Thursday, 9 May 2019

Joint Post - No Assurance from Capita

Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, rumoured this week to be stepping down, signed the two massive contracts with Capita on the basis that it would provide 'better services, for less money'. It hasn't. As fellow blogger John Dix, 'Mr Reasonable', reported here last week after a catastrophic Audit meeting: "we have paid Capita £145.9 million more than the contracted sum ...". 

While fees continue to increase, and local services in Barnet continue to fail, it has become apparent that lessons have not been learned from the £2 million fraud recently perpetrated by a Capita manager, unnoticed by Barnet or Capita, which exposed an abysmal lack of any competent system of financial controls in regard to the processes and performance of the contractual partnership. 

At this meeting, as the external auditors raised, as they have done for two years, their serious concerns about this issue it emerged that Capita see no reason to provide any audit assurance of the services they provide to Barnet - even though this is a contractual obligation.

If it is true that the Tory leader who has promoted and retained the contractual partnership with Capita is now leaving, it is essential that the newer, and more sensible Tory members,  who have been faced with the mess created by their longer serving colleagues, elect a replacement who will have the courage and integrity to end these contracts, and restore direct control of local services to the council itself. 

In the meanwhile, here is a joint statement from all four Barnet bloggers, to raise our concerns about the very real and continuing risks posed by this failing partnership:

Capita - “Not Minded”

 At the Barnet Council Audit Committee on 1 May the external auditor from BDO made some very worrying and serious statements about the controls systems in place. This follows a £2 million fraud last year, and pervasive problems with the pensions and payroll administration.

 “You don’t have a particularly strong control environment”, the auditor reported, and then stated that Capita were “not minded” to provide assurance over systems running processes on Barnet Council’s behalf.

 This is an astonishing response from Capita.

 Responsibility for assurance of these systems, run from Capita’s offices around the United Kingdom, falls to Barnet Council’s Internal Audit Team.

 As the External Auditor made clear, the Internal Audit team is doing good work “but it doesn’t give you that level of assurance that you would expect with so much of the service outsourced”.

 Given that Capita provide so many of Barnet’s back office systems this is a very serious situation, especially as the external auditor raised this problem two years ago, before the £2 million fraud was discovered.

 As bloggers who have closely followed and reported the story of Barnet’s partnership with Capita, we are deeply concerned about this situation and alarmed that neither the auditor nor committee members were aware that assurance of Capita’s systems is a contractual requirement, and not something that could be provided at their discretion.

 We ask the following questions of the Council:

Why were audit committee members not made aware of the auditor's concerns when they were raised two years ago?

Why are Capita "not minded" to provide assurance over their systems when the contract appears to indicate that they must provide that assurance?

Why did Grant Thornton not pick this matter up when they were the Council's External Auditors or as part of their contract review following the fraud?

Why have the Council's contract monitoring officers not identified this problem before now?

If BDO are saying the Council does not have a strong control environment, what are the risks of another fraud or systems failure happening?

And finally, 

How can Capita continue to retain the confidence of the Council without such assurances?

We ask that the Council arranges for a forensic review/audit of both Capita contracts to address the contractual failures raised by the External Auditor as a matter of the utmost urgency, to be paid for by Capita, before any further decisions are made on what services Capita will continue to provide. 

Failure to do so can only have the most serious consequences for the financial security of this borough, and the well being of all residents.


Derek Dishman

John Dix

Theresa Musgrove

Roger Tichborne

Monday, 15 April 2019

Suffer the little Children: the unwritten history of the former St Vincent's School and Orphanage, Mill Hill

"Whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me"

(Matthew 25, verse 40): said to be the inspiration for St Vincent de Paul, when founding the Order of the Daughters of  Charity 

Of all the posts that have been published on this blog, the one that continues to receive the most re-readings, and certainly the most comments, is the piece I wrote, in a blaze of fury, some years ago, about the Catholic primary school I attended in Mill Hill, many years ago, run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.

To be clear - the school I attended has now been replaced by a more modern one, across the road from the original site, and is well thought of by local Catholic families.

The scripture quoted above is said to have been at the heart of St Vincent de Paul's mission, when he founded the Order: evidently a man of great compassion, and tenderness, towards the foundlings and poor children he felt driven to help. It would be wrong to overlook the good work that his charitable mission has undertaken, all over the world. Sadly, however, there appears, in much of the twentieth century, at least, to have been in some part a failure in the vision and values of those trusted with the continuation of his legacy.

That the impact of something that happened in childhood can follow you into adult life is of no surprise to those who also attended this school, or the orphanage that stood behind it. Some of us have memories that have never faded, and seem as intense now as they were then. Fellow local blogger Roger Tichborne also attended this school: it is no coincidence, I think, that an early experience of injustice leads in later life to a deep need to take back control, and compensate for the abuse you suffered in silence, as a child.

I don't publish all of the comments I receive, usually because some of them relate to individuals who may still be alive. The ones that I do publish are difficult to read, but I think need to be placed on record.

The need for acknowledgement of this sort of abuse, and the harm that it did, is now something recognised by government, to a limited degree. There is now an investigation into child sexual abuse, in the form of the IICSA inquiry, which covers England and Wales : the Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse - its purpose largely being as follows:

To consider the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; to consider the steps which it is necessary for State and non-State institutions to take in order to protect children from such abuse in future; and to publish a report with recommendations.

In Scotland there is a similar process, The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, or SCAI - with a wider remit, which includes all forms of abuse while in care, in childhood: sexual, psychological - and emotional. This is their definition of abuse:

"Abuse" for the purpose of this Inquiry is to be taken to mean primarily physical abuse and sexual abuse, with associated psychological and emotional abuse. The Inquiry will be entitled to consider other forms of abuse at its discretion, including medical experimentation, spiritual abuse, unacceptable practices (such as deprivation of contact with siblings) and neglect, but these matters do not require to be examined individually or in isolation.

