Tuesday 1 March 2011

Broken Barnet's Secret Army

Do you think their mums had to sew the badges on for them?
Last updated 10.00 pm Weds. *see below

Repressive regimes all over the world survive by the use of intimidation. Very often these countries are little more than a police state, where citizens are bullied into obedient behaviour by force and denied any legal recognition of their human rights, including the right to engage freely in a democratic system of government. Of course, this could never happen here, could it?

Er, well, yes, it could, and it did, here in Barnet, at our Town Hall, just this evening. Except it wasn't the Metropolitan police who took control of the residents attending tonight's council meeting: it was Barnet Council's own private army of security men: muscle bound bouncers in black shirts, leathers, and an assortment of pseudomilitary uniforms.

As I left the Town Hall this evening I saw a senior council officer gather his staff together and congratulate them on a job well done. As he did so, his boss - (my personal seat warmer, as it happens) - was elbowing him to shut up, as his chum hadn't spotted Mrs Angry standing with cocked ear, listening with ill disguised fury. Passing the police officer in charge on the way out, Mrs Angry whispered naughtily in his ear to send Mrs Angry's compliments to his boss, who once graciously entertained her at his office in Colindale with an audience, and has been known to read this blog. If you are reading this, Mr S, I think you might want to ask some questions about some of the events described here.

Throughout the evening, the ordinary council officers and regular police officers that I observed showed a remarkable degree of forebearance and were perfectly well mannered, but the way in which security staff were used in tonight's meeting was nothing less than an abuse of power, and unneccessarily prevented many ordinary residents from exercising their rights to attend the meeting.

Worse still, it became apparent that at this event, the proper police advice was ignored by the council and overuled by their own security agents: in other words in Hendon Town Hall, a bunch of black shirted security men and their council bosses have precedence over the decisions of the attending police officer in charge. This is what happened.

I arrived at the Town Hall at ten past six: already there were dozens of police officers and security people milling about outside, and there was a rather odd sort of queue, as if people were waiting for a bus: this was the queue for the 45 places in the public gallery. Luckily I managed, one way or another, to get fairly close to the front of the queue. There was a news camera in the front, and BBC's Tim Donovan walked by. Eventually we were allowed in, in tiny groups of six at a time, past a bag checking process - (no, they didn't dare) - and up past lines of council officers, and more security, all the way up the stairs and into the council chamber.

I have never seen such a heavy, hysterically over the top security presence in such a situation. Obviously very few in the queue managed to get a seat in the public gallery, which immediately caused bad feeling, as several citizen journalists were denied their Pickles guaranteed access to the meeting, and so were union leaders who should be entitled to witness a meeting of such importance to their members. No one had been told to attend at six o'clock in order to have a shot at gaining a seat, of course.

Those who did not get into the gallery were pushed into an overflow room where they had to listen on loudspeakers, without any clue what was going on, or who was speaking, because, oh dear, we do not stream any live or recorded film of meetings in Barnet, do we? At one point the sound system broke down. Many people left, as they felt there was no point in being there. Others fell foul of the enormous security presence lining the corridor between the chamber and the overflow room. One resident at least is said to have been manhandled by the blackshirts: this is being investigated. Another said he had his camera confiscated. By what right?

The miserable budget 'debate' kicked off. Hillan repeated her usual stock phrases of meaningless easybarnet newspeak and doublethink: better services for less money, bla bla bla, painful for all of us bla bla bla live within our means bla bla bla new relationship with our residents: ha ha, that brought the house down, I can tell you.

Alison Moore for Labour pointed out that actually most of the budget cuts were politically targeted, and deliberate choices rather than aimed at protecting frontline services.

