roles played by Capita, the conflicts of interest so deeply embedded within their range of functions - and the double contract system that increases the risk of fraud or corruption, with a lack of protocols guarding against any potential for such activity. The interaction between Capita CSG and Capita Re has been effectively unregulated, or insufficiently regulated. A failure that has been compounded by another, overarching role in which the same contractor is responsible for overseeing the authority's accounts - and reporting on its own financial performance. 

Above and beyond this mess, there is something which goes right back up to the highest levels of governance, and accountability. Something noted repeatedly in a phrase used throughout this truly shocking report, and that is -'insufficient oversight'. 

(Part of) the Capita contracts that Tory councillors did not read fully before approving

The story of the Barnet Capita contracts has been chronicled in detail here, over the years, and elsewhere. 

Go back five years, if you like, and follow the genesis of this reckless process, right from the beginning, and the ineffably vacuous 'easycouncil' model of local government promoted by former Tory leader Freer, now MP for Finchley & Golders Green, one which was fostered and developed by a succession of neo-Thatcherite councillors, senior management officers, and consultants, in order to soften up the ground for the mass outsourcing of our local services. 

Read how Barnet Unison, and anyone with any sense, tried to warn Barnet Tories what would happen. Remember the reports that were submitted to committees, and ignored, unread.

Remember the staff who lost their jobs, the services moved out of the borough to all around the UK.

Remember how the Tory councillors allowed the tendering process to develop, with only one contender, in the end. 

How they were not 'allowed' to read the full contract, and how the same lawyers who worded it approved it on their behalf, and how the Tory councillors voted to approve contracts they had not read.

Richard Cornelius signing away direct control of our local services in 2013

How after they had done so, some of them allowed themselves to express grave doubts about the whole process - too late.

How in the years that followed, one man - fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable - has continued to scrutinise the performance of the contracts, and explain, in forensic detail, the reasons for his serious concerns about the risks of failure that were evident to anyone with even the least critical eye.

Think about the consequences, for our least advantaged residents, of any serious failure in the local services on which they rely. Combined with a self inflicted lack of funding from council tax frozen for purely ideological reasons, by Barnet Tories, who at the same time were happily endorsing the most brutal cuts in those local services, magnified by a policy of further slashing of funds from central government: and we have a disaster on our hands.

Who will take responsibility for this? 

And has anyone been sanctioned in any way for the gross failure of the authority to prevent the fraudulent activity and widespread financial incompetence uncovered by the Grant Thornton report? 

The line of accountability goes right up to the top. The Tory leader, the Chief Executive, the senior management team; the Chairs of council committees - have any of them accepted responsibility, or lost their posts? 

No chance of the Tory leader standing down: in fact it is rumoured he has only recently seen off a challenge for the leadership. So we must accept that his captaincy of the ship that is now hitting the iceberg somehow equips him to lead the rescue mission, must we? 

What will happen now? 

What has the opposition said about this completely avoidable disaster?

Hard to tell, as there has been no statement on the party website, they say because they have lost access to it - and there is little to see on twitter. Some members have tweeted part of a statement emailed to them, in which apparently the local party is calling for the resignation of the Tory leader and the deputy leader, Dan Thomas, (who has always been the strongest supporter of the Capita contracts, but now appears to have been struck dumb: and who left twitter, by chance, earlier in the year, when the stuff now appearing in the shop doorways of Chipping Barnet began hitting the fan).

Barnet Labour are also now calling for the termination of the two Capita contracts. Better late than never: but really, far too late in the day to have any impact.

Since the contracts were signed, Labour in Barnet has largely failed to communicate successfully to electors the significance of the contractual bondage, or to express any effective condemnation of the continuation of the arrangements, citing the potential financial penalties that might accrue should we threaten to make an exit - without fully exploring whether or not this is correct. (In regard to this, it is also significant that it was a team of local activists - including the local bloggers - who sought legal opinion, backed by Labour lawyers, about the One Barnet outsourcing programme, and saw it through to a Judicial Review, whose judgement found the contracts to be based on flawed consultation, and would have been won if not deemed out of time). 

As to Cornelius's ship of fools, sailing full steam ahead towards and over the edge of the horizon, what is there to say? 

Denial, evasion, and a refusal to accept a duty of accountability will not stop the inevitable conclusion to their years of folly. They will struggle to free themselves of Capita: Capita will desperately try to retain as many services as possible, despite everything that has happened. The Grant Thornton report, incidentally, says very carefully that they 'understand' the £2 million stolen from Barnet has been 'reimbursed' - but where is the proof? Has it been paid in cash, or will it be deducted from fees?

Well: let the Tories sink their own political lives, and leave the careers of the three local Tory MPs clinging on to the wreckage: but let's not allow them to take us with them.

Time for the Labour party in Barnet to shape up, step up: show real opposition, effective strategy - and real leadership. A radical, robust fight is what is needed, not a consensual approach to politics, and an indulgent relationship with senior Tories, and senior officers - the latter habit often excused to Mrs Angry on the basis of having to work with them in the future. Friends, there is no likelihood of gaining power for the foreseeable future, and there never will be, if we carry on like this.

