Thursday, 10 May 2012

A Tale of Two Meetings: punishment and reward in Broken Barnet

Option three: maintaining high standards of conduct for members, the Mrs Angry way

In a post Coleman era, what can Mrs Angry do to distract herself from the grim reality of life, or her life anyway, here in Broken Barnet? How will she manage without the entertainment that Brian provided in such abundant supply?

Each man kills the thing he loves, and now look: Brian is dead; and we killed him. What on earth will the bloggers of Broken Barnet write about?

Well, let's see.

One Barnet. Outsourcing. Procurement. Conflicts of interest at a time of competitive dialogue. Audit. Scrutiny. Transparency. In other words, no - we are not exactly short of material, and in many ways, the spectacular implosion and disappearance of Brian Coleman as a political force here in this borough has allowed us to focus more intently on the hugely important issues which are now demanding attention.

There were two council meetings at the Town Hall last night - Mrs Angry went along, partly out of desperation, and partly, in truth, to gloat a little bit. Two meetings may seem an awful price to pay for such low ambition, but in fact both events proved to be more instructive than might have been expected.

The first was a meeting of a special constitutional review committee which was to discuss and finalise the arrangements for dealing with allegations of a breach of the councillors' code of conduct - 'satisfying the Council's continuing duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct for Members'. Yes, what you might call an impossible task, here in Broken Barnet, where Tory councillors used to line up to take their turn at the now abolished Standards Committee. Our beloved Brian Coleman was a season ticket holder for this event, as you may recall.

Under the old regime, allegations would be thoroughly and fairly investigated and a rather protracted process would take place in order to establish the facts and consider the verdict. In theory, councillors found guilty of a breach could be given one of a number of sanctions, such as suspension, retraining, or they might be simply slapped on the wrist and sent away to carry on in the same fashion, laughing up their sleeve. Guess what generally happened in the case of our Tory councillors, here in Broken Barnet? Yep. Sent away, slap on the wrist, laughing up their sleeve.

Now, however, things are set to get much worse. If you consider the things that our councillors did under the old system, and got away with, incurring no real sanction, imagine what the villains will do once all that is replaced by the new one.

The old Standards system has been ended by the requirements of the new Localism Act, and yet the new one really is in complete contradiction to the driving principles which are supposed to generate the processes of democracy in Eric Pickles' vision of a more accountable model of local government.

Under Pickles' new model, it is up to local authorities to invent their own ways of dealing with councillors who may have breached a code of conduct. The major problem of the new system, however, is that has removed all pretence of any real sanction for councillors who have misbehaved. The only real consequence will occur if a member is found not to have properly declared a pecuniary interest, which will be a criminal act, and goodness me: Mrs Angry looks forward to the day that this new law applies.

So, citizens of Broken Barnet: what sort of replacement for a standards committee do you think our Tory councillors might vote for?

Yeah. You were right. There were two options: one with group leaders sorting things out, supposedly taking into consideration the views of an 'independent person' - or a panel of two independent members and one elected member, which was the preferred choice - the lesser of two evils - of the present Standards Committee. Naturally the Tories preferred the first option which would be easier on any councillor in trouble, ie with the group leaders sorting everything out, taking into consideration, whatever that means, the views of two 'independent persons'. Marvellous.

How did they reach that decision? Well, the Chair of this committee was Tory councillor and chum of Brian Coleman, Melvin Cohen: yes, father of Dean, who is about to step into Brian's Cabinet shoes. Mrs Angry does not particularly warm to Melvin Cohen: he is a humourless, moody and authoritarian member, and she thought his introductory remarks at the beginning of the meeting spoke volumes about his attitude to the ideals of accountability and transparency.

The fact that this man is chair of a constitutional committee is hhighly significant. It explains why this administration was able to get away with its shameful assault, last year, on the constitutional definitions of the Residents' Forums, which has allowed our Tory dictators to forbid discussion at these meetings by residents of anything they regard as 'policy', ie almost every single issue that a resident might wish to debate with their elected representatives. Such censorship is, again, in direct conflict with the stated views of the government on localism, engagement with the community, empowerment of the community, accountability, transparency.

Cohen had explained to the meeting, reluctantly, that he had in fact, slightly changed his opinion on the necessity of any such process, ie a standards type procedure. He referred to the process as a 'panoply'. Cornelius also used this word later. They don't like panoplies, Tories. Panoplies are a bureaucratic nuisance, an affront to liberty, and an obstruction to the free flowing spirit of free enterprise. And in the view of many Tory councillors in Broken Barnet, the ones who were most likely to be referred to the Standards Committee either by another member, or an aggrieved member of the public, they really should be at liberty to behave exactly as they wish, with no fear of sanction.

