Thursday, 25 October 2012

Quite challenging: One Barnet and the Tory councillors thinking the unthinkable - they might have got it wrong

Councillor Hugh Rayner, Chair of Business Management, Overview and Scrutiny Committee - and One Barnet sceptic?

Before last night's scrutiny committee, Councillor Jack Cohen told Mrs Angry rather sternly that her posts are getting too long. That is because, Councillor Jack Cohen, EVENTS are getting too long, and Mrs Angry only has limited time to sit and whittle them all down to one paragraph. So: here is an experiment in brevity, except, look - see, it's already taken me a paragraph to say that ...

Committee: present -chair Hugh Rayner, ex military, no nonsense, and thankfully no bullshit. 'Interim' acting CEO, Andrew 'Black Hole' Travers. Libdem Jack Cohen, Labour: Rawlings, Johnson, Moore, Tories: Salinger, Braun (in a trance) Rowan Turner. Apologies from Tories John Marshall, who has fallen over in a park, like an ancient oak, and will be left there to provide a home for stag beetles and other wildlife. Concentrate, Mrs Angry. And apologies from Andrew Strongolou, whose purpose Mrs Angry fails to understand, as this young man, who, according to the register of interests, has no employment, lives at the members' room at the Town Hall, and has no email contact for his work as councillor, usually sits silently in the gloom of council meetings wearing shades, and looking sulky.

The meeting was to be presented with the One Barnet petition (against, not for, in case you were wondering). Mrs Janet Maddison spoke eloquently on behalf of residents who object to the corporate prostitution of our council services. Councillors listened. The Tory Chair spent the rest of the meeting more or less agreeing with her, which was disconcerting. He asked all the right questions: deciding now that a £1 billion worth of outsourcing is 'quite challenging', especially as we don't know what will happen in the next six months, let alone the next ten years. In his own experience of contracts, he understood how the loopholes which exist will benefit the companies, and facilitate their profit margins.

Yes, Councillor Rayner. Well done. Well spotted. 

Why didn't you ask these f*cking questions two years ago?

Clearly all the other Tories felt the same profound sense of doubt about the massive scale of privatisation, the huge amount of  financial commitment, and the contractual stranglehold they are about to put around our necks. (All except Tory Maureen Braun, who was, as usual, inert and almost asleep.)

The Tory councillors have sleepwalked us all into this mess, by their laziness, lack of interest and abject failures as our elected representatives, notably, in this case, by failing properly to scrutinise the One Barnet process. Now, at the very last minute, as they begin to understand the impact this terrifying programme will have on the borough, and of course on their electoral futures, they have begun to wake up, panic, and run about like scared rabbits.

Black Hole sat at the table and made the most feeble defence imaginable for the One Barnet concept. He spoke at some length, (Mrs Angry imagines he is being paid by the yard, spinwise, rather than the set rate £1,000 per day now he is acting up as CEO) mumbling on about robust processes, appropriate advice,  satisfactory and appropriate levels of consultation (with the bidders, presumably, rather than the electorate) bla bla bla. He didn't really seem to have convinced himself, let alone put any effort into persuading the rest of us. 

Sitting furtively in the audience were deputy leader Cllr John Thomas - eye glinting, clearly plotting his future as leader, when the floundering  Cornelius is moved on  - and Cllr Andrew Harper - clearly trying to expand his portfolio, back to the eye wateringly high status he held in the reign of Lynne Hillan, deputy leader, then acting leader, then potential leader and then, and then  - oh, whoops: it was all over, like a lovely dream. As they sat very still, watching the proceedings with evident unease, the mention was made of the ever increasing bill of several million pounds being thrown in the lap of the One Barnet consultants and 'implementation partners', ie Agilisys and iMPOWER. 

Harper looked meaningfully at Thomas, at this point. It is clear they know that the myth of One Barnet, that it will deliver huge savings, is entirely discredited by the parasitical drain on our local taxes enabled by this dependence on such consultants. What do they do for this money? How exactly is it spent? We do not know. We are not allowed to know. It is 'commercially sensitive'.

At the end of the discussion it was agreed that a recommendation should be made, via Travers, to the Cabinet. There was much confusion as to what should, what could be submitted, but it was agreed, rather astonishingly, if rather too late, that the range of serious concerns raised by residents in the petition and by committee members should be noted.

All that will happen now is that the Cabinet will completely disregard this warning from its own backbenchers, and carry on walking us - and their own electoral chances - right over the cliff.

Mrs Angry has discovered that One Barnet and our council's competence, or rather incompetence, in procurement was the subject of a question in parliament on Monday: 

·         Local Government FinanceShadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Hilary Benn: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if he will request the London borough of Barnet to comply with their external auditor's recommendations and produce a stakeholder engagement plan for their transformation programme.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government,  Brandon Lewis: How the London borough of Barnet responds to any recommendations from their auditor is a local matter. An auditor has powers to act when he has serious concerns about a council's actions, including qualifying the council's accounts, issuing a public interest report which the full council would be required to consider, and even, in the case of unlawful actions, seeking a judicial review.

·         Local Government FinanceHilary Benn: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what communication he or officials in his Department have had with the London borough of Barnet regarding the procurement practices of that authority.

Brandon Lewis: There have been no recent communications between the Secretary of State and Barnet council regarding their procurement practices.

The Department does not routinely collect information on communications between officials and individual local authorities.

As a matter of public record, in a speech in 2011, the Secretary of State made a reference to procurement practices in that local authority. The speech is online at:

·         Local Government FinanceHilary Benn: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government whether it is his policy that outsourcing of regulatory services by local authorities should be subject to consultation.

Brandon Lewis: This Government believes that local authorities are best placed to decide how they fulfil their statutory functions. As locally accountable bodies, they have strong incentives to consult local people, and are under some specific duties to do so. The duty of best value, introduced by section 3 of the Local Government Act 1999, requires authorities to:

“make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness”.

The legislation further requires that they consult local people on how they should fulfil this duty.

·         Local Government FinanceHilary Benn: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what steps he has taken to ensure that local authorities which commission regulatory services such as planning, licensing and environmental health from third parties ensure that the public are protected, with particular reference to circumstances where third party suppliers fail to meet their obligations.

Brandon Lewis: Councils retain ultimate accountability for ensuring that the services for which they have statutory responsibility are provided. Where they contract services out to third parties, they need to put arrangements in place to ensure that those parties can fulfil their requirements.

What is so amusing about this is the fact that the speech to which Brandon Lewis refers with such enthusiasm, is the one given by his boss Eric Pickles last year to the CIPFA conference, praising the work of Mrs Angry and her fellow bloggers. Ahem.  

Do you think, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet , that Eric and Brandon are trying to tell you something?

There are some wild rumours flying about tonight about the future of Tory leader Richard Cornelius, who was forced to make a rather humiliating u -turn this week over his failure to suspend his chum Brian Coleman following his charge for an alleged 'assault with beating' and an alleged driving offence. 

Last night's meeting demonstrated clearly that Barnet Tory councillors are now openly voicing concerns about the viability of the One Barnet programme, and interim CEO Andrew Travers' less than erm 'robust' defence of the proposals did little to assail their anxieties.

Tonight's committee meeting is due to be chaired by Councillor Brian Coleman. He has not yet been suspended or voted from his position. Will he turn up, or will they prevail upon him to stay at home?

All will be revealed soon: watch for update on twitter, and here later.

(PS: sorry, Jack - I did try, but ... events, dear boy, events ... )

1 comment:

Ron said...

"ex military, no nonsense" is an oxymoron. take it from an ex-military.