Friday, 6 April 2012
Cabinet questions: Mrs Angry v Brian Coleman - who won?
*Revised and updated Saturday:
Oh well, anyway, due to 'events, dear boy, events' Mrs Angry has only just got round to thinking about Part Two of the report from Wednesday's meetings: first, you may recall, we had the Cabinet meeting with the 76 questions from residents about the closure of Friern Barnet library (that went well, Robert Rams, didn't it?) and then, when we thought that the Tory Cabinet had delighted us quite enough for one evening, along came the second meeting, Cabinet Resources.
Another public question time, but this time only three questions, all from Mrs Angry, on the touchy subject of procurement and the never ending revelations of newly discovered non compliant contracts with hundreds of private companies providing services to Barnet Council.
A year after the MetPro audit report, in which the first indication was made of the full extent of non compliance, here we are, still stumbling over new examples of irregular arrangements where, in simple terms, your local authority throws money at the companies undertaking the provision of services with no proper tender process, no legal agreement, no terms of performance assessment, improperly scrutinised payment systems, and so on and so forth.
Does it matter?
Of course it does - the council constantly lectures us on the needs for budget restraint, cuts to service, making staff redundant, all for the cause of financial prudence, yet at the same time it has no idea how much money has been wasted in irregular commercial transactions with its own suppliers. The scale of incompetence by Barnet Council demonstrated by this endemic failure to regulate its own procurement systems is staggering: yet here they are now wanting to allow many of the companies it has been using in this way to continue their cosy arrangements, with our money being chucked at them, but no scrutiny of whether or not we are being ripped off, let alone acheiving value for money.
As mentioned in earlier blogs this week, Mrs Angry's original questions to the committee were censored without her permission, and despite requests for a copy of the rewritten questions, and for evidence for the constitutional powers that allowed officers to censor a question submitted to a committee for no reason other than political expediency, Mrs Angry received no copy, nor proper explanation.
She had not seen the questions in her name, nor the answers, therefore, before arriving at the meeting. This is traditionally done, of course, so as to wrongfoot members of the public who dare to submit questions to their elected representatives, and give them as little time as possible to prepare supplementary questions for the committee.
Question 1 had, in censored form, asked why no effective action had been taken, in such a long period, to identify and immediately address the issue of so many additional non compliant 'arrangements' with private companies.
The feeble response was:
Action is being taken inline with an action plan, the progress of which has been presented to the Audit Committee.
Question 2: Ha. Well, the amusing thing about the censorship of her questions was that although much of the 'sensitive' content had been removed, some naughty officer in Democratic Services had decided to allow the one question that Mrs Angry had been sure would be scratched out first of all: the helpful suggestion that Councillor Coleman, in his capacity as Cabinet Member for Environment, Planning and Regeneration might, in view of his failure to regularise the many non compliant contracts which come under his responsibilities, be moved to resign from his Cabinet post.
The written response was:
All services have been working with commercial assurance to implement the actions detailed in the action plan and in some cases waiver of contract rules has been deemed the most appropriate action as detailed in the respective reports.
And then, perhaps rather regretfully, Mrs Angry thought, reading between the lines ...
There is no reason for Councillor Coleman to resign.
I'll bet they had a bloody long look for one though, don't you, citizens?
Question 3: Will you admit that the level of incompetence in failing to identify such a massive number of non compliant contracts is scandalous enough in itself: but to fail to address the issues raised last year, within a reasonable time frame, is completely unacceptable and evidence of the most serious failure of responsibility by the senior management team and political leadership of the authority.
The Council outlined some time ago that not all of its contracts had complied with the contract procedure rules. The issues are being addressed and internal and external audit have sanctioned the action plan in place. Commercial assurance is working with the audit function to resolve outstanding issues.
Mmm. Mrs Angry chewed the end of her pen thoughtfully & scribbled some smart arse questions to put to the committee. There is never any point in asking a serious supplementary question on any important issue, of course: the Chair will always avoid giving any real answer, so the sport to be had depends entirely on how much the questioner can upset the members of the committee. Mrs Angry thought carefully, therefore, about how she might upset at least some members of the committee.
Time to sit at the table. And here you can see what happened next.
Be warned: there are some really awful sights - (Councillor Harper - just because someone gave you that jumper for Christmas, doesn't mean you have to wear it in public) and Mrs Angry, although in many ways better seen from the back than the front, has very messy hair, and looks as if she had just got out of bed. She had not.
Our Welsh blogging friend Cneifiwr has pointed that English council meetings appear to require an awful lot of nervous drinking of water. This is something not seen before, actually, and makes the Cabinet meeting look like a sort of University Challenge for the intellectually challenged Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, which of course it is.
You will observe that Brian Coleman behaves like a little shit, and is told off by Mrs Angry for being rude. Note that he dares not risk acknowledging her presence at the table for fear of her Medusa like powers, so refers to her in the third person, as if she was not really there.
You will note that the other Tory Cabinet councillors of Broken Barnet, notably Robert Rams, Andrew Harper, and even Richard Cornelius are - most unusually - unable to contain their mirth at this encounter, and even the normally ice cool Councillor John Thomas loses his composure. Mrs Angry very nearly lost her composure at the references to Brian Coleman's portfolio, but managed just about to behave herself.