So: the Scottish inquiry is looking at abuse of children in care: and IICSA is investigating only sexual abuse, but not only in care, and includes educational establishments. 

This means there is no investigation of non sexual abuse of children in English schools or care institutions, as there would be in Scotland. This seems wrong, to me.

The Scottish Inquiry is of interest to me on two counts: in that it has a broader definition of abuse - and that it has directly addressed allegations of all three types in regard to one of the institutions run by the order of nuns who were responsible for St Vincent's School and Orphanage in Mill Hill, that is to say the Daughters of Charity.

Recently someone left a comment on my post -unpublished - in regard to an individual they claimed had worked at one of the Mill Hill institutions, as well as Smyllum, a focus of the Scottish inquiry. I wasn't sure about this at first, as one of the details seemed inaccurate: until I checked and found an obscure piece of information that proved the reference was correct, suggested the comment was authentic - and should be investigated. The commenter said that they had tried to involve the police, who had not taken the allegations seriously. I wonder if they took the trouble to check the Scottish Inquiry's published findings?

Because I then looked at the Scottish inquiry's website, and noted that there had already been a finding, published on October 11th, 2018, in relation to the Daughters of Charity. It was late at night, when I noticed this: I thought I would have a quick look. 

Hours later, I was unable to sleep, after what I had read. Link hereTo clarify: this is a formal finding of abuse by the Inquiry, chaired by Lady Smith, based on a case study of only two of the homes run by the order in Scotland, ie Smyllum, and Bellevue. 

I find that children were abused in both
Bellevue and Smyllum, the two institutions
that were the main focus of the case study.
The abuse which took place was physical,
emotional and sexual. In particular, children
were beaten, they were humiliated, they were
punished for bed-wetting, they were forcefed, 
they were subjected to abusive washing
and bathing routines, some were sexually
abused and they were subjected to a range
of treatments amounting to emotional abuse. 

Details are given of the types of abuse perpetrated on children in the 'care' of the order:

• For many children who were in Smyllum
and Bellevue, the homes were places of
fear, coercive control, threat, excessive
discipline and emotional, physical and
sexual abuse, where they found no love,
no compassion, no dignity and no comfort.

• Children were physically abused. They
were hit with and without implements,
either in an excess of punishment or for
reasons which the child could not fathom.
The implements used included leather
straps, the “Lochgelly Tawse,” hairbrushes,
sticks, footwear, rosary beads, wooden
crucifixes and a dog’s lead.

• For some children, being hit was a normal
aspect of daily life.

• The physical punishments meted out
to children went beyond what was
acceptable at the time whether as

punishment in schools or in the home. 

No mercy was given to children who - unsurprisingly - wet themselves at night:

• Children who were bed-wetters were
abused physically and emotionally.
They were beaten, put in cold baths and
humiliated in ways that included “wearing”
their wet sheets and being subjected to
hurtful name-calling by Sisters and by
other children who were encouraged by
Sisters to do so.

My own experience of St Vincent's Primary School, with Maureen O'Donovan, the teacher I had at the age of six, when I transferred there, was not dissimilar: the same cruelty and humiliation. It was a sharp contrast to the nearly two years I had spent at an ordinary state primary school, where the teacher was kind, funny, and gentle.  My mother took me out of there, however,  because she thought I would be brainwashed by Anglican heresy. Brainwashing of children in the Catholic tradition was perfectly fine, of course: and much more effective.

St Vincent's came as an almighty shock: but if it was that bad - for many of us, at least, in the school - what on earth was it like in the Orphanage? 

The headmistress of the school, an elderly, short tempered nun, ran the school on the basis of harsh discipline, and fear. Although I know of no cases of sexual abuse in the school, one of my classmates reported the experience of being forced to undress, alone, in front of this headmistress, in her office, supposedly before a medical examination, a routine practice, and one she clearly enjoyed. I was terrified of the same thing happened to me, for all the time I was at that school. Was her behaviour abusive? I think so. We didn't know what sexual abuse was, at that age - we only knew this 'interest' of hers was something peculiar, and frightening: meant to humiliate.

Beating was a part of the culture of fear at the school: Sister had what was known as 'the bat', which was reserved for boys who stepped out of line in some way: on one occasion I remember one boy being threatened with it being used in front of the class. The threat was effective: the fear of it was usually enough in itself.

In O'Donovan's class of six year olds, beating was common too: boys and girls - the favoured implement a heavy wooden ruler, with a usefully sharp metal edge. The friend who reported the headmistress's  prurient interest in undressed children once had the palm of her hand cut open by the ruler. More usually you had to have it on your knuckles, as I recall, the hand held tightly in a fist, so it would expose the bone, and hurt more. 

When it was my turn, it was usually for spelling mistakes, or not remembering times tables, or part of the catechism. Untidy writing was also a crime worthy of assault: being dyspraxic and naturally left handed, and being forced to write right handed in O'Donovan's approved italic style didn't help: deviance from the norm was not allowed, and had to be punished. I write laboriously in fountain pen, now, with a special nib, so that my normally illegible handwriting (illegible even to me) is readable.

We were absolutely not allowed to visit the toilets other than at break time. Inevitably children would wet themselves: pools of urine on the parquet floor & wet seats were not even anything unusual. If you were caught, though, you would have to clean it up, and be exposed in front of the whole class. 