It is not enough to call for an end to the contracts, when in the meanwhile there are largely still the same senior officers in place, the same management structure, the same dependence on hugely expensive agency staff and, unaccountable consultants. Heads should, and must roll: and cuts made in a top heavy, hugely over rewarded senior level of management.

There are also many unanswered questions that emerge from any reading of the Grant Thornton report. 

The failure of the internal audit process, and CAFT, to identify the CPO fraud. The possible occurrence, in the years since the contracts were signed, of other fraudulent or corrupt practices, as a result of the absence of proper safeguards. Planning and enforcement clearly needs a closer look, and regeneration: has there been any wrongdoing in any of the the previous CPO programmes? 

All of these areas clearly require review, and an independent investigation - Project Rose was limited to the scope of immediate impact of the CPO fraud, but the implications go far wider, and in my view that is why we must all now demand a fuller inquiry - for the reassurance of residents and tax payers that their money, and their services, and the community in which we live, are safe from further exploitation, and further financial loss.

Monday, 23 July 2018

(Not) Sleeping Easily in Our Beds, and - Who is Minding the Council? A week in Broken Barnet

Fellow blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, of the Barnet Eye, modelling this season's must wear t shirt.

Having tried very hard, over the last year or so, to avoid the ordeal of sitting through yet another interminable Barnet council meeting, it took no small act of forbearance to have to attend two meetings in one week - this last week.  

But these were two meetings which simply had to be witnessed, poised as we are on the brink of the apocalypse, and the end of days for Broken Barnet.

The decline and fall must be chronicled, and annotated, in the cause of history, as a warning to others, and ourselves, as we may be, in the future. 

It's not about one local Tory backwater council, clinging on to the days of glory, when this borough was the centre of the cult of Thatcherism, or even just the story, as it more properly should be, of local grassroots activism, fighting back, in the tradition of British underdogs, refusing to be bowed by bullying, tinpot politicians: although perhaps it is both these things. 

More importantly, hidden in the details of these accounts, we hope, is a more significant message - the story of something more universal, in a political sense: not just the failure of a model of privatised government, the utter failure of the market economy in public services. 

The end of Capita-lism in Broken Barnet is a useful lesson - for a wide audience. 

Until recently, council meetings like these would be annexed by the Men in Suits: the Men from Capita - agents of our contractual partners, taking over the public seating, not just manspreading, corporatespreading, with a droit de seigneur fully in line with the perception of their role as feudal overlords, an invading army moving on from the point of battle, to one of conquest, and the imposition of a foreign culture, and language.

The language of the London Borough of Capita, of course, is one of impenetrable meaning, deliberately created to ensure a lack of comprehension, and a virtual surrender to the colonial administration now overseeing every aspect of life in our rotten borough.

We submit, or have submitted, to the vocabulary of occupation: corporate newspeak, the inversion of truth, for the benefit of politicians, and private contractors.

As this administration loses its grip on our financial security, however, and the risks of their contractual bondage are now fully exposed, that co-opted language is itself beginning to lose its fluency, and its magic powers, as we shall see. 

Council officers and Capita representatives attempt the same tired phrases, to try to disguise the sheer awfulness of what is happening: but now their power is broken, and they are failing. 

We see you.

Ah but: the contracts are not being torn apart: they are being 'Re-aligned'. 

Senior officers talk about a 'Re-profiling'. 

Well, we live, as you may recall, in a borough that has been 'Re-Barneted' by ... 'Re' - the Joint Venture owned by Barnet and Capita, although dominated by the latter partner. 

The Chief Executive, and the Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, have of course now Re-signed as directors of Re, because they have suddenly discovered a conflict of interest occurring in such a position, when the contract is under review. They see no conflict in retaining their roles on the commissioning side, at this time, of course.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius, and Chief Executive John Hooton, at Thursday's meeting

Oh. Well, how funny, as Mrs Angry pointed out in questions to this Tuesday's Audit Committee*, because the entire process of outsourcing of services in Barnet has been fraught with conflicts of interest since before the tenders were put out, and despite constant requests for the council to do something to mitigate those risks, nothing was ever done.

* See here for link to full questions, from Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, Mrs Angry and Mrs Jacobson.

Right from the point where officers were coming and going, as 'interim' consultants, or on the staff structure, from outsourcing companies to the council and back again, in a swing door movement, unstopped by any effective restraint, our system of governance has been broken and compromised. 

The multiplicity of roles played by the successful bidder for the two contracts, ie Capita, has provided a fertile ground for conflicts, and the perception of conflict of interest, and even the potential, as we have seen, for fraud, and corruption. 

Planning and enforcement has been rife with conflict, embedded in the very heart of processes meant to deliver an effective service for residents, but now prioritising the needs of developers, with special assistance available to developers, for a standard fee, that helps them gain approval for their plans, while the same company, the same officers - as proven in one local case in Finchley - then overseeing the consultation process - and the recommendation for approval. Where is the transparency, the accountability, or justice for residents?