Jack Cohen, for the Libdems, noted that this Tory council has become the laughing stock of the nation, with spectacular waste and mismanagement, and for the contempt it showed for the public it was supposed to represent. 'Cynical though I am', he said, 'it is never quite enough to keep up with One Barnet'

Through out all the speeches, Brian Coleman slouched, as usual biting his nails, picking his nose, pursing his lips, or eyes ahead, hands clasped together in one of his 'I am a great statesman' poses. He wasn't on the best of form. Is because of his new interest in good manners in public life? Or perhaps he was feeling a little camera shy. He tried to pull off one of his set pieces, banging on about the world not coming to an end, but like any stand up performer, he is running short of material - and I've already seen his show on this Budget tour, so it's all too familiar. He talked about a subject on which he is an expert: rubbish. He informed us his rule of benevolent despotism will keep Barnet safe, green and clean. 'And mean' yelled a heckler. Our Brian claimed, apropos of something or other, that, contrary to popular opinion, he does have a life, and therefore does not waste it looking at 'certain websites'. He likes this one, though, don't you Brian?

Andrew Harper, oh Andrew Harper, yet again went on and on about himself and the size of his portfolio. Will you give it a rest, man? We've all seen bigger, and no one likes a show off. Some issues there, I feel. Maybe Model X is turning out to be a bit of a disappointment.

When we had arrived, to our amusement some large notices had been stuck on the infamous glass wall that protects the councillors from the seething mob of unwashed residents, and people from Hampstead Garden Suburb, telling us that THE PUBLIC MUST REMAIN SILENT AT ALL TIMES. Oh, how we laughed. The Mayor had explained to us at the beginning of the meeting that the debate we were there to see was taking place amongst the councillors, ah: I see ... no audience participation, no bags of sweets would be thrown into the audience, and Captain Hook/Brian Coleman would not be inviting us to come and sit on his knee (sorry - flashback to childhood trauma - panto at the Golders Green Hippodrome. Don't ask). As a special treat, however, Mr Mayor said at the end of speeches we were allowed to do a bit of clapping. Unfortunately, we got this a bit mixed up, and did a lot of jeering, booing, yelling, and only a bit of clapping, and in all the wrong places.

Those of us in the public gallery were of course filming and taking photos and tweeting away. Staff made feeble attempts to get us to stop, but were simply ignored and, able to follow what was happening with the others via twitter, we soon realised they were having a much worse experience than we were - but that's how it goes, friends, in easyBarnet: those in the cheap seats get one level of service, those of us in the elite section go first class. The rich man in his castle and all that. Sorry. We thought of you, though.

In fact, I became increasingly aware that one or two people had left the gallery and so some seats were free. We asked some council officers why those in the other room weren't being allowed in. No one knew. Time passed and our friends in the other room said via twitter that they weren't being allowed to come in. They were even having to ask one of the bouncers for permission to visit the loo.

The budget debate continued. Little Cllr Robert Ramsbottom wittered on about what a shame it was to cut arts funding. 'Don't do it then!' yelled fellow blogger Vicki (note to boy bloggers and Dave Hill: ahem - the gentlemen were stuck in the overflow room, whereas the fluffy headed ladies made it to the main event ...) Ms Morris put up a terrific show, shouting down Rams and pointing out the Big Society idiocy of cutting grants to voluntary bodies. The public gallery errupted in a torrent of thunderous applause, cheering, floor stamping. She was spoken to intimidatingly by a burly bouncer. She carried on. Police were called in, but had more sense than to do anything with someone who was not causing an offence. Another person in the gallery was spotted by a councillor filming and a security person tried to get him to stop. A council officer intervened, which was interesting: I suspect there is a divergence between council leadership's wishes and the common sense of the officers.

By now there were 17 seats available. We passed a note to some Labour councillors, and they immediately asked the Mayor to let people from the overflow room in. LET THEM IN! LET THEM IN! LET THEM IN! yelled the gallery, stamping their feet. Susette Palmer demanded they were let in too, and then the Mayor agreed, and a cheer arose. And then nothing happened.

The debate continued. We continued to get messages saying that our friends were being refused entry to the gallery. We started to yell this at the chamber. A blackshirt came and told me to stop or: or what? You can't do anything, I said. Yes I can. No, I replied: you can't. And no, he didn't.