Melvin Cohen admitted, grudgingly, however, that there might be an argument for some sort of requirement for councillors to be held to account for allegations of breach of the code of conduct.

He thought perhaps the man on the Clapham Omnibus might think a move to a system with no sanctions at all might be ' a step too far'. Well, thought Mrs Angry, that's reassuring. Are there still omnibuses in Clapham? Maybe ask the Tooting Twister. He probably sits on one from time to time. Or Mr Mustard, who visits South London on a regular basis ...

As usual the Libdems' Jack Cohen, former member of the Standards Committee, told it like it is. He said that both options were merely window dressing, that the Standards Committee had wanted to continue.

Councillor Anthony Finn was of the opinion that the Libdems should not be allowed to take part in any new standards replacement system, because there were 'only' three Libdem councillors. Rather extreme, Councillor Finn, no? No. Clearly the concept of democracy, and the expressed will of the constituents of the wards which elected these three, hard working, long serving members should be ignored in favour of a system dominated by your party, and its long history of high ethical standards.

Labour leader Alison Moore pointed out, in her polite fashion, but to no avail, that there was a necessity for public to have confidence in the ethical standards and probity of the council. Only leader Richard Cornelius showed any sense of unease at the prospect of such a lax degree of accountability for members in the future. Councillor Harper was clearly not particularly bothered, and did quite a lot of yawning and face pulling, and the pointless utterances of Councillor Andrew Strongolou, in his Borat haircut, hiding behind rather unnecessary sunglasses in the rapidly darkening committee room, simply had to be heard to be believed.

There was a fair amount of pointless argument over the question of what constituted a group of councillors, in regard to the council's membership. Director of Corporate Governance, Jeff Lustig, who is a master of discretion, strategy, and corporate intrigue, made a remark which was memorable, and indeed worthy of Sir Humphrey at his finest. One of the councillors remarked that they were grateful for a new explanation of what did define a 'group' in terms of the council's constitution.

Lustig, thinking on his feet, declared, poker faced, in a phrase worthy of Sheridan - or maybe Oscar Wilde: "
The definition has not changed: perhaps the clarity of my explanation has done so ..." In other words, the stupid Tory councillors had at last grasped a complex concept. Oh dear: how Mrs Angry laughed.

Tory councillor Joan Scannell had objections to the requirement for members to declare pecuniary interests of their spouses or partners. She informed us, rather sweetly, that she was not married, so that this did not apply to her, but thought this was too much to ask, as a member might become involved with someone, and would then have to consider how much importance to attach to a relationship they had instigated.

Hmm, thought Mrs Angry, she has a point. Bearing in mind the interesting extra mural activities of many of our Tory councillors, at what point does the object of their passion become liable for declaration? After the first happy tryst, wherever that might be, or after many years of covert meetings at a secret location? Well, all academic interest, anyway, as the unromantically inclined view of Jeff Lustig was that it was in fact a legal requirement for such declarations to be made, whether councillors liked it or not. Spoilsport. How was it for you? Fabulous, darling, now please turn over and sign here, here and here, as Mrs Angry is inspecting the register of interests next week, and we dare not leave anything to chance.

In the interval between the meetings, Mrs Angry nipped down the corridor to the loo, and got into conversation with Cllr Scannell, a nice woman, who seemed not to disagree when Mrs Angry pointed out that councillors seemed not to understand why residents would be cynical about the new standards arrangements. Hello, naughty Councillor Harper stuck his head round the door of the Tory members room. Mrs Angry gave him the benefit of her opinion, politely, suggesting that he and his colleagues simply did not get it, the mood of people in the borough ... hmm, he said, well, it is all about BEHAVIOUR. Erm? BEHAVIOUR, he repeated, sternly, like a history teacher just back from detention duty. Yes, said Mrs Angry, and obviously, your behaviour, Cllr Harper, is impeccable, but as we have seen, certain of your fellow councillors ... BEHAVIOUR, he repeated, and went off in search of biscuits.

The next meeting was held in the same committee room. This was a new committee, dealing in the interesting and timely subject of renumeration. Renumeration in this case, meaning the pay of senior officers.

an independent and robust approach to senior management 'reward strategy'

We were joined by Chief Executive Nick Walkley and watched by the formidable (interim) assistant head of HR, Jacquie Mc Geachie, who has been in this (interim) position since 2009. Interim, in Barnet, means in a state of permanent suspension, poised for ever in a moment of time: age shall not weary them, not the years condemn, nor shall they, if they are being paid through a private company, be troubled by the same tax & PAYE annoyances of ordinary employees. Which reminds us:

Missing from council meetings recently, to the regret of Mrs Angry, has been the small but perfectly formed financial genius of Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers, our £1,000 a day interim deputy CEO and chief financial officer. Mrs Angry had been puzzled, a few weeks ago, by lots and lots and lots of hits on her blog from East Sussex Council looking up Mr Travers, and how peculiar, they now employ someone with that very same name. Obviously it could not be the same Andrew Travers, as a black hole cannot exist in two local authorities at the same time, without serious consequences, and two salaries, and a huge pile of uncounted paper clips. Strange coincidence, though, is it not?