Children who cried after such treatment were mocked, and labelled as 'cry babies' by O'Donovan: one girl, called Alison, was perpetually in tears, and labelled in this way - her parents removed her from the class. Most of us did not dare cry in class - rather than do this I used to dig my nails into the palms of my hands, when on the verge of tears, good old Catholic mortification of the flesh, not as a penance, but a distraction. It usually worked, but I still fear crying in front of anyone. 

The worst cruelty and punishment was reserved for the children who could least resist: those who were not so intellectually able, dumped on the 'baby' or 'lazy' table: often made to stand on their chairs for ages, hands on head: as I said in the older post, this sort of torture was pretty much up to CIA standards of torture: bound to break the spirit of any dissenting child, which is what was intended.

Most parents would anyway not have dared criticise such discipline : the Catholic Church, its schools and teachers, at that time, were above criticism. We did not dare tell our parents that we had been 'in trouble', anyway. My own mother would probably have thought it only what we deserved, anyway.

As one commenter remarked on the previous post, however: we were lucky in one sense. We went home at night, and escaped. Those who were at the Orphanage had nowhere to go. And what happened there, only they know. And the Order would know: because at least in one case, according to another commenter, a legal claim in regard to his treatment was allegedly settled out of court. What form the reported abuse took, is unclear: but it strongly suggests to me that a similar inquiry to the one that has looked at, and continues to look at, the Scottish homes run by the Daughters of Charity, necessarily should be created to investigate all their homes and schools in England and Wales.

The Scottish Inquiry did look briefly at St Vincent's in Newcastle, to which place a Smyllum family had been transferred: this finding tells us that in 1995, a priest had admitted sexually abusing boys at this English home - he pleaded guilty to six charges of indecent assault. We also learn that although his behaviour had been known about since 1994, he was not laicised for another eighteen years. 

At the beginning of this month, the Inquiry announced further investigations into other Scottish care homes run by the Order: and a good thing too.

After contacting IICSA to see if they will be investigating the Order as part of their remit, I had the following response:

As you may be aware, the Inquiry does have an investigation into the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. As part of that investigation the Panel selected two institutions as case studies. The first is the English Benedictine Congregation and the second is the Archdiocese of Birmingham. The Inquiry has held three public hearings to date in relation to those two case studies. In October this year the Inquiry will hold a further public hearing that will consider matters relating to the wider Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. No decisions have been taken as to what matters or institutions the Panel will hear evidence about, including whether it will consider matters relating to the Daughters of Charity, for example. The Inquiry will publish any update on its website in due course.

I suggest therefore that anyone who reads this who wishes to report any allegation of sexual abuse in any institution in England or Wales run by this Order does so, via the Inquiry's website: link here.

The terms of reference also state that IICSA will:

Liaise with ongoing inquiries, including those currently being conducted in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with a view to (a) ensuring that relevant information is shared, and (b) identifying any State or non-State institutions with child protection obligations that currently fall outside the scope of the present Inquiry and those being conducted in the devolved jurisdictions;

Anyone who suffered non sexual abuse, in England or Wales, of a psychological, emotional or spiritual nature: it seems that there is no one to tell, other than by seeking counselling - of the right sort. That can be very difficult to find, unfortunately.

One might hope that the Catholic church in England and Wales would voluntarily set in course their own investigations - but that seems to be unlikely. And in my view that is a gross misjudgement, as until this shameful episode in the Church's history is acknowledged, as well as the damage done to victims - and to the image of God and Christian love that it claims to represent - it will never recover its credibility as a religious organisation.

The UK headquarters of the Order of the Daughters of Charity is in Mill Hill: across the road from the old school and orphanage, which were sold to developers - even the old chapel is being advertised for would be conversion - and much of which now has now become another conglomeration of luxury housing - next door to the site of the demolished National Institute for Medical Research. 

The Scottish findings make the following observation:

The Order’s position

The Order has not admitted that children
were abused whilst in their care although
Sister Ellen Flynn, the Provincial of the
Order in the UK, did indicate that it was
now accepted that there was more than a
possibility that some abuse had occurred.

That represents some progress from the
position adopted in the 1990s as illustrated

by the evidence of an applicant, Sister “Louise,” 
who was in Bellevue and Smyllum
as a child and later became a Sister herself.
When she was at a conference in Mill Hill in
London, in the 1990s, a Sister from the Order
who recognised her tried to pressurise her
into saying that the allegations of past abuse
that were being made were not true.

13 Her response was to tell that Sister that the Order
needed to listen to what was being said,
explaining that she herself had also been

It was accepted on behalf of the Order
that many of the practices spoken about
by applicants, including responses to bedwetting, 
force-feeding, certain washing
practices and beatings would, if they
happened, constitute abuse. In relation to
the evidence given by applicants about
humiliation for bed-wetting, for example,
Sister Ellen Flynn, stated that, if children
were humiliated for wetting the bed, “... that
would be completely against our values
and we would consider it wrong and we
would consider it a form of abuse.”

14 She “absolutely” accepted that force-feeding
would be a form of abuse and that beatings
using implements would be abusive.

I have had some correspondence with the head of the Order myself, in the autumn of 2017, and she knew about my experience of the school; the 'discipline', the humiliation; the fear instilled in small children.

The way in which this correspondence came about was rather unusual, entirely by coincidence: I had been engaged in some historical research which connected in part to Mill Hill, and was taken aback to find one of the properties was owned by the Order which had run St Vincent's. I wrote to the Order's archivist to ask if they had any information, but had no reply, at first  - so wrote again, and the Provincial head responded. I also took the opportunity to mention that I was a former pupil, and had to admit to having had less than happy memories of my time in the school. 

