As the BBC held its Question Time at a local school, an edition dedicated to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, and moved, in a panic, by the BBC, from the dangers of a northern venue to the safety of her former constituency, and a handpicked audience, just down the road another debate was taking place, a real debate with local residents.
A meeting had been called in Finchley to discuss something which is the ugly consequence of Thatcherite policies - the privatisation of local care, in the form of a trading company, created in partnership with our Tory council, intended to make profit from the provision of support to vulnerable residents dependent on support.
This ill fated coupling is known as 'Your Choice Barnet', a name which inevitably reflects the Tory council's attempt to continue the old lie, a relic of Thatcherism itself, that introducing market values into public service provision somehow endows those obliged to depend upon them with a new freedom to choose and to take control of their own lives. Of course the reverse is true, as the only choice offered by a service run for profit is which service you can no longer afford, and must do without.
As Mrs Angry reported here ...
... only a year after this company was launched, the ill conceived venture has had to be bailed out by Barnet Council, or rather by local residents and tax payers, to the tune of £2 million, (double the sum originally understood to be needed) in order to prevent a total collapse of the organisation.
A report commissioned by Unison had predicted that this was likely to happen, as the business case for the company was so clearly flawed.
'Your Choice Barnet' is part of the Barnet Group, an ALMO - at arm's length organisation - which Barnet Council uses to undertake some of its service obligations, in a way which allows it to divest itself of some of the more annoying responsibilities, such as to staff and management. And in order to evade, as much as possible, accountability to residents, of course.
The business case for 'Your Choice' depended on a disastrously misguided principle: that the service would be profitable and that this in turn would subsidise Barnet Homes, another part of the ALMO, which deals with social housing in this borough. In other words, the amount of money charged for your elderly mother's continence support at night, or similarly sensitive needs, is expected to offset any losses incurred by the council's provision of social housing. Incredibly, this scheme was expected to provide up to 90% of the Barnet Group's profits.
A child of nine could see the inevitable failure of such a scheme, that it is not possible, should not be possible, to derive profit from the needs of vulnerable residents - but this was not something which occurred to the idiots masquerading as Tory councillors who approved the creation of such a body. And the senior officers who promoted and designed 'Your Choice'? The members of the unelected, covertly appointed board which runs the venture? Have they been held to account for the financial catastrophe, and the impact on staff, and worst of all, on the residents who use these services? What do you think?
One officer has left the Your Choice board: we do not know why. The Chair has resigned, quietly, seemingly before the news emerged. The rest are still in place.
Tracey Lees, Chief Executive of the Barnet Group
Troy Henshall, Director of Business Services for the Barnet Group
Meanwhile, the cost of failure, not just in financial terms, but in terms of impact is immense. Staffing is being cut, and wages and working conditions worsened for employees, who will now have to work a seven day week. The effect will be that needs such as night time continence care will not be adequately supported, and the consequences for residents are clearly intolerable.
A meeting was called on Thursday in order to discuss the creation of a campaign to demand Barnet Council brings 'Your Choice' back in house, which clearly is the only sensible thing to do. Invited to this meeting was the Cabinet member, Sachin Rajput, who declined the opportunity to defend his catastrophic policy, claiming he had to attend a Tory group meeting. In Broken Barnet, political loyalty is more important for our Tory councillors than duty to residents, of course. His place was marked by an empty chair, with his name on it.
The panel consisted of Tirza Waisel from Barnet Alliance against the Cuts, Helen Davies from Unison, John Sullivan - a parent and carer of a disabled resident, and Roger Lewis, from DPAC, a disability rights campaigner. Labour deputy leader Barry Rawlings was present: he is presenting a motion to council next week to ask that Cabinet consider bringing Your Choice back under direct control of the authority.
Tirza began by making a point that we forget, sometimes: sooner or later we or our relatives are certain to need support from care providers. And she also pointed out that the families of those currently dependent on this support are concerned about not just their own relatives, but the effects of the funding disaster on the staff who help their loved ones with their personal needs and other services.
Helen from Unison explained that the motivation for setting up the LATC had been exactly so as to enable the council to dispose of its obligations to honouring the terms and conditions of these already very poorly paid workers. The new company is free to exploit staff with a much freer hand, as we are now seeing. And this treatment of care staff will inevitably have an impact on the standard of support given to clients: even lower pay, poor treatment, increased workloads - how can this not have an effect? Mistakes will inevitably occur, which will be tragic for residents and staff alike.
The reason the financial shortfall had occurred was due to the way in which funding is now allocated. Whereas before block payments were made by the council to providers, personal budgeting means that there are less predictable and more variable amounts of money coming from service users, hence a lack of continuity and dependable income. You might think the directors and designers of this scheme might have foreseen such a problem, but then, no: not in Broken Barnet.
John Sullivan spoke next. His middle aged daughter Susan has Downs Syndrome, and he has a long experience of care provision in this borough. He described Your Choice as Plan A: a car crash, and the reaction of the council and the Barnet Group as Plan B: a race to the bottom. He thought that rather than 'Your Choice', the scheme should have been called 'Fingers Crossed'. He described the care workers who help his daughter as his 'peace of mind' and that he feels he must support them. 'Hear, hear', said Phillip, left, who has learning and physical disabilities, and a wonderful carer who has been with him for many years.
One of the many positive things about the Barnet Spring, and Barnet Alliance, in fact, is that it is a genuinely and naturally inclusive phenomenon, and residents with disabilities and difficulties take a prominent part in all decisions and activities, as a matter of course.
John described what he felt was 'the absolute contempt' that more senior officers, 'these arrogant people' have for 'those in the front line'.