Apart from a widely ranging portfolio of service provision, Capita was also responsible for presenting the council's accounts: comparable, say, to asking your local supermarket to take the money out of your purse at the check out, while you pack your bags ...

How the Tory members who approved the contracts failed to foresee the conflict here is impossible to understand. 

Only the catastrophic cock up revealed in last year's Audit process brought them to their senses, and made them Re-alise, too late, that they had to bring this service back in house.

Mrs A's supplementary question to the Chair of Audit here then: will they do anything to review the issue of conflict of interest?

After some bafflement as to why that might be a good idea, the response, of course, was -  No.

Another question had been about a crucial report that had been withheld from the meeting - the report commissioned from Grant Thornton on an alleged fraud taking place within the Capita run services.

Blogger John Dix (Mr Reasonable) attempts to raise his concerns at Tuesday's Audit meeting

Both John Dix (fellow blogger Mr Re-asonable), and I had asked about the justification for this exemption. The council's response was to claim it was in the 'public interest', yet in reply to a question to Mr R, admitted that the Re-quest to withhold the report had come from ... Capita. 

Important to note, before asking the supplementary question, that the excuse of 'public interest' was wrongly used, instead of what was quite clearly a commercial interest - that that is a shocking dereliction of the council's duties, as defined by the Nolan principles, in regard to transparency and accountability. Why, Mrs A asked, are you so frightened of confrontation with Capita?

The Chief Executive's face Re-arranged itself into an expression of sincerity, as he burbled his way through the usual sort of non response to any question put to any senior officer if the London Borough of Broken Barnet. It seems he thought that sitting on this report, at this stage, was a Re-asonable re-quest (ok, I'll stop now) from Capita. 

Mrs Angry's third question had been as follows:

There are many references within this report to
failings in the system of financial control but
ultimately the system depends on effective
scrutiny by the Chair and Members of the Audit
Committee. The most serious failure, therefore,
rests with those members who refused to listen to
warnings from union reports, external auditors,
residents, campaigners - and local bloggers,
especially John Dix. Will the Chair now apologise
on behalf of the Audit Committee to these bodies
and individuals, whose strenuous efforts to
defend local taxpayers' investment, and our vital
public services, have been ignored over a period of
several years?

Can you guess the response?

Yes. One word:


Well, of course not. Why would these fools admit their culpability for the Capita cockup, or feel any sense of shame for entering into the contracts, despite all warnings of the consequences? 

Fine. The art of getting one over the Tories at any meeting involves abandoning all hope of truthful answers and using supplementary questions as an opportunity for embarrassing commentary in the guise of working up to said supplementary questions.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Tory Chair of Audit, Cllr Antony Finn made a ridiculous statement, asking that there be a 'different attitude', a rejection of 'party politics' - to 'go forward positively'. He asked for 'bouquets, not criticisms'.

This was, and is, simply preposterous.

In his former role as Chair of the committee which monitored contractual performance, Finn had made similar demands. The purpose of scrutiny, he had claimed, five years ago, at the beginning of the period of contractual bondage with Capita, was  was not to criticise. It was 'to make a positive contribution'. 

Five years of this sort of attitude had allowed Capita to fail, unchecked, to deliver a performance that was simply inadequate, and has created a total crisis in financial management, and the delivery of services.

Mrs Angry reminded him of the failure of the Performance committee to hold Capita to account, and objected to the idea that Audit should be turned into a similar rubber stamping exercise. 

The reports coming to committee were explicit in their identification of the lack of effective financial controls which had led to the current mess we are in. A control system which ultimately ends in the democratic oversight of both Performance and Audit committees. Instead of a typically arrogant, one word response, could he explain why he - and councillor Zinkin, another Performance committee member, felt no responsibility for what has happened? 

Finn opened and shut his mouth, gasping like a stranded fish thrown up on the riverbank, while his colleague Cllr Zinkin laughed quietly to himself at the table. 

It's only a game, after all, all of this, to them.

No coherent response emerged - Finn looks increasingly tired, these days, and beyond the demands of the current crisis. It hardly seems kind to hold him to account, and let the others off the hook. Mrs Angry left the table, with the polite suggestion that if he was unable to undertake the responsibility of his role as Chair of Audit, he should resign in favour of someone else (preferably, as it should be, an opposition member).

It was a suggestion that found favour with the public gallery.

The meeting continued. What did the opposition have to say? The three Labour members missed the opportunity of a totally open goal, their innate politeness leaving them fatally disadvantaged. The Tories, of course, until recently, have never held back, and are utterly ruthless in tactics. They would not hesitate in going for the jugular, in any similar situation.

The former Labour leader Alison Moore described the failing model of outsourcing as 'creaking'.

It's sunk! observed Mr Reasonable, shaking his head. 

She said she actually found the report 'quite shocking'. 

Cllr Kathy Levine then quietly pointed out that the Chair had blithely reassured all members of the council, not so long ago, after concerns were raised about the state of Capita's health, that 'we could sleep easily in our beds' - but 'the next day Capita's shares fell through the floor' ... 

