The purpose of scrutiny, or: a risk worth taking - the creation of Capitaville
Councillor Finn, philosopher and man of purpose
Councillor Anthony Finn, Chair of the Budget, Performance, Overview and Scrutiny committee asked himself a question half way through last night's meeting, thinking aloud, as if it was something he had always meant to consider, but had never quite had the time to get round to it.
What, he asked, is the purpose of scrutiny?
There was a silence in the committee room.
Don't you know? asked Mrs Angry, pen poised, anxiously, worried that perhaps Councillor Finn was having some sort of existential crisis. Indeed, she mused: what is the purpose of scrutiny? Or committee meetings, or the democratic process, or life itself, here in what was once Broken Barnet, but is now to become Capitaville, where there is no purpose other than to make profit for our new masters, and to be obedient to their will?
But Councillor Finn was only teasing. He had the answer all ready, and directed this, in his usual manner of condescension, to his colleagues sat around the table, and to the listening public.
The purpose of scrutiny, he told us, was not to criticise. It was to make a positive contribution. Yes: last night our Tory councillors dropped all pretence of exercising their duty to challenge the takeover of our local services by Crapita, and simply stood by, greeting the invading enemies with open arms. It was Barnet, Open City: no defence, no resistence, no scrutiny - just a warm welcome - and a positive contribution.
This meeting was held, in theory, in order for our councillors to consider the merits of the bid for the DRS contract from Capita Symonds, enthusiastically recommended to our elected representatives by the senior management team.
This contract is the second part of the £1 billion One Barnet programme of privatisation, in which we will be giving over almost every council function to Crapita to run for their profit, on the understanding that this will make enormous savings for the taxpayers of Broken Barnet.
As usual it was left to members of the public and Labour councillors to at least attempt to perform the role of scrutiny of the One Barnet madness. Labour councillors pointed out they had only seen the contract on Thursday, and yet faced difficulties having their questions addressed after being told they had submitted them too close to the Monday morning deadline.
There were seventy seven questions allowed from members of the public, all of them focused, detailed, probing enquiries which should have been put by elected members, but were not. The Conservative members are not interested in details, or reality: they were there to approve whatever was in the contract, the significance of which they simply do not understand, and do not want to understand.
Before question time began, a member of Barnet Alliance approached the councillors, bearing gifts. She had a handful of magnifying glasses, in order to assist them in their stringent scrutiny of the Capita bid. The members of Barnet Alliance are hopeless optimists, of course.
The residents came now to the table, posing their supplementary questions, and receiving nothing but meaningless responses and studied evasion in return. The man from legal consultants Trowers & Hamlin took a seat with the officers from Barnet. Mrs Angry watched with interest as his demeanour changed from one of a slightly bored and complacent executive waiting to wrap everything up and go home as soon as possible, to someone clearly stunned by the amount of hostility, and informed challenge, from residents.
He was particularly rattled, it seemed, by the typically incisive points made by blogger Mr Reasonable, John Dix, who had submitted thirty questions, ranging from the most obvious -why a an expectation of nearly £20 million in savings is now going to amount to only around £5 million, through a range of detailed trashings of the business case, and then to another very important question: Why was this report cleared by Trowers & Hamlin, not the council's own legal service (outsourced to Harrow Council) and does this not represent a massive conflict of interest given that Trowers & Hamlin have provided legal advice on the outsourcing project? Ah. But no, no: the reponse was this is standard procedure.
Are you reassured? Mrs Angry's question was about the Joint Venture: In the light of revelations that the decision to change the model of the DRS contract to a JV co was made in secret, by the Corporate Directors Group, a body with no executive powers, and without consultation with the Leader or any elected member, does the Chair not agree that scrutiny and elected member governance of the One Barnet programme, and specifically the DRS tender process, has been completely undermined? Her supplementary question, much to the annoyance of the Chair, she felt had to be preceded by a fisking of the complete load of shite which was given in the written response, stating that JV was 'set out' as 'a vehicle to explore' at an earlier stage - in fact it was discounted as being too high risk - that JV was seen as 'a progressively more attractive option' in discussions with bidders - yes, , no doubt it was, but elected members knew nothing about this until too late - and finally that the Member Panel was briefed on the options - this took place months after the secret discussions and only once the decision had been made, quite improperly, by the officers. And your question Mrs Angry? You have never had an independent risk assessment of the OB programme, yet you have chosen an even higher risk option to use for the DRS tender: so much risk for such little return, only £5 million when you have already spent over £6 million on a few 'implementation' consultants from Agilisys/iMPOWER ... Cllr Robert Rams was called to the table. Ooh, Mrs Angry was scared. He was pleased to answer the question, he said, not daring to look Medusa in the face, He believes it is a risk worth taking. Really? For - potentially - 40% return ... Eh? Potentially, said Mrs Angry ... potentially.