Mrs Angry's supplementary question to Councillor Coleman, who has no reason to resign, is to wonder if he thinks that, as Cabinet member with so many non compliant contracts still in place, he has successfully demonstrated the corporate value which is the defining motto of One Barnet, 'a relentless drive for efficiency'. Coleman clearly has not read the questions, and is incapable of responding to the challenge of defending his record in office. And all that Chair John Thomas can do is stammer that he thinks Councillor Coleman has demonstrated 'a relentless drive for efficiency'. Mmm.
Sachin Rajput, furthest away, the world's most boring speaker, whose later speech at this meeting led Mr Mustard to leave the room in search of a length of rope, appears to have entered a catatonic trance, although even he was unable to restrain what looks like a small amount of amusement at one point, but may have been a malfunction in his digestive tract.
The clip ends with leader Richard Cornelius telling Mrs Angry, more or less, that in his view the need for compliance with procurement regulations is a flipping nuisance and would stop the council from automatically using local firms, which would be dreadful. Councillor Coleman agrees. Because of course, when you think about it, if we had had such ridiculous restraints in place in the past, we would never have been able to employ a local company like MetPro.
Think this is where it all started, Richard. Do try and keep up.
The rest of the meeting was pretty dull: luckily Mrs Angry was kept awake by the kindness of Mayor elect Brian Schama, who fed her with peppermints, openly admitting he was trying to bribe her to write nice things about him, which she would do anyway, because he is a nice man.
Also responsible for waking Mrs Angry up were a few interventions by Brian Coleman on the subject of erm, the long, long saga of the Dollis Valley Estate. He thought it needed 'rebranding', as it had such an awful reputation, and a Bad Odour. Mrs Angry thought that perhaps it might be called, well ... something like Coleman Valley Estate? That would teach them to aspire to get out pretty damn quick. Also, it occurred to her that Brian Coleman might benefit from rebranding, on the grounds of having a Bad Odour. What if he called himself , oh maybe ... Andrew Dismore? He might even get elected to the GLA.
On the subject of 'early intervention' measures by social care workers, Councillor Coleman had a view too. He declared that children required 'good male role models' (probably they look rather like Brian Coleman) and he wanted to stress that children in Barnet should be placed only with stable families, which in his opinion would consist of 'two parents and a father'. Interesting. Mrs Angry could think of a few examples in her family where this was, inadvertently, the case, but is Coleman, an openly gay man, suggesting that, for example, lesbian couples in Barnet should not be allowed to foster or adopt a child in need of a loving home?
Coleman also talked a load of rubbish, about rubbish, and waste disposal, and took the opportunity to insult the reporters on the local Times groups newspapers, one of whom, a young woman, was sitting in front of him. He described one issue, sneeringly, as something even a Times reporter might understand. She smiled to herself, but did not otherwise respond, and carried on with her notetaking.
Brian Schama was at the meeting to submit his Task and Finish report on procurement. When Mrs Angry asked him about this, he looked as if he might be about to cry, so she did not press the point. Throughout his presentation, Captain Cooper, head of commercial services, who had been giving Mrs Angry very bad looks throughout the evening, gripped his chin, and tried to pretend he was not Captain Cooper, or present in any visible form. It almost worked, but not quite.
Schama said that he wanted to introduce a new concept, that of a top down attitude to compliance, from the Chief Exective down. The Chief Executive, Nick Walkley looked even more like Dave from the Royle Family (sorry, but it's true, Mr Walkley) shifted uncomfortably in his seat, as if Barbara had asked him to put a brew on. Compliance, my arse, eh? Schama also introduced a new concept: that procurement officers might no longer be allowed to spend beyond a certain limit. Brilliant. This is groundbreaking stuff, in Broken Barnet.
In her last supplementary question, Mrs Angry had asked how, in view of the total inability of the council to get a grip on the existing procurement requirements, it could be trusted to take on the enormous challenge of the £1 billion One Barnet outsourcing programme. Naturally there was no real answer, because there is no satisfactory response that can be made.
Barnet is out of its depth, and floundering, and desperately clinging to the wreckage, while the corporate ship slowly sinks below the water. It was hubris, and the placing of profit before safety which sank the Titanic: the One Barnet ship is set on the same course, and the icebergs are looming on the horizon. (Yes, yes, alright, Councillor Cohen, and the wrong screws. The wrong loose screws ... Have you seen that scene in the Sunshine Boys, Walter Matthau and George Burns - 'Enter. And come in' ?)
Hey ho. A happy Easter, anyway, and Passover, to all readers.
*Update Saturday evening:
We need to return to the earlier part of the evening, question time for the Cabinet. You may recall a question from a Mr Paul Merchant, who 'fired' Robert Rams, Apprentice style, for his handling of the Friern Barnet library issue. If you look at the clip below, recorded and kindly supplied by the Barnet Bugle, you will note another example of incredible rudeness from Brian Coleman, from 58 seconds in. He not only interrupts and tells Mr Merchant to 'clear off', which is bad enough - take a look at what he says just before this. It looks as if he uses a word which rhymes with cat, hat, or splat and refers to an intimate part of a woman's body. Can any reader identify this word and explain to Mrs Angry, who was educated by nuns, you know, whether or not it is the sort of word which an elected member of the council should use in reference to a resident, in front of a public audience including several young children? And if anyone knows Mr Merchant, perhaps they might to ask him how he feels about being addressed in this way.