Barnet's external auditors, BDO, Leigh Lloyd Thomas on the right

The external auditors from BDO sat at the table listening. A grim faced Leigh Lloyd-Thomas gave guarded approval of some improvements, but made a curious reference to some of this year's accounts, saying that they 'didn't look right'. The pensions information from Capita, for some reason, had been late. In summary, there are still huge concerns about the council's expenditure, despite some belated recognition from the council that it needed to take drastic action to get a grip of its finances - it seemed that after some difficulties the accounts could after all be published in July, unqualified.

Which July? asked Mr Shepherd, from the public gallery, the veteran one man chorus of disapproval present at all council meetings. (The gravity of this meeting was marked by his accompaniment of three bags of cuttings from the Morning Star, rather than the usual two.)

One matter for the auditors that appears not to have been brought up, although Mrs Angry understands the matter will be brought to their attention, is one that will surely enrage one former Tory member of the council - yes, our dear friend, and erstwhile Mayor, Brian Coleman.

That is the curious case of the Town Hall memorabilia which has apparently 'gone missing' - believed to include not only Mayoral regalia, but other valuable items - an important part of our local heritage, corporate assets subject to the process of audit. 

It seems Capita Estates were meant to place these items in a place of safety: in an act of gruesome irony, they decided to shove it in the disused mortuary just down the road from Mrs Angry - and oh dear, it disappeared, never to be seen again. 

It was meant to happen, of course, to demonstrate, in a neat metaphorical package, the absolute surrender and loss of control of the local democratic process, and here we are.

The People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, locked out of Hendon Library, next to the Town Hall

Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, and the funniest man in Broken Barnet, and without whose presence no Barnet council meeting is properly quorate, was back at the Town Hall on Thursday night for the special Policy & Resources meeting, at which it was to be decided how the council would proceed in addressing the crisis in the Capita contractual performance. The report going to this committee was frankly insultingly short, as noted by Labour members - and with an 'assessment' properly denounced by Mr Reasonable as utterly inadequate, being no more than a chart. The report offered three options: Option One, do nothing. Option Two, do something but not enough, or Three: #Kick Out Capita.

For some reason, even at this earliest stage in the process of 'Re-alignment' of the contracts, the report had chosen a preferred option, which was of course, Option Two.

Outside the building, a crowd of residents, campaigners and union members stood with banners demanding the choice of Option Three.

Residents, campaigners, and union members at the Town Hall

Inside the building, the ever scheming Tory members started the meeting ten minutes early, caring not one jot that many of the residents who had submitted questions, or were making verbal comments, might not have arrived. 

Resident Nick Dixon addressed the committee, rightly emphasising the dire state of the Capita run planning and enforcement service, accusing the contractor of 'poisoning' the council, saying: 

Capita/ Re has developed a fine service....for developers. But, it is a poor, dishonest one for residents. This turns the principle of public service on its head.

He urged members to pull the plug on Capita:

Services MUST be brought back in house, to be monitored closely by democratically elected, accountable councillors.

Get rid of Capita. Put the community first.

'Putting the community first' was also the theme of the speech from another resident and campaigner, Keith Martin. It is, after all, the stated motto of our council, fully in line with its dystopian inversion of language, and truth.

Resident and campaigner Keith Martin

Barbara Jacobson spoke next, criticising their refusal to listen when entering the contracts, despite the clear warnings - many people foresaw that what has happened, would happen. As she ended her speech, she asked deputy leader Dan Thomas, sitting at the table all evening in surly silence, if he was bored. 

Thomas, of course, has perhaps been the most outspoken supporter of the Capita contracts. He spent the evening in visible discomfort - and it was most enjoyable to watch. Here he is listening to resident Nick Dixon's speech.

Labour's Alison Moore listens attentively to resident Nick Dixon's criticisms of the Capita run planning service - while easycouncil enthusiast and deputy Tory leader Dan Thomas, to her right, appears rather less interested ...

John Dix, yet again, sat at the table, and told the Tories how things were. He pointed out the foolishness of leaving so many services with Capita, if they chose Option Two. You have this one chance, he told them, to issue a 12 month termination notice, and look at how services should be provided, in the most effective way. 

In other words: cut free now, take back control.

In response to Labour's Ross Houston's comments, and Mrs Jacobson's description of the report and recommendation being evidence of 'the tail waving the dog', John observed that the Tories are not having a proper, open review. Do it properly, he demanded.

Labour leader Barry Rawlings referred to Finn's remark about us all sleeping easily in our beds, despite the threatened collapse of Capita. We are sleeping in the backseat of the car, he said, having outsourced the driving to Capita ... 

The Tory leader seemed not to want to say very much at this point for some reason, and deferred to the Section 151 officer, Kevin Bartle, who seems to be the only one of them with any grasp of the seriousness of the situation. 