Risk, potential, growth, aspiration, projections, expectations: fantasy. So much of the promised financial benefits for Barnet come from 'growth', selling services to other outside bodies, or service changes which councillors may well have to veto, if they can. Any problems with service delivery, and there will be, or failure to supply the profits promised, and there are countless examples elsewhere we have already written about, will have to be fought over, perhaps legally challenged, while residents put up with declining services and increased charges, and councillors face the reality of the loss of direct democratic control. But they neither understand, nor care.
Pam Wharfe, Director of Place. (All of them, not just some places, here and there.Very important post).
After the public questions were asked and duly ignored, Ms Pam Wharfe, Director of Place (don't laugh, it's unkind - they love all these new titles they have awarded themselves) leapt up to show us a presentation. This was a thrilling slideshow, with a few pictures of Ms Wharfe's mini break in Bruges last week. Alright, that is a lie, but Mrs Angry wishes it was true, just as she wishes we had not had sit through the turgid presentation of nine pages intended to spell out to the dopey Tory councillors, in carefully worded and easily digested bullet points, the marvellous benefits of the bid from Capita Symonds.
Both Wharfe and Captain Cooper, the erstwhile director of commercial services, spoke to the members through what was clearly a strategically directed and possibly rehearsed approach intended to calm, and reassure, and defuse any likely possibilities of tension and lines of awkward questioning.
Captain Cooper reassures the councillors Mrs Angry even wondered if they had been coached by someone (and yes, our senior executives have paid for such glorified elocution lessions before, as a trawl through council spending revealed). Their tone was smooth as silk, and discreetly flattering to the empty headed Tories who hardly know their arses from their elbow but were now being addressed in such unusually deferential terms: you will be doing this, and you will be doing that, all very inclusive, and meant to convince the members that they will still have some status and control, now that we have been annexed by the Capita empire. One of the grossly amusing revelations of this presentation was in the idiots' guide to 'Service Improvement Proposals', and the example given of marvellous opportunities for growth in the provision of services to one previously under exploited section of our community: the dead. Yes: it is only remarkable that this opportunity has been overlooked for so long, when you think about it. Why should the dead residents of Broken Barnet be allowed to rest in peace, a burden on the taxpayer, and making no positive contribution to the community? Make'em earn their keep. It's the Tory way of death: as much money as possible has been extracted from the hapless motorists, penalised for trying to park almost anywhere in the borough: next step was to charge the disabled for their care, through the good offices of Your Choice Barnet - and now the ultimate act of capita-list enterprise, see what you can screw out of the deceased, and their grieving relatives.
The proposals from Crapita in regard to one particular income generating option reminded Mrs Angry of the grotesqueries of Evelyn Waugh's novel 'The Loved One', and even more so of Jessica Mitford's 'The American Way of Death', in which the commercialistion of funerals predates on the bereaved with breathless efficiency. Hendon Crematorium was added to the DRS package as an afterthought, when Barnet senior officers realised it would act as a 'sweetener' to potential bidders. Crematoria are attractive because, of course, people will keep dying, and thereby providing an easy target for would be profiteers. In Capitaville, plans for Hendon Crematorium include the 'potential for growth' from flogging higher prices to non residents to be buried there, and an intention to achieve 'Gold Standard' of the 'Charter for the Bereaved' by providing such things as - oh dear: a new catering facility. Yes: bury your loved ones in Hendon Cemetery, and then why not nip into the cafe for a skinny latte, or a burger? Bound to cheer everyone up. All this mourning is all very well, but where is the profit? Life goes on, and there is income to be generated, in order to back up the claims made for fabulous rewards to us all from Capita Symonds. Barnet is, we are told, in the officers' report, is to be used as a base for Capita to 'grow business' in the wider region. As the committee was told last night, they see the south east area as ripe with opportunities. What is worrying, however, is that Capitaville-Barnet will provide the base, but not take a fair share of any profit, as John Dix pointed out, wearily, to the blank faces of officers, and the incomprehension of councillors. One councillor, Andrew Strongolou, turned up forty minutes late for this meeting, incidentally - perhaps he was having trouble finding a parking space? He then made no noticeable contribution - just not good enough.
A couple of residents spoke to the committee. Veteran campaigner Julian Silverman tried to give some historic context to the economic situation which our Tory councillors use as justification for every decision they make: this was wasted breath, of course, and the Chair sneered at his speech, sniggering to his colleagues at the table. 'Do you mind not speaking? 'asked Julian.
He suggested money could be saved by the council in various efficiencies, such as cutting the pay of senior officers, disbanding the LATC - the frantically subsidised 'Your Choice Barnet', taking back Barnet Homes, restoring direct labour, creating some sort of competent control of procurement.
Finn told him to stop. Play by the rules, he was told. You don't, heckled an enraged member of the public. In fact there was an awful lot of heckling last night, quite a bit of it by Mrs Angry, who thought it entirely necessary, in the absence of any other form of meaningful engagement. Former Tory MP John Marshall raised his shrill patrician voice to inform Mr Silverman that he had spent the first third of his speech on issues that were nothing to do with Barnet Council. He had admitted, said the old hardliner gleefully, that he know nothing about economics and he had demonstrated this beautifully. A typical example of the contemptuous way in which the Tory councillors view their residents,and their opinions, in fact.