I directed her to the post I had written, and pointed out that I had contacted the Diocese of Westminster to ask what sort of support or guidance they offered the people who were contacting me with reports of ill treatment or abuse either from the Mill Hill school or orphanage, or other local Catholic institutions. The reply had been useless: all they came up with was a copy of a leaflet, and the assurance that all parishes now had a coordinator for sexual abuse issues. I replied to the Diocesan representative that those who had been abused while in the care of the Church would now hardly be likely to be practising Catholics, and parishioners. 

The head of the Order replied, and said:  "I assure you of my hopes and prayers for all those who have suffered any form of abuse and especially in connection with the Daughters of Charity ..." 

"In connection". 

She is in an invidious position, of course: left responsible for dealing with the damage done by previous generations of nuns and priests, and left as guardian of the reputation of an order, and representative of a Church, whose service, charitable and pastoral work is now overshadowed by allegations of abusive behaviour in the past. As Lady Smith commented, in relation to the homes in Scotland run by the Daughters of Charity:

The provision, by the Order, of homes for
the residential care of children in a way
which routinely and consistently met that
description would have been in keeping
with their mission and with Christ’s teaching.
Sadly, I have, in the light of the evidence,
concluded that that did not happen. 

The morning after reading this report I was by chance in Mill Hill, for an appointment, and decided to walk part of the way home, past St Joseph's, another Mill Hill Catholic building - and now another development - then past the house where my aunt, uncle and grandmother lived, off Lawrence Street, up to the Ridgeway, passing the former St Mary's Abbey, now - yes: more housing. Outwardly not much has changed, since my childhood: but it was a melancholy walk, all the same, family members no longer there, and the buildings that remain on the Ridgeway holding painful memories.

Mill Hill village was once a place of nonconformity, and religious dissent: home of a public school for boys with such a background; a settlement of Quakers - and the chosen location for several Catholic institutions. 

I walked along the Ridgeway, past the Provincial House, where the coach that used to take me home always parked: I remembered the sense of relief I associated with reaching the Lodge to the House, knowing I was safe at last, and going home.

Crossing the road, you pass along the old wall of the school, and all these years later, I still feel the sinking feeling I always had, in the pit of my stomach, as soon as the morning coach stopped here. Down the side track, which slopes down to the Orphanage, the first thing you see, after the former infants' playground, is the one school building they have not knocked down: Miss O'Donovan's class.

Of all the parts of the school to leave standing: well, I suppose it is a memorial, of sorts. Let the proud new house owner listen very carefully, in the small hours, for the whispering of terrified small children, and the voice of Maureen O'Donovan, in her grating County Kerry accent, relentlessly insulting the class: Empty vessels make the most sound ... 

Down the steep lane, facing the beauty of Totteridge Valley is the old Orphanage:  as separate from the school as were its inmates, kept away from us, incommunicado, with one or two exceptions sent to the school for eleven plus, before the last few children were decanted into a new, smaller centre, on the other side of the road.

The orphanage now is still nothing more than a grim, late Victorian building so institutionalised in terms of architectural language, it is hard to see why anyone would want to buy a flat there now. 

And hard to imagine so many generations of vulnerable children living in isolation on the Ridgeway, looking onto what might as well have been a painted backdrop to the grudging misery of their cloistered lives, surrounded by natural beauty on one side, and the bleak indifference of the Orphanage on the other.

Postscript: The lost children

One of the accusations recently levelled against those responsible for the running of the Smyllum care home was in regard to what was feared to be the mass burial, with no record, of children who died there, over the many years it was in operation. 

Lady Smith's findings state the following:

Burial records show that between 1900 and
1981, there were 16 under 18-year olds who
were recorded as having been residents at
Smyllum buried in the “Smyllum Plot” within
the cemetery of St Mary’s Parish Church,
Lanark. There is no record of the individual
lairs and there are no headstones to mark
them. Various Sisters and Charlie Forsyth
are also buried in the St Mary’s Cemetery.
However, their graves are marked and have
headstones with inscriptions.

It is important not to over-sensationalise the issue: but this would seem to be a low number of deaths, if it is meant to represent the total number over an eighty year period: the findings here carefully note the records refer to a plot of land in the local parish church. Were others buried elsewhere?

I had asked the head of the Provincial Order where in the grounds of the Mill Hill site there was a burial ground for children who died there. She replied that there were no surviving records of any deaths or burials, and that she was sure any that died would have been buried in local Catholic graveyards, or by their families.

There were no local Catholic graveyards, in fact, for much of the earlier history of the Orphanage. And the children who were sent to Mill Hill, as records cross matched from census entries show, were from workhouses in the poorest parts of London, many therefore likely to be in ill health - and long separated from their families.

According to records held by the Wellcome Library, in 1898,  a report of the Medical Officer of Health for Hendon found the following:

At St. Vincent's Orphanage, Mill Hill, 12 deaths occurred, 

a high number when it is considered that the average number is 
about two hundred. The children at this institution are in the 
majority of cases feeble, debilitated, and tubercular when
admitted, and very often are taken from the London streets to
the Orphanage until their healths are improved, and after a stay
of a year or two, may-be, return. 

Return: or die, as we see from that year's record. Twelve children in one year alone lost their lives: where were they laid to rest?

It is easy to find a sample pair of infant children - they were all boys, in the early days - who died at the Orphanage, and who very probably were not buried in any Catholic church yard. Smyllum had a Catholic parish with a church yard: hard to think of any local equivalent. 

Let these two at least have a name:

What about Ernest Wattam, who died aged two, from a throat infection, in 1912? The nun who was the informant at death knew nothing about his parentage, other than that he came from Hampstead.

Joseph Vincent Gibson, also aged two, who died in 1892, of congenital syphilis: described only as 'a deserted child'. 

Who buried them, and where?