Senior officers must use the dissociative words of corporate culture, of course, and the evening's awkward interactions were generously lubricated with the use of 'slippage', and yes, re-profiling, and - eww, what sounded like 'the removal of skins'? Anything to avoid admitting we are up shit creek without a paddle, in other words. But as we have noted, the magic power of the language of occupation is waning, and it no longer serves, with any level of effectiveness, the purpose of counter transparency.

Labour's Kath Mc Guirk, thankfully, doesn't speak in code. 

(Earlier in the evening there had been a deviation from the main event to consider a grant to two local selective girls' schools, one of which, of course, as a mark of its excellence, has produced not only stroppy Cllr Mc Guirk, who was therefore obliged to make a declaration of interest, but also Mrs Angry, both of us trained by the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus in topical debate, unarmed combat, and advanced impudence).

Commenting on the lessons not learned from the Icelandic bank disaster, and the new disaster of the Capita contracts Kath now demanded to know: Who is minding the council?

There appeared to be no easy answer to this. Well, in fact, no answer, because - no one is.  

Ross Houston observed that it was incredible to find us learning about this crisis only after the recent election - it is scandalous he said, that it has got to this stage. He referred to the administration's incompetence, and made a curious remark - 'I hope it is incompetence ...'

Time for more soothing words from the Chief Executive, John Hooton, who appears remarkably unfazed, in the circumstances, and very keen to please everyone. 

He now described, using a suggestion from the corporate guidebook, Section 13b, Calming phrases to use at a time of impending Doom, and the Collapse of a New Model of Local Government, delivered in a cheery tone of voice, that we have been standing on a significant cliff edge, but now 'that challenge has come a bit forward' ...

 Barnet CEO: 'That challenge that has come a bit forward ...'

Well yes. A bit, Mr Hooton, a little bit. But of course:

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off ...

And now look. In fact, let's be honest - we are over the edge of the cliff, in free fall, and there is no one down below to catch us.

The deputy Chief Executive, Kath Shaw, reminded members that 'all' they were doing this evening was to vote on whether or not there should be the provision of a full business case for any of the options before them.

Ah. Except of course there was already a preferred option, wasn't there? 

Should there be? asked Labour councillors, and attending bloggers? 

Oh, yes, it was a legal requirement, we were  told, more than once in the meeting.

Labour leader Barry Rawlings was worried - we need full consultation on all the options, and flexibility, but members only have half the figures needed to make any proper consideration of the options listed. 

Kath Mc Guirk reminded the Tories that an in house option had not been allowed, at the time of tendering. At this point the Tory leader, for some reason, tried to silence her. 

After more argument on this line, Tory councillor Finn, still trying to Accentuate The Positive, as the ship sinks swiftly into the sea - or as our fingertips are prised, one by one, from the edge of Mr Hooton's cliff, asked that we did not 'harp back' to all the horrid things that have happened while he and his colleagues have been ... well, supposedly minding the council. The public gallery instantly erupted into derisive laughter.

Step forward Tory councillor Peter Zinkin, who thought he might as well have a go at his party piece, which is to work himself into a sudden outburst of faux outrage, in order to leave his audience of jeering residents worried about his blood pressure. We have done wonderful things, he claimed, holding down taxes, and, and ... and services were maintained! This met with more derision, naturally, and as soon as it was apparent his performance wasn't working, he was laughing at himself, again. 

It fell to Labour members to try to navigate a way through this mess. Back to the issue of the preferred option - why not drop it in favour of properly assessing all options? The Tory leader maintained that he had been informed it was a legal requirement.

By whom? heckled Mrs Angry, suspiciously: Did you take legal advice? Independent legal advice?

Aha. It then emerged, after a certain amount of questioning, that no, they hadn't. The advice turned out to be merely the view of the deputy Chief Executive that it would be 'wise' to have a preferred option, with the implication that it might otherwise lay the council open to legal challenge.

Where to begin?

First of all, it demonstrated - yet again - how easily our Tory councillors are directed by senior management - (remember 'We have decided to form a Joint Venture' and the revelation that what was to become Capita Re had been agreed by officers, without the involvement of the Leader?). It too often appears that members cannot be bothered to question the advice given to them. Secondly, all this confusion underlines the perilous state of affairs now that Barnet no longer has an in house legal team  - and thirdly, it may well be the case that having a stated preference of option at this preliminary stage, with so little proper consultation, could itself make the council open to challenge on the grounds of 'irrational decision'. 

Labour members tried to get them to drop the preference. Officers wriggled out of this, and in the end, an amendment to assess all options was bolted on to the original proposal, as was. Mr Reasonable tutted loudly, commenting that all that will happen is officers will come up with the same preference. If so, it will be a disaster, as Capita is allowed to retain its most favoured services, including procurement, with all the extra cash we end up passing over to them in gainshare payments.

That was the end of that matter, for that meeting: but there was another proposal on the agenda, one ostensibly of a less serious nature, but still highly contentious - for good reason.