The Mayor then stated to us that the police officer in charge of the security had advised no one else should be let into the public gallery.

I didn't believe this, and decided to find out what was going on. I slipped out and made my way along the corridor, which, like the landing, was packed with council officers, police and bouncers. One enormous security man demanded to know if I was perhaps going to the 'bathroom'. I said that I was intending to have a pee rather than take a bath and while this thought was slowly processed I managed to get down the corridor. I asked the police who was in charge and they pointed to a guy by the doors of the overflow room, being anxiously spoken to by a couple of residents. Is it true, I asked him, that you have forbidden anyone to go into the public gallery, even tough there were 17 spare seats? He said categorically that it was not, and very decently, and sensibly, said that I could go into the overflow room and choose 17 people to come in. Really?

So Mrs Angry, on the command of HM constabulary, nipped into the room and told them the good news. But who to choose? It was like being given a life boat on the Titanic, and being told you could rescue only 17 drowning passengers. 'So', I said, pointing my finger: 'Citizen Journalist and blogger Mr Reasonable: I choose you ...' and the Chair of a local voluntary body, and Alex Clayman, the FCH sixth form demo organiser and some other kids, and an assorted mixure of other residents,and they followed me back up the corridor to the chamber. When we got to the doors, we were stopped by security. I argued with some guy who said I could go back in, but not the others. Absolute pointblank refusal to listen to reason. Some have reported that they were stopped by senior officers too, although I didn't see that.

I think this was absolutely extraordinary. The sensible decision of the police inspector in charge of the security operation, intended to defuse any potential conflict, and at the same time safeguard the lawful right of the public to attend a council meeting, was over ruled by a private security company employed by the council as bouncers, and seemingly accountable to no one.

Who was in charge of these men? Was there any co-ordination between them, the council's senior officers and the police? If not, why not?

This is the company which supplied the blackshirts - take a look.


Of course, despite the name, they are nothing to do with the Met, and I can't see what the pro was all about either. In my view, there should be an urgent enquiry by the bona fide authorities into the conduct of last night's debacle, and lessons learned about how to deal better with the need to balance security with the rights of ordinary citizens living in a democracy and wishing to exercise their lawful right to attend a council meeting.

The meeting this evening voted in a massive package of cuts which will have devastating effects on the daily lives of every residents of this borough. Tonight people came to see this voted through, and to protest. They also came to demonstrate their right to scrutinise council meetings in the way they see fit, by filming, tweeting, and with cameras. (will add links later this morning to the fim clips now available for your viewing pleasure). Here's one of our favourite councillor, and well done, Adam:


Re-reading this, this morning, I think I need to emphasise that in many ways, despite the inevitablity of the passing of the budget vote, last night was a triumph for the residents of the borough. Earlier in the day, Lynne Hillan took fright and spoke in the local press about the possibilty of live streaming of council meetings, and during the course of yesterday's meeting those in the public gallery unequivocally established their right to film, photograph and tweet the proceedings. Minister Grant Shapps yesterday tweeted his support of the right to do this, in fact. In short, last night was nothing less than yet another demonstration of the abject failure of Lynne Hillan's leadership. And how nice that her leadership has done more to unite the residents of this borough than any Big Society initiative could ever hope to.

Bur in the end, the evening turned out to be more about the fundamental right of residents simply to attend these meetings and to witness the proceedings without fear of intimidation or attempts to control their right of access. This evening, in short was an absolute disgrace and yet again Barnet has shown itself to be unable to understand the fundamental principles of democracy. Note to the senior managers of Barnet: if you cannot oversee a council meeting without preventing ordinary citizens from taking their places in a half empty public gallery, you may not consider that as a successfully organised event.

And now I am going to bed.