Not all the extensive and beautiful grounds of St Vincent's have been given over to development: some of the grassed over areas have been left untouched. There is, for example, as there was at Smyllum, a carefully maintained graveyard for the sisters, which, as you can read on the Order's website, is the place of a special commemorative mass, once a year. 

There is no record, however, of the children of many generations who were passed into the hands of the Order, and never left. 

It is not impossible that any who died there were buried somewhere in the grounds, in unmarked graves, but if so, and the Order knows where that is, it might be seen as a gesture of reconciliation - and belated respect - to put some sort of memorial there, so they are not forgotten. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

A matter of life or death, or: A Critical Error, updated

Barnet Council: Open, Transparent, and Proactive

Just to update the previous post

After complaining about the remarks made by Councillor Anthony Finn, at the last Pensions meeting, the matter was investigated by Cllr Peter Zinkin, who is Chairman of the Tory group. He told me he thought Cllr Finn had apologised by email - but sent it to an old account. I suggested that he resend it to my current account: he agreed. 

Eventually, after two weeks, I received an apology. 

This describes the incident in rather benign terms, the reference to my not shooting myself apparently demonstrating a touching concern for my welfare - he merely wanted to know how Capita deals with such cases ... and to say that the word 'critical' is wrong when used in financial circumstances, and someone hasn't put a gun to their head.

Well, no: painfully insensitive metaphorical language set aside, 'critical error' is, in fact, an audit term.

Councillor Finn is Chair of Audit.

Oh dear. 

I did ask for a donation to be made to the Samaritans, in recognition of the real impact that 'critical errors' may have, when resulting in financial hardship: but this seems to have been overlooked. 

Ah well.

Moving on: Capita, of course, have not dealt with my case 'expeditiously', as I had made clear at the meeting, and ' how Capita deals with such cases' was explained by me, at some length, but Councillor Finn appears not to have heard. 

The arguments over the 'critical error' in my annual statements have been going on since last August, and despite admitting the cock up, Capita have ignored the letter from the Ombudsman, sent more than six weeks ago.

So: after a week of hearing nothing from the Director of Capita HR's Public Sector, who had promised to look at the case, I wrote to him, via his Linkedin account. He has now replied, saying he is looking into the matter.

Let's see.

And then: there was a Pensions Board meeting last night, to which I had submitted some questions.

They were sent last Thursday, but I was informed, after a day or so, that they had been barred, on the grounds that I missed the deadline. 

I missed the deadline by 4 hours, as there had been important data missing from the agenda reports, noted as 'To Follow', and I had thought, as had happened with the previous committee, that this rule had been suspended. 

I did not know the missing data had been published, in the last few minutes before the five day limit - the item itself still had 'Data Cleanse Summary (To Follow), see below ... and my questions were therefore written without sight of the updated statistics.

After appealing to the Chair, he was told, via governance, that he still could not allow these questions. 

You may think, as I do, especially after what happened at the last meeting, that this is unreasonable. 

Even more so since I have now discovered that over an hour after the questions barred from the meeting were sent by me, the governance officer, and yes, I have seen the email,  had actually contacted fellow blogger John Dix to see if he wanted to submit any questions ... he didn't, but the implication seems to be that his would have been accepted, whereas mine were out of time. 

I pointed this out too, to the officers and Chair, but - made no difference. 

I didn't bother going to the meeting. 

Here are the questions: all perfectly reasonable, you might think - but we still do not know if there are other scheme members affected by the same errors as in my case, or what compensation might be made available - if any ...

All addressed to the Data Quality Update.

1. According to the report, at Point 5.1 .1 Corporate Priorities and Performance:

"The Local Pension Board supports the delivery of the Council’s strategic objectives and priorities as expressed through the Corporate Plan, by assisting in maintaining the integrity of the pension Fund by monitoring the administration and compliance of the Fund".

Quite clearly Capita's administration of the Fund has consistently failed in terms of compliance, and in regard to the unacceptably high number of data errors. Does the Board not agree that the risks posed by continuing to leave the administration of the Fund with Capita represents a real risk to the integrity of the Fund, and if so, what measures can, or will, it take to ensure that the administration returns to the more efficient and safer hands of the council's own in house service?

2. The Data Error issue appears to interest (most of) the Conservative Pensions Committee Conservative members purely in terms of the triennial valuation, rather than the impact on scheme members. The Chair of the Pensions Committee claimed that there was no personal effect of the data errors, despite evidence given by me and by the Chair of this Board in regard to personal difficulties caused by such errors. Does the Board accept that the impact on scheme members should be better assessed, and if so, what can be done?

3. Has the 'exercise' regarding inaccurate points of qualification on annual statements, announced after I pointed out to the Section  151 officer that this has happened to me,  been completed, and if so, what was the outcome?

4. Does the London Borough of Barnet offer compensation to victims of any critical 'data error' that affects their pension entitlements compensation? If not, why not? 

It seems that Barnet wishes to refer to the Constitution only when it suits: vital reports, as we have seen recently, have been withheld in breach of what are in fact statutory rules on publication dates - but absolute stringency regarding deadlines is applied to anyone wanting to ask politically awkward questions, and to hold their elected representatives to account.

Maybe they ought to rethink the stated principles greeting visitors to council offices at North London Business Park: 

'Open, Transparent, and Proactive'?

I don't see much evidence of that: do you?

Friday, 29 March 2019

A Critical Error, or - the gun put to your head: a meeting of the council pensions' committee ...

The Man From Capita appears at the Pensions Committee: to his left, Cllr Finn

On Tuesday night, I turned up a little early at the Town Hall, and went to sit down in the foyer, before the meeting. As I did so, I noticed a small display on one side of the stairs - about Barnet Libraries. With breathtaking cheek, the council which has virtually destroyed its once magnificent, hundred year old library service had put on a half hearted exhibition of old photographs of the days when the local councillors understood the importance of access to books, and information, and supported a fully staffed, professionally run number of branches across the borough. I used to work for the service, for a few, very happy years.