At the same special meeting where the crisis in the mass privatisation of council services, set against a backdrop of massive and increasing budget deficit, and the rapid diminishment of our reserves, the Tory leader and his colleagues wanted to approve a loan of more than £22 million pounds, over a thirty year period, to Saracens' Rugby Club, favoured partners of the council, and owned by Totteridge resident Nigel Wray. The club wants to expand, but is apparently unable to secure a commercial loan they want in order to do so, so we, the tax payers of Broken Barnet, are being tapped for it.

You might well ask why on earth the Tory leader would think it appropriate at any time to throw £22 million pounds worth of our hard earned cash at a local sports club - or indeed to subsidise the commercial activities of any company with public sector money - but to use it in such a high risk venture is nothing short of madness.

Where is the security? What happens if Saracens go bust? How risky must it be to lend such a huge sum of money when the banks won't do it? Why are we doing it, and at a time when we are in such dire straits? When vital services are about to be cut to the bone, due to the financial mismanagement of the current administration, and the total failure of their mass privatisation, and the least advantaged members of our community forced to carry the burden of cost of their incompetence, and profligacy?

Truth is there appears to most of us that there is very little that this administration would not do, for its own purposes, and there is nothing we can do to stop them wrecking this borough, and our local services, and our financial wellbeing. 

Or so they think.

The story isn't over yet.

Friday, 6 July 2018

A Potential Realignment, or: Easycouncil is No More

A deserted Barnet Conservative group room, Hendon Town Hall, watched over by Margaret Thatcher

The end, when it came, came creeping in, like a bad smell; a whiff of something like death, or decay.

It hung over the London Borough of Broken Barnet, a cloud of toxic fumes on a sunny day, like the foul air hovering over the North Circular, unnoticed by those passing through it, at first, and only visible from afar. 

An odour of something like death, or something rotten. Something they are trying to bury, before you see the body. 

Too late, too late. The End is no longer Nigh. The last breath has been drawn, and now, after the election is all over, and the Tory members are safe in their seats, look: it is here. It is finished, at last.

That beginning of the end began, and ended, with the last Audit meeting of the previous Tory administration, in April. You can read about that here.

Then last Friday, an interesting announcement was made. 

Or rather not made, but mis-made, in the time honoured tradition of Broken Barnet, slipped out, the stench of it hastily covered in corporate spin. 

Barnet Council proposes review to realign Capita partnership

Barnet Council has today published a report which proposes undertaking a review to enable a potential realignment of the council’s partnership with Capita. 

A potential realignment.

The council has two major contracts with Capita, to deliver back office services and development and regulatory services. The partnership has delivered significant financial savings since their commencement in 2013, as well as efficiencies and improvements across a range of services. However there are other services where performance improvement is needed. 

Aha. Just a bit of tweaking needed then?

Well, no. 

This is a massive admission. An admission of abject failure by Barnet Tories, on an unprecedented scale.

It is the endorsement of everything we have warned about, since the idea of a mass outsourcing of local services was first explored, and everything we have protested about since the Capita contracts were signed, five long years ago.

It means at last, in the face of a complete disaster for our local services, the threat of total collapse by contractors, the loss of so much money, the ever widening deficit - at last, our Tory councillors, always refusing to listen, until now, now have given in, and thrown in the towel. They know it is all over. 

Even Cllr Antony Finn, the eternal optimist, former Chair of the Performance committee, the Mr Micawber of the Barnet Tory group, who always thought everything would work out fine, was just about to be 'hunky dory', who thought scrutiny should never be negative - even he can no longer look in the other direction. His successor, Finance and Performance chair Peter Zinkin, normally so ebullient, was visibly shaken, this week, at the new finance committee's first meeting.

New Barnet Finance Chair Peter Zinkin listening to Duncan Tessier, commercial director, flanked by the Section 151 officer (right).

Tory leader Richard Cornelius's saturnine smile may now be ever so slightly fixed - and Cllr Peter Zinkin may very well find himself no longer able to 'shoot the messenger', and blame the auditors for bringing bad news.

Don't expect them to do the right thing now, though. They are going to choose to tinker with the contract, rather than chuck it out altogether, as they should. Read what Mr Reasonable has to say about their plans here. As he has noted, the bits they are retaining are the ones that give Capita the most profit, and us the least good value. An attempt at face saving, and damage limitation, for both parties then? 

Makes no difference to one undeniable truth: what it all means is: Easycouncil is over. 

To all intents and purposes, anyway.

It has ceased to be: expired and gone to meet its maker. Or rather will now hang forever and a day, not so much a dead parrot, as perhaps a dead albatross, around the neck of its maker, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and former council leader, Mr Freer - a grim omen for his acolytes in the Barnet Tory party. Remember this interview, from 2010? 

We were told Easycouncil was in part - "an attempt to have a different relationship with local residents, a part of what Freer calls a "relentless drive for efficiency"."

A relentless drive for efficiency.

Well, certainly they managed to create a different relationship with local residents. One of mutual contempt, it seems. If only the truth about the state of the borough had been published before the election, then local residents would have had the proper information necessary to end that relationship. 

Poor Freer. He probably thought he had at last shaken off the association with the Icelandic Bank disaster ... and now this: his beautiful Easycouncil dream, all in pieces ...