He warned about the future in which Capita, if the deal is not struck out in the High Court, will take charge of procurement. He raised the prospect of Winterbourne View, a terrible warning of what can happen when parents and carers of residents cannot make direct contact with the people who run the company caring for their relatives.
The next speaker was Roger Lewis, a resident of Lambeth, who also works for Lambeth council, with residents with disabilities and impairments. He is also disabled himself, and active in DPAC, Disabled People Against Cuts, as well as SWAN, Social Work Action Network. He felt that the government had deliberately targeted people with disabilities, thinking 'they can do nothing - let's go for them first'. He described the monstering of the disabled in the tabloid press, the depiction of them as benefit cheats, that surveys showed the public's perception is that 50-70% of claimants were fraudulent, whereas the reality is around 3%.
Roger reminded us of the total hypocrisy of government promotion of the Paralympics, whilst engineering a climate in which disability hate crime has flourished. He warned people in Barnet that if they lose their local services to outsourcing, 'when they're gone, they're gone'. He thought we were seeing 'an end to local government in this country, and 'an end to local democracy' as we lose the ability to scrutinise the services on which we depend.
He said that for thirty years, disabled people had fought to get out of institutions. 'We fought for our liberty and our rights' ... they did not do so in order to become a commodity for businesses like Serco and Capita to make profit from ...
And now for question time, Barnet Spring style, where anyone can speak, and everyone listens, with patience, and respect.
A resident who described himself as homeless spoke first: it was a memorable contribution, spoken from the heart, and from a life right at the edge of experience.
How, he asked, can you make a profit out of care?
He spoke of his younger days, living through the punk era, listening to the Clash. It was about getting your voice heard.
He was dependent on benefits now: they kept him alive, and kept him from a life of crime. His elderly mother was dependent on support too: she struggled, but she didn't complain.
A well spoken woman took the microphone, talking about class war.
Phillip's turn: he said, people think that because I have a learning disability, I can't stand up for myself. Well I can, he said, to applause from the audience.
Mr Shepherd, veteran chorus of disapproval at all Barnet Council meetings, where he sits busying himself with his bags of clippings from the Morning Star, and launching occasional but direct hits on the Tory councillors, without even looking up from his Sisyphean task, took the floor, and brought the discussion round to his usual subject, corruption in the City of London, a difficult journey to make. It is a mark of the tolerance of the people of Broken Barnet that this is expected, and accepted, as part of the diverse range of opinions in the community.
Janet, an elderly resident who with her husband has direct experience of Your Choice, spoke of the financial horrors of the new scheme, and pointed out that even though they are obliged to pay for their own care, their notional allowance is taken, with countless others, as part of the budget for Your Choice, hence, one suspects, the almighty cock up that has ensued.
Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable said it was bad enough when Barnet made a block payment to a contractor like our IT provider 2e2, which has gone bust, but when it is on behalf of vulnerable residents ... he thought that up to now the directors have not been put under much external pressure, but now is the time to exert pressure through scrutiny.
Hmm, thought Mrs Angry, but of course with an LATC, things are that much more difficult, aren't they? No public questions at Board Meetings, as we found, when we attended one, the first time any resident had done so.
But he is right. Scrutiny is the key. Scrutiny is feared by the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and obstructed at every point, simply because they will not, cannot allow us, the residents and taxpayers, or even the elected members, to see what they are really up to.
Speaking of which ...
Last August, Mrs Angry submitted an FOI request for the minutes of the Directors Group of Barnet Council. This is the body which really runs the authority, rather than the executive of the Leader and his Cabinet, as revealed by the Joint Venture fiasco, in which the now 'Director of Place' Pam Wharfe, let slip she and her colleagues had taken a decision that they are not entitled to take, ie to change the business model of one of the two £1 billion privatisation contracts, without the knowledge of the leader, or any of the Cabinet.
Since last August, the council has been doing everything possible to refuse to give this material to Mrs Angry. The Information Commissioner is now very, very displeased over the council's actions in this regard, but part of the information which has now been released discloses a very interesting aspect of the Your Choice story.
The minutes for 10th July 2012, half way through this cock up, which have (possibly accidentally) been released tell us:
'It was agreed that the success of the LATC project should be showcased, with iMPOWER being used in this respect' ...
Oh yes, iMPOWER, our One Barnet implementation partners, with Agilisys, & Trowers & Hamlin, who have cleaned up with £5.8 million worth of fees from us so far, prepared the original business case for 'Your Choice'.
That went well, didn't it chaps?
Worth every fucking penny.
The residents of Broken Barnet, who are dependent on this failing body for their care needs, are no doubt falling over themselves in their rush to thank you.
Can we have our money back, now, please?
Oh, and talking of iMPOWER ... one of the names eventually redacted, on the orders of the ICO, in the minutes so far released, is a Mr James Mass, who, as if we were not blessed with enough highly paid attention from iMPOWER as consultants, is at Barnet on secondment from the same company, and rather amusingly, is also the author of the following blogpost:
Supporting, thereby, the accusations laid by the critics of his own company's design for 'Your Choice'. As he says:
"Perhaps the one good thing that may come about from recent scandals and the media coverage and heightened public attention that has followed will be greater thought about the quality implications of social care efficiency programmes. Anyone can produce a business case to slash care costs but doing so without any serious impact on quality is a much more challenging task. As the pressure mounts to cut the cost of commissioned services, increase the utilisation of in-house services and implement internal restructures that strip out commissioning staff and contract compliance officers, how will authorities effectively ensure safety and dignity?"
One Barnet is eating itself, in other words. Yes, citizens: it is a world gone mad. And this is Broken Barnet, where the road to perdition is paved not with good intentions, but with invoices from consultants.