But back to last night. Joining the committee was deputy leader Daniel 'John' Thomas, who works in a building society, and is therefore well qualified to speak with great authority and some resentment, no doubt, on the pay of officers earning five times at least more than he does. Cllr Thomas is keen on making savings. Mr Walkley, the Chief Executive, is keen on making savings too, but not if it means a cut in his own salary, of course.

Leader Cornelius, in his disingenuously tactless way, started talking about Mr Pickles' making an important point in regard to senior officers in the public sector earning more than the Prime Minister.

A few inches to his right, Mr Nick Walkley, who earns more than the Prime Minister, suddenly felt the urge to make some very important notes, which required a lot of close concentration. After Cornelius had finished, Nick talked a load of waffle about seeking to reduce pay but, aha, here is the catch, without negative effects (especially in his bank balance, one imagines) ...

Now we were welcoming two representatives from two well known consultant recruitment agencies - Penna, and Hay. They were here to advise the committee. Well, actually, as it turned out, they were here to justify a. their continued use by Barnet and b. the continued high salaries of the officers they place with us, at vast expense.

First, though, we had an introductory talk by Sarah Murphy-Brookman, who is, like Ms McGeachie, assistant Director for HR. (How many do you need? Probably, on reflection, quite a lot, when you have so many members of staff to make redundant or sell off, in temporary bondage. to outsourcing companies).* (In fact, Mr Mustard tells us that Ms McGeachie is currently working on a Special Project for Mr Walkley, so Ms M-B is filling her black patent shoes at the moment.)

Ms Murphy-Brookman wanted members to 'have sight of the proposed reward strategy'. This means she was going to justify a planned salary structure, with built in bonuses. Good. For senior staff, obviously. For the underlings, just retaining your job is reward enough.

She talked about 'a modest pay range', but one where you would be able to 'leave the door open a little' so as to 'flex a little at the top' (flex: give more money to). She talked enthusiastically about 'stretch potential' and 'competent level'. There was, surprisingly, considering the scale of cock up on areas such as procurement and contracting, no mention of levels of incompetence.

The man from the Hay group, so helpful to Barnet, and supplying us with so many officers, even, by the use of magical powers in some cases, after awkward enquiries from bloggers, retrospectively, now addressed the committee.

He started off with a mention of 'technical underpinnings'. Mrs Angry's heart sank. He told us all we ever wanted to know, and more, much, much, more about the Hay Group. It works with more than 150 councils. It has worked with Penna to evaluate the new management structure, to ensure an independent and robust approach. Marvellous.

What is job evaluation, he asked himself? God help him, he must bore the pants off his wife at the dinner table, thought Mrs Angry. And elsewhere. Ah well, now, see, Hay has its own Evaluation Method, did you know? Mrs Angry does. It has been used for more than six years. Six years. It is the most commonly used one in the world. It deals with relativities. It breaks things down. Marriages, the will to live, that kind of thing. It is flexible. It has one million people on its database, like some sort of self pleasing internet dating service. It focuses on what people are actually paid. Rather than what they tell their mums. Ah but: it is not an exact science. What then, thought Mrs Angry, is the fecking point?

John Thomas sticks his oar in. With a cool eye focused neatly away from Mr Walkley to the left of him, he mentions that policy direction is to reduce pay, and ventures the thought that senior pay, in his opinion, has got out of control. Walkley smiled. He said he did not want to pour water on John Thomas' enthusiasm, (although you know, Mrs Angry thought he did, really: really, he did ...) but they had to be careful. What if, say this policy meant they ended up paying a man more than a woman?

Even Richard Cornelius thought this was a daft example to use, and said so. He asked if there were any other evaluation schemes, other than Hay. Dear me, no, surely not. Ms Murphy-Brookman managed to persuade him that this was not really a consideration.

A woman from Penna now spoke, to inform us all, in a lovely reassuring voice about 'market context'. She mentioned the last couple of years had seen an enormous number of candidates moving from the private to the public sector. And back again, thought Mrs Angry, fondly recalling some of the intricate sidesteps of senior officers from Barnet to major companies, some of whom have been so intimately involved in the massive outsourcing tender process ...