Local activists with shares in the company attended a Capita shareholders' meeting last week, and reported back on what had clearly been an angry and revelatory discussion. According to a press release from Chipping Barnet Labour party:

"Jenny Brown (a member of Hendon Labour Party) raised concerns around Capita profiting from gainshare – a method whereby employees are rewarded for improving the profits of a company. Brown argued that this approach has led to Barnet residents being considered a source of profit, rather than a service user group. Effectively, this system means that there are financial incentives to remove entitlements, for example a reduction in the number of people claiming a single person discount on Council Tax. Given that Capita are already being paid for these contracts, they should not be seeking to use Barnet residents as additional revenue, she claimed".  

"Capita CEO John Lewis initially assigned the blame to Barnet Council, stating that some points raised did not lie within Capita’s area of responsibility. After further pushing from Brown, Lewis conceded to arranging a meeting with Barnet Council to look at the contract, but remained non-committal when attendees requested that Capita provides feedback on the outcome of this meeting to Barnet residents."

Shareholders leaving this meeting were reportedly doing so 'in disgust':

"The Capita CEO was blaming Barnet Council for the poor quality of service.” Others expressed concern for Barnet residents, with one shareholder commenting “They’re hopeless, you have our sympathies, you really do”."

Easycouncil, though. What is it? Or what was it?

What did it even mean? 

Mrs Angry was asked this, not so long ago, in an interview during the election. It took a few moments to remember what the answer is. Was.

Because it was just another meaningless tag: a soundbite, nothing more. Dressed up as a new 'model of local government', actually just a variation of one that was being deployed in every corner of the public sector.

When we went to the High Court with a Judicial Review of the council's bid to impose massive outsourcing of local services, the judge was perplexed by the (Future)shapeshifting nature of the authority's proposals. Futureshape, Easycouncil, One Barnet: what was it? How did it evolve? No one seemed sure what it was, even then. Because it never really existed. It began as an attention grabbing headline, dressed up as a concept - no more than a vague idea of making residents pay more for services, according to their choice. 

Barnet bloggers at the High Court in 2013, for the One Barnet Judicial Review

But even then, there was little detail on how this would work. Soon enough it became something else - or the cover for something else, as Freer departed for Westminster, and his former colleagues on the council became the easy prey of the outsourcing companies hovering over the then fertile landscape of Broken Barnet. Easy prey, in the easycouncil way, allowing their natural inertia and lack of scrutiny to allow the influence of senior officers and external consultants soften the borough up for the plundering of our local services.

Futureshape, One Barnet, all of them brands as poisonous as the air we now breathe, all of them discarded, one after the other, until we reached the stage where as Barnet was given over, as they so cringingly phrased it, to be'Re-Barneted',  invaded by Capita, and run as the last outpost in a dying empire. 

After so much controversy, and bad PR, branding itself became such a toxic process that it was abandoned, in favour of denial. One Barnet became ... nothing. It was de-recognised. It was a non policy. It did not and had never existed. What we had in its place was ... nothing. Discreet nods in the direction of 'the change programme' or 'the transformation agenda'. 

Names and language are important, in any dystopian society, for the purpose of exerting control, and imposing force. 

Amusing to see in this fascinating post by LCC Municipal what other names were once considered for our borough, at the time of its creation: 

The borough of Noresex has a certain appeal, I think, don't you? A nod to the future, and some of our more popular outdoor pursuits, perhaps. Barfindon, Finchelee, and Finchenbar: all have a certain charm. 

Or perhaps, more fittingly, as things have turned out, we should have gone for Norlon, a name fully compliant with the demands of a corporate culture fluent in Newspeak.

Instead of which, we have ended up in the London Borough of Capita.

But not for much longer. The title will soon be up for sponsorship deals, and all the clever money says best odds are on us becoming the London Borough of Saracens, with new council offices at Allianz Park - and of course putting all those newly insourced services back in the library spaces stolen by Tory councillors from the borough's children. 

Oh yes, they will have to insource. And already they were making plans to use library space - at East Barnet, for example, as often predicted in this blog. But now they will have a huge logistical problem, finding ways of returning services where they should be, in house, and locally accountable. If, as we warned them, to no avail, until the current crisis, they had considered that they needed a Plan B, in case the Capita contracts fail, or the company falls apart, this would not be such a disaster. But their arrogance drove them to assert with absolute complacency that such a thing could not happen. It has happened. Yes, we told you so.

Well, in fact who did tell them so? 

Last week, as soon as the 'alignment' was announced, Barnet Labour was quick to try to take the credit. This was completely unfair, in fact, to those campaigners who have worked so hard for so long, often with little or no political support, to oppose the outsourcing, and the signing of the contracts. Who have continued to argue against the mass privatisation, exposing the failures in performance, scrutinising the accounts, asking question after question. 

From the very beginning it has been Unison who led the fight against the outsourcing, campaigning, lobbying, commissioning academic reports - which always went ignored. They begged councillors to take action: ignored again, time after time. Sometimes reports would go to committee meetings, and no member of either party would ask questions about it. John Burgess, in particular, should be singled out for praise for his determined campaigning, persistence, and perseverance.