In the reflection of the glass cabinet, I saw a local Tory councillor, Mark Shooter, Chair of the committee that was meeting that night, standing behind me. Without turning around I said hello, and pointed out the display. I showed him the photograph of Eileen Colwell, who had worked for the library service for decades, and was the pioneer of the internationally acclaimed children's library movement. I also spotted an early photo of a woman who had been a colleague at the end of her career, when I worked at Golders Green library, and who, like Eileen Colwell, had dedicated her life to the profession she had chosen: like many others, she saw her job as more of a vocation. Eileen Colwell worked next door, I told him, nodding in the direction of Hendon Library, unstaffed that evening; and then said I wondered what she would make of the damage he and his colleagues had done.

Eileen Colwell, Pioneer of the children's library movement, whose work is being destroyed by Barnet Tory cuts

He shrugged, and said everyone has ipads and kindles now. Then he looked at me, uncomprehending: Why do you care so much?

Why don't you? I replied. Why did you become a councillor?

He thought for a few moments and mumbled something about 'making things better'. Well, that's why I care so much: I want to make things better too. 

I was there that night on my own behalf, however: to attend the Pensions Committee, having asked to speak to it and having submitted a number of questions. 

Cllr Shooter was puzzled. Why was I bothering? The Pensions committee is normally over in half an hour. And there was a match he was missing. Oh, and he had been told to make sure I didn't talk for longer than exactly three minutes. I said I would say what I had to say, whatever.

Because I had something to say which mattered, not just to me, but to anyone working for the council, or who had worked at some point for the council, and whose pension benefits were in the hands of ... yes: Capita. My investment in the scheme was from the time in the library service, the service built by dedicated employees like Eileen Colwell, but whose dedication and work Tory councillors now hold in such low esteem. 

My employment had been for a few years, accruing a certain amount of benefits in the Local Government Pension Scheme.

Capita's administration of the council's pension scheme has been disastrous since the start: very serious issues have been identified since 2016, and are still continuing, without any near possibility of this contractual partnership ending, and the administration returning where it should be, and where it used to be run perfectly efficiently: in house. 

Earlier this week, Barnet Unison published a statement about the dire state of Capita's pension administration: as they reminded everyone, the Pensions' Regulator has already had to intervene twice in Barnet: 

In 2017:

TPR issues first fine to a public service pension scheme

“The Pensions Regulator (TPR) has fined a public service pension scheme £1,000 for failing to submit basic information required by law…………

TPR issued a scheme return notice to Barnet Council on 9 July 2016, requesting the scheme return be submitted by 12 August. The return was not received and, further communications from TPR not replied to, so the matter was referred to TPR’s Determinations Panel on 24 February 2017.”

Then in 2018

Barnet in TPR breach as Capita misses payments

“The failure to produce 447 statements constitutes a breach of law and a report is being prepared for the Pensions Regulator that will identify the relevant non-compliant employers,” the minutes read.”

And now:

The shocking news was that the critical errors had not been addressed and now the Triannual Valuation of our Pension Fund is now at risk.

In the Data Quality report it states:

“1.3 The quality of membership data is central to the valuation process. Should the quality of data not be to the standard required by Hymans Robertson then there could be delays to the valuation process. Also, inaccurate member data held could result in erroneous benefit statements being issued.

1.4 The results show a significant number of ‘critical errors’ that the administrator will be required to address before actuarial calculations can begin.”

Remember that term: 'critical errors'. I certainly can't forget it, after what happened to me at the meeting.

Two reports that were central to the meeting, one of which addressed the issue of data quality, were not published in the required time limit before the meeting. Only after a complaint to the Chief Executive were they published. They were short reports: why were they withheld on the grounds of not being ready? This is becoming something of a habit, in the case of politically sensitive meetings.

After the complaint the reports were published, and we were told they had simply been held back due to ... 'an administrative error'. (Not a critical one). Fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, who had put in several acute questions in regard to the reports, teased out the fact that the data report had actually been 'updated' before publication.

Of course supplementary questions were asked at the meeting: and further interesting information emerged.

Before the questions were put, however, I gave my statement to the committee. Naturally the Chair stopped me from reading the last sentence, as a few more seconds are not allowed, of course, in these circumstances. (Members of the public are only there under sufferance, and must not intrude on time better spent allotted to the pontifications of Tory councillors, consultants, and Capita officers).

I want to address the committee this evening as someone who has benefits invested in the Barnet pension scheme now so badly administered by Capita.

I hope that my own experience of the incompetence of these administrators serves to illustrate to members the real impact on former and current Barnet council workers, and their financial security.

As the reports before you demonstrate, your failure to hold Capita to account for its dire performance is not only enabling risk in terms of the scheme’s long term future, but has immediate and very serious consequences for those of us with benefits tied to this scheme. As the Hyman report clearly states:  “ inaccurate member data held could result in erroneous benefit statements being issued”. 

This is already happening.

I received my annual statement for the last financial year towards the end of last August. I had wondered why it was so late, and decided to contact the so called helpline for further information about my benefits. 

I won’t go into detail about my personal financial circumstances, but it is enough for you to know that in the course of that conversation I discovered, purely by accident, that there were serious errors in my statement. Repeated errors, in fact. 

The operators used to staff the pensions helpline refused to accept this was true, as did their senior officers, or that as a result of these errors, I had lost the opportunity to access the full range of options for my benefits, with disastrous consequences for my financial security.

Only after several more phone calls, emails, and further wrong information supplied to me over a course of months, did I discover that the operators are not qualified to discuss pension benefits, and that there are no qualified advisers available with which to address concerns.