With a tear in her eye, and in hushed tones, the woman from Penna told us that the salary of Chief Executives had fallen in the last year by 19% ... don't worry, not in Barnet, obviously. There was, she told us, a lack of skilled officers, and did we know that it was necessary to pay the price of experience?

Ms Murphy-Brookman summed up by telling us that although pay should be 'anchored' at a reasonable level, it was justifiable to add a market supplement (more money) and that this should be reviewed every year. A brilliant way of disguising the same high levels of pay, in other words.

John Thomas wasn't happy. Shouldn't those in situ ... well, why should their pay not go down? (Mrs Angry may just be warming to John Thomas, in a deep frozen, icy sort of way).

Walkley smiled to himself again. He then informed us that there were no proposals for performance related pay, as they were mindful of the need to 'bear down the cost of employment'. Mmm, thought Mrs Angry: very clever, Mr Walkley. Pay me lots of money upfront, and don't ask me to justify the value for money, on the pretext that I don't want tax payers to give me even more money, even though we are actually asking to assess what you have done in the first place to deserve huge amount we already pay you ...

Last word, and again, the most acute comment from Libdem Jack Cohen. Have we, he asked, somewhat rhetorically, completely lost the ethos of public service, whereby someone might want to work in local government for a lower salary simply because they felt it was a vocational post, in which they might make some contribution to a community?

Oh Jack: did you see the blank faces all around the room?

But then again, with your honourable exception, when the elected representatives of this borough largely see their roles as a sinecure, with promotion to committee chairs and their allowances a form of patronage granted after years of sycophancy and good behaviour, or astute lobbying: well - can you blame the officers for having the same materialist attititude?

The meeting ended. Mrs Angry reflected that we had been treated to a very successful corporate promotion by Hay and Penna, who will no doubt continue to supply us with well paid executives, on an interim basis, until the end of time. Funnily enough, no one mentioned the rather embarrassing issue of the number of senior officers paid through their own companies, or how this was going to be addressed by the council.

In regard to the issue of the pay levels of senior officers, well - instead of seeing a Pickles style purge of Town Hall fat cats, we enjoyed the spectacle of a display of turkeys not only not voting for Christmas, but successfully arguing as to why they should be fed on a diet of caviare, and indulged like pampered pets, while the farmer lives on pigswill and sleeps in the barn.

This is how your council runs, citizens: a senior management accountable to no one, following their own agenda, a leadership hardly engaged with the realities of administration and happy to leave the officers to get on with things, and a bunch of councillors completely unable or unwilling to get to grips with the responsibilities they have undertaken.

Forget Animal Farm, though, perhaps the better metaphor is related to that last image of our newly sacked GLA member and Cabinet member, Brian Coleman, losing his composure in a sweet shop ... This is Broken Barnet, plc, and you are the shopkeeper: if your local Tory councillor comes into your shop, telling you what you can and can't say about him, do tell him where to go. And when a gang of them comes into the shop at closing time, and helps themselves to the merchandise, yet again, take them by the scruff of the neck, and throw them out.

Closing time: May 2014.


Mr Mustard said...

One small correction Mrs Angry, although you can be forgiven for not knowing this as there has not been any announcement, but Jacquie McGeachie is now working on some sort of special project for non-stick Nick Walkley (did you notice how shiny his shoes were?) and Sarah double-barrelled ( I always want to put her surname the wrong way round for some reason ) has taken over her old role, presumably on an interim basis as they are all up for the chop, or have HR left themselves out of the proposed top management bloodbath?

In the future instead of all the HR top brass mysteriously coming from Peterborough they will all come from Harpenden. Nepotism, in Barnet, never.

Must go now and put in an awkward FOI about HR posts. Expect an answer in about January 2013.

Mrs Angry said...

A special project? That's nice. Yes, shiny shoes, and an expression of deep contentment.

baarnett said...

What many of us don't appreciate is that Mrs Angry arranges special photo-sessions, for the pictures in her posts.

The first one here was taken during a visit by Mr Mustard, and the second one is at Scratchwood, with the M1 motorway just behind.

Mrs Angry said...

I'm afraid Mrs Angry does not offer that sort of service,Baarnett,except to errant Tory councillors. If you are interested,however, I believe there are plenty of establishments in Broken Barnet which cater to gentlemen with such inclinations. Take Mr Mustard with you.

The photo was in fact from some vintage circus act entitled 'Spanky Bill', which must have been rather entertaining.

I'm not sure that stand and deliver is exactly what goes on at Scratchwood - oh ... yes, I see ... hmm.