Barnet Alliance fought with tooth and nail against the mass privatisation. They organised, leafleted, attended meeting after meeting, showing huge commitment from a grassroots campaign, a campaign that should really have been led by Labour. 

Local bloggers not only reported in details the crashing disaster of the contractual bondage councillors had so lazily approved, but took an active role in trying to prevent it: with local residents and campaigners we spent months of our own time advising a legal team in the pursuit of a Judicial Review of the outsourcing. The outcome was infuriating: we would have won, if the challenge had been in time. The lawyers asked why the opposition party did not seek advice within that time: it was a fair question.

Once the contracts were in place, the Labour group leading members were less than active in pushing for any termination of the contract, or in promising to do this, should they come to power. This equivocation was not what residents needed to hear, let alone campaigners, and council staff members. 

More latterly, since the reality of imminent failure became unavoidably clear, there was some shift, and a commitment in the last election's manifesto to try to bring back some services: still - too little, too late.

Other Labour members knew exactly how bad things were, and did their best at audit and performance meetings - but the most probing challenges always came from residents , the unions - and local bloggers. 

One blogger: Mr Reasonable, John Dix, without whose dedication, forensic auditing, determination and great patience, the crashing reality of how and why the contracts are failing would never have been exposed: if credit is due to anyone for holding Capita to account, over the last few years ... it is to him. A highly experienced and astute management consultant, an astute analyst; a modest man, patient beyond words - and continually ignored by Tory councillors and auditors, throughout the years of warning from him of the looming financial disaster.

The leader of the Labour party listening to John Dix, just before the local elections in May

Well, then.

Monday night saw the first meeting of the new Finance and Performance committee. We sat waiting in the public seats, in a room whose muted colour seemed to be fading even further, in the late summer evening light, like a coloured photograph in a family album, turning to sepia over the years.

As they failed to appear, for a joke one of the Labour councillors sat in the Chair's seat, and started the meeting. This was an echo of another evening, long ago, when campaigners did take over: a meeting in 2012, where the Tories were about to approve the contracts. We sat at the table and refused to budge: the Tories packed themselves into a tiny room next door, and hid. They approved the contracts: but they were given a reminder that in this borough, residents would not, and will not, be complicit with their pimping out of our public assets, and our public services.

The council meeting in 2012, where councillors approved the contracts in a side room, chased from the committee table by residents and campaigners, here sitting in their places.

The Tory members filed into the room, also drained of colour, visibly ashen faced, and embarrassed, almost shrinking before us in their chairs. Most of them ageing, with the exception of a new boy councillor who appeared utterly out of his depth, ill prepared and asked only two clanging questions: if there is any sort of internal audit process, and another in which he confused last year's AGM minutes with this year's. 

The responsibility for a billion pound budget, and the massive Capita contracts rests in the hands of a few failing old men, and one boy. Feeling confident for the future?

Mr R had submitted no less than 34 questions. Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne had submitted three. None of the questions received the answers that they deserved: the responses were dismally inadequate, and evasive. 

And Mr R addressed the committee, wearily: he told detailed the shape of the hole they were in, and told them they were in denial:

I have not one ounce of confidence in this committee and will not do so until you start answering straight questions with straight answers. Get a grip, stop spinning, and start sorting out this mess.

They looked on, bemused, but not disagreeing. It would appear, in fact, that they are all in a state of shock, rather than denial. They know Mr R is right, was right all along: we were all right all along, right from the very beginning, with our warnings: unions, campaigners, bloggers, Labour: but they did not listen. 

One notable circumstance is the absolute silence of Tory members: terrified, avoiding all social media, in the hope, no doubt, that by the time summer is over, the worst will have come and gone, and they can carry on as normal. Well, that is of course absurd.

Anyone heard from deputy leader Dan Thomas recently? 

No. Thought not.

Mrs Angry understands there is - yet another - division amongst the Tories now, between those who think it is time simply to cut their losses, and dump Capita outright - and those who refuse to show any admission of weakness, and insist, on the basis of their blinkered sub-Thatcherite dogmatism, that the show must go on. Face-saving, for political reasons, rather than hard realism, and the prioritisation of the best interests of those they represent.

At the next Audit meeting, later this month, further details will come to light of the extent of the financial mess we are in. There will be no possibility of carrying on in the way they have: they know it. We know it. They should put residents' interests first, and bail out: they won't, because it would mean the already tawdry reputation of Barnet Tory politicians, both here and in Westminster, would be damaged beyond repair. It already is: but they refuse to see it - and their attempts to stave off total collapse will be nothing more than a temporary patch up job: as one Labour councillor remarked - papering over the cracks. 

Those cracks are widening every day, as we pay more and more money to Capita that we cannot afford, and raid our rapidly diminishing reserves, for failing services. This is not sustainable, or defensible. 

It's going to be a long, hot summer. 

Shut your windows, and pull down the blinds.