As no one would listen to me in regard to the errors in my data, I tried writing to the Pension Board: that was a waste of time. I then contacted a government pension advisory service, who were appalled, and urged me to contact the Pensions Ombudsman. I did so, and they agreed that there were apparent serious errors in my statements, and serious failures in Capita’s handling of the matter. I was urged to go through what is supposed to be their ‘Early Resolution’ service; dealt with in a matter of weeks. This took nearly five months.

The Ombudsman dealing with my case saw told Capita very early on that they are at fault. After more delays and follow ups with no response, at last: they admitted this was true. All they had to offer in recompense, however, was a dismissive apology. 

The Ombudsman has warned them that this complaint will continue, and that it would be better to offer compensation for the serious financial impact of their errors. That was over a month ago. They have not responded. 

It is now nearly eight months since all this began. It has caused me immense worry and had very significant impact on my current financial and personal circumstances: and it seems there is nothing I can do about it. This is not acceptable.

If this has happened to me, it is probable that there are other scheme members similarly affected, who may not yet realise. For those individuals, the risks posed by incorrect annual statements, and incorrect data, are a ticking time bomb.

What is just simply impossible to understand is why you continue to tolerate such a high level of incompetence in your contractual partners’ performance?

The only explanation is that the Tory members put their own political interests before the best interests of council employees. This is simply unforgiveable: if you have any decency you will reconsider your decision not to revert immediately back to in house administration of the scheme. To leave it in the hands of Capita any longer would be in my view, nothing less than wilful negligence.

A couple of members asked questions, including Labour's Alison Moore, who knows the background to the whole saga: she asked how other scheme members, less 'tenacious' than I, would cope with finding themselves with similar errors in the administration of their pension benefits. 

I answered truthfully that it had been extremely worrying for me, at a very difficult personal time for my family. That explanation didn't satisfy one Tory councillor present, as we shall see. He wanted a higher level of proof.

As I pointed out, if this cockup has happened in my case, it may well be so for many other scheme members from the time when I worked for Barnet. Most would have no idea: I only found out by sheer chance that my annual statements had a fatally inaccurate piece of information. 

A 'critical error': a mere data quality issue to Tory councillors. 

Real life impact for those affected. 

Not what the Chair thought; he told the meeting that the data error issue had no personal effect. This simply is not true. Apart from my case, and who knows how many others with inaccurate annual statements based on data errors, Professor Alderman had offered them the example of a Barnet employee now unable to retire because Capita have told them they cannot find his records  ... This did not cause any reaction, but then - why should Tory councillors feel any sense of loyalty to former employees, rather than to private contractors?

Also not true is the claim, as reported here, in the local Times, by the Chair, that their hands are tied when faced with such levels of poor performance by Capita:

He said pension administration was “part of an overall contract (with Capita) for the whole council”, adding “we can’t pick and choose”.

Picking and choosing was supposed to be precisely the point of the 'review' or, what was it - the 'realignment' - of the contracts agreed a few months ago by Barnet Tories, when they were forced to admit the extent of failure of the contractual partnership. 

That was before the secret deal made when the head of Capita came to visit, and a paltry £4 million was offered as 'compensation'. Since then, there has been a delay in the review, moving further and further out of focus, and in the meanwhile, our local services remain in their hands, providing their shareholders with profits. 

When I had submitted my questions, I was contacted by the council's Section 151 officer. He was querying the question about checking annual statements for accuracy, for example in age of qualification errors. He clearly had no idea that this could happen, which proved that commissioning officers had not instigated any investigation into this risk. Yet the response to my question now claimed 'a special exercise is in progress' to test this. 

When was this put into action, I asked? Recently. How recently? Was it yesterday, after I submitted the question? He couldn't comment. In other words, yes it was, I concluded. 

The rest of their responses, and indeed the rest of the discussion that meeting - before I walked out - was on the line of, oh well yes, there have been serious problems, but who cares, some improvement in three years has been made, we're not bothered about the impact, and so what if we are sanctioned yet again by the regulator.

The question has to be put, very loudly, as we did so many times at the meeting, to no avail: why it is that Barnet's Conservative councillors are so deeply committed to facilitating the continuing failures in contractual obligations by Capita. 

We've seen it all: failure, cockups, fraud, and all at eyewateringly high level of cost, in total contradiction of the stated reason for outsourcing: the old lie of 'better services for less money'.

Not everyone at the table, or called to the table, was quite so easily satisfied with Capita's administration of the pension scheme: Tory councillor Simberg referred with horror to 'crazy, diabolical errors', and the Labour members pulled apart various concerns which appeared to be of little interest to the other Tories, that is to say the Chair and - Councillor Anthony Finn. 

One of their questions was how much the independent consultant who was being paid to advise on the data issue was receiving for his troubles, and - who bore the cost? Mr Bartle, the Section 151 officer, was obliged to admit that, guess what, the pension scheme is paying - for sorting out the cock up caused by ... the contractors ... They would not disclose the cost, because tssk: this is personal data (remember that point: the personal data of highly paid consultants are wrapped in secrecy, when there is a risk of political embarrassment for the council, but my personal data should be revealed at the committee table). 

Mr Reasonable pointed out no, in fact the information will be in accounts in the public domain, of course.

The consultants brought in - at scheme members' expense - to advise on the data error issue address the committee

Oh: and then came something of a bombshell - albeit one which caused the Tory members merely to put on their helmets and carry on regardless.

Also present at the table was the Chair of the Pensions Board, Professor Geoffrey Alderman. He pointed out that the Board 'hovered over the heads' of the committee, and read out a statement that he had had minuted at a Board meeting in which he said he was 'appalled' by this state of affairs, ie the data quality error issue. 'Appalled', he repeated. 