Oh, but, I can't go to bed without adding the funniest episode of the night: as we stood outside after the meeting, and after Mrs Angry winding up a poor policeman by mistaking the arrival of the Mayor's car for her own official limousine, and pretending to open up the door as if to get in, a group of Tory councillors slipped past us, looking furtive, but very pleased with themselves. Cllr Barry Evangeli was beaming with delight, lovingly cradling a tupperware box of cakes and biscuits liberated from the slap up buffet the dear councillors have laid on for them at these meetings. I'll bet he had to fight with Brian for it first though, don't you? Kind of sums them up, really, doesn't it?
* Weds 10.00 pm:
this post has had by far the highest number of hits of any I have written for this blog. I think people are genuinely horrified at the events of last night. And I am appalled to read the following remarks given in today's local Times group online paper by Barnet Tory Leader Lynne Hillan:


“I don’t think we were about to pick people up bodily and throw them out of the meeting unless we really had to.”

Unless we really had to.
I appeal to the ordinary Conservative councillors in Barnet to consider what happened last night, and these comments, and to ask yourself if you really want to be associated with this sort of remark, and this sort of behaviour. If you don't, I suggest you do something about it. Now.


Jaybird said...

So many comments to choose from, but I think my favourite was the Mayor saying was that the decision to keep people in slum class, with all the seats in neat rows facing a blank cinema screen with an audio feed which periodically cut out was "democracy in action" even though there were free seats in the main chamber. Quite extraordinary that he should say that he was acting on police advice, "something you may not do" (to the Leader of the Labour group).

When I asked Inspector Simon Roberts why he felt the need to advise that he looked bemused. I had to ask him a couple of times before understood that his name was being taken in vain and told me that that statement by the Mayor was "not completely accurate" and in his view "residents should be allowed in".

There were no papers in the overspill room, although some agendas and one copy of the Cabinet report were rapidly photocopied and passed from hand to hand. Interesting that they thought to put out chairs but not papers. Not everyone was allowed into the overspill room at first. The chairs covered two thirds of the room and the back was empty space, but once the chairs were filled the people outside were told it was full. Again, intervention suggesting that there might be a few more chairs in the building, or that people might like to come in from the cold meant that people were allowed in.

Later a group of students turned up and were again told that the space was full, even though by then a lot of people in the cheap seats had drifted away. After intervention from residents and Labour councillors the ones left were allowed in from the cold.

Mind you, on the comment front, Brain Coleman's opinion that people living in CPZ zones should expect to have to pay for the privilege they enjoy, was another cracker.

baarnett said...

Don't forget residents may test the water, now that the recoding dam has been breached.

The Cabinet Resources Committee is tonight:


Mrs Angry said...

off you go then baarnett: Mrs Angry will be probably be lying down with a cold compress on her forehead and a deep sense of foreboding. Is that a word? Sorry: I am tired and losing the plot.

Mrs Angry said...

Apologies to some commenters: Mrs Angry has has decided, unusually, to withhold a couple, for reasons she cannot divulge yet. Thanks for continuing to visit.

A Clayman said...

I've e-mailed the security company to complain, and I will be contacting Nick Walkley (or however it's spelt) in future.

I never realised exactly how crazy Barnet Council is. It was an appalling performance.

A Clayman said...

I haven't been able to complain to Metpro because they're e-mail address on their website is a dud e-mail...ha

Mrs Angry said...

hi Alex: I think you right to complain, although I wouldn't waste my breath contacting the security company. As far as I am concerned you and the others who wanted to come into the public gallery were wrongly deprived of their lawful right to attend the meeting. There must be an enquiry into why this happened.

Inquilabbi said...

ble to follow what was happening with the others via twitter, we soon realised they were having a much worse experience than we were - but that's how it goes, friends, in easyBarnet: those in the cheap seats get one level of service, those of us in the elite section go first class. The rich man in his castle and all that. Sorry. We thought of you, though.

hmm. undermines your general angriness a bit.

Mrs Angry said...

darling, Mrs Angry was being ironic: she assures you that she does not live in a castle and feels nothing but solidarity with the poor man at the gate (it's a hymn, look it up ...)