Noted. One of the consultants at the table, a sad eyed man who looked like Stan Laurel waiting for a bucket of whitewash to fall on his head - another fine mess - gave a sideways look. Otherwise: nothing happened, no reaction. Move on.

Hidden in the public seating was The Man From Capita: a man called Michael Green ,who according to his Linkedin profile rejoices in the title of 'Public Sector Account Director, Capita HR Solutions'. Not sure what the Problem was, if this is the Solution for Barnet: but still.

He emerged now, called to the table, sitting back with determined ease, and making it clear that Capita was not taking the blame for all of this. It was the employers' fault, if data was wrong, it seemed. Still: and here he surprised us all, turning round to address me - he was going to look into my case, to see what had happened.

Good, I said, whilst resolving not to raise my expectations, after eight months of nothing but obstruction from Capita, and being very probably the last woman on God's earth for whom they would want to put right any injustice. Still: let's see, shall we? 

Then things took a rather more sinister turn.

Tory councillor Anthony Finn had a question for the consultant. About the term 'critical errors'.

How critical, he asked, dismissively, is 'critical'? 

He then jabbered on about the definition of the word, implying it wasn't really serious, that it was just a meaningless phrase, that these 'errors' were of no consequence. In a dig at me, he referred to the date of birth being slightly wrong, as if that were the case in my 'critical error'.

The consultant, whoever he was - there was no name on the table - who had navigated the course of the meeting with the usual sort of corporate speak, 'we're seeing that back at the ranch', 'perfect storm' of pension catastrophe etc, now redeemed himself, visibly bristling at the suggestion of overstatement, and he replied to the effect that Councillor Finn was indulging in pointless argument over semantics. These errors were and are serious.

That was not what Finn wanted to hear. 

And then, for no reason, as I sat behind him, without even looking at my direction, he launched into a thinly disguised personal attack. You can hear what happened, in the audio recording: around 65 minutes onwards. 

What he said was this - but reading a transcript gives no idea of the sarcastic, offensive tone of what he said, or its effect: 

Given that it's critical, obviously Ms Musgrove thinks what’s happened to her has been a critical situation ... she has suffered 'terribly' ... BUT It’s a pity she went to the lengths ... only (not) to discuss the individual case,  but you are going to reply to her ... so perhaps with Ms Musgrove’s permission you can also tell us how critical ... what was the actual facts of the case ... 

I gasped in horror - he was actually demanding that the Chair reveal my personal details, my financial situation,  the context of what had happened, and simply because he did not believe the real difficulties caused by the 'critical error' on my annual statements? Errors which had already been recognised as very serious by the Ombudsman?

I could have explained, as I will here, as it is my choice to do so,  that Capita's repeated 'critical error' on my annual statements has meant I have now lost the option to transfer my benefits out of their fumbling hands, to another, draw down scheme, so as to access the capital, and why I wanted, needed, to do that  - but I did not want to be bullied into exposing any more of my personal case than I already had, in public, and in such an environment.

But worse was to come: he was insisting he needed to know how bad the errors were in my statements, how 'critical': what his definition of critical was, he explained as follows -

whether Ms Musgrove says  it’s critically in her sense of, which is the gun put to your head and you’ve been shot in a minute ... that’s critical ...

He seemed to be suggesting that as I had not shot myself, or taken similarly desperate action, the errors in my statements were clearly not 'critical'. 

The room erupted in uproar. 

In all the years I have watched and listened to members at council meetings, I have never heard or seen anything like this, directed at me, or anyone else. Was he really suggesting that because I had not resorted to such a step, I was lying about the seriousness of the pension cockup, and its impact on my life? 

I grabbed my things, and rushed out, on the verge of tears.

To his credit, the Chair told Finn to stop, and as I heard later, Alison Moore yelled at him that his behaviour was outrageous, and he had gone too far. 

And the (female) Director of Resources rushed out after me, to see if I was alright, which was very kind, followed by John Dix. 

Needless to say, I have received no apology from either Finn, or the Chair. 

Jibes about shooting yourself are apparently a normal part of scrutiny, in Tory Barnet.

The meeting carried on, the business was concluded, Capita remain in place, Tory councillors in their safe seats remain in place, and - the rest of us? We have to sit and watch them do what they like with this borough. 

Of course Finn may have been feeling somewhat touchy because he was Chair of the committee that was tasked with scrutinising contract performance. 

He is now Chair of Audit.

As Geoffrey Alderman, Chair of the Pensions Board, commented at this meeting: without accurate data, you cannot have an accurate audit process. 

As I tried to explain to Cllr Shooter, and Professor Alderman, as we chatted before the meeting - I find it harder and harder to write for this blog. 

Partly because of time, and commitment to my own work: but largely because I now feel so sickened by the state of things, in this foetid political landscape. 

This borough really is now a 'rotten borough' - not in terms of brown envelopes, or personal financial corruption, but because of a systemic failure in safeguards for the democratic process, and a bulging deficit in ethical standards. 

Because of the obstruction of transparency, and accountability; and because of the indefatigable march onwards of a corporate, materialist culture - one that is defended over and beyond the point of madness by the Tory group, in an administration seemingly dedicated to the inversion of all the values defined by the Nolan principles - and with a total absence in leadership, in vision: and in compassion.

Here is Broken Barnet, in one meeting, on one evening, in one room of your Town Hall. 

And there is nothing you can do about it. 

Except this, if you are a Barnet employee, past or former: check your last annual pension statements, contact Capita and insist they confirm in writing your estimated benefits, your age of qualification, and all other personal details. If you have any doubt about your entitlements, speak to Unison.