John Marshall John Dix's speech was as usual the most sensible, insightful contribution of the meeting, which it is why it was viewed with suspicion, and silence, and completely ignored.
He asked why, in view of the £6 million thrown at 'implementation' consultants Agilisys/iMPOWER, Barnet had not seen fit to spend maybe £30-£40, 000 on an independent professional assessment of the outsourcing programme from a company like Deloitte? The officers at the table looked down. CEO Travers had his arms crossed. The man from Trowers & Hamlin looked sideways at John Dix.
Which other authorities have they spoken to: what about Somerset, who might have something to say about the disastrous Soutwest One?
As for the independence of Trowers & Hamlin in signing off the contract - how did that square with what looked like a conflict of interest, or as Labour councillor Arjun Mittra put it, rather like an author reviewing his own book? He suggested to the committee that as the Judicial Review appeal would be heard until July 15th, there was time for the contract to be looked at in more detail - include the public. Otherwise the suspicion remains that they were there simply to rubberstamp the decision. Please, he said: prove me wrong. Former Tory councillor Dan Hope (aka the Barnet Bugle) addressed the committee, and expressed his concerns about planning, and accountability. Tory member Brian Gordon chipped in, and made some bizarre claim about consultation. Mrs Angry pointed out, without invitation that there had been no consultation, which is why the council was returning to the High Court.
Nelson Mandela impersonator, Brian Gordon
We are not rubber stamping: we have to stick to the decision. Whose decision? asked Mrs Angry. (Leaving the Town Hall later, she noted, standing in front of the entrance, as soon as Cllr Gordon spotted her blocking the way, he made a sudden and apparently unplanned diversion to the gents loo). Officers advise, members decide, proclaimed Councillor Marshall, with all the certainty of a man who clearly had forgotten the decision to embrace the Joint Venture was taken, without the knowledge of even the Leader, by the officers across the table, looking on with fond indulgence at the old duffer now. Time for the councillors to ask questions. This was also a pointless exercise. Labour leader Alison Moore objected to the lack of response to questions, and was told only that written answers would be provided at a later date. She was not happy about this and pointed out the scrutiny process was hardly as Finn had suggested 'democracy in action'.
Labour's Arjun Mittra asked about how the DRS bid would address the issue of protected characteristics. Leader Cornelius made one of his usual disparaging remarks about equalities legislation, speaking of being 'compelled' to follow the obligations of an EIA. Alan Schneiderman and Tory Hugh Rayner asked the same question - Rayner does ask the right questions, sometimes, it's just that he chooses to ignore the answers, which amounts to the same as not asking them, Hugh, really doesn't it? they wanted to know what would happen to revenue if councillors exercised their veto on some of the more 'surprising' ideas that Capita wanted to try out on the guinea pig residents of Broken Barnet? Well, the real answer is that this 'guaranteed' money will have to be extracted elsewhere, of course.
Councillor Rayner At this point Dr Khatiri, one of the residents sitting by Mrs Angry, a very bright woman who had been heckling her well directed disapproval throughout the meeting, was told off by the Chair, who decided to refer to her as 'young lady'. She objected to being addressed in this way. Labour leader Alison Moore, who often receives the same treatment from Councillor Finn, defended her, saying that indeed he did sometimes patronise members of the public. Councillor Finn patted her on the head, metaphorically speaking, and carried on. Would proposals to increase income lead to any increases in fees? No, we were told: this was not about hiking up existing fees. Make a note of that, readers, for future use. Labour's Ross Houston pointed out that there was a danger that Barnet staff would be used to create profit for Capita, and the best staff used to create business, at the expense of this borough's best interests. Oh, no, said Richard Cornelius, with all the authority of a man who sat in the room next door last year and said three times in another scrutiny meeting weeks after Pam Wharfe had announced the decision, that he knew nothing about the Joint Venture, and was 'every bit as curious as you are' ... Richard told us that we have protective measures in place, and I for one believed him. Well, no, not really. Up piped John Marshall, who thought we should remember that 'reputational risk' was of huge importance to Capita, and therefore they would not do anything bad here in our lovely borough, and he added that otherwise they would be unlikely to win other contracts. When the laughter had stopped, we moved on to the interesting issue of the 56 KPIs, key performance indicators. It emerged that 27 of these had not been agreed by Capita. Oh. A crucial point, suggested Alan Schneiderman. Some extra smooth reassurances dropped like honey from the mellifluous tongues of Captain Cooper and Pam Wharfe: this was not a problem, apparently. Some argument then, from Ross Houston, with Pam Wharfe over the probity of a private company running quasi-judicial functions. No, I don't know what it means, either, but what was amusing was the statement made in response by Ms Wharfe in regard to legislation, which Ross reminded us was the will of parliament. The Director of Place said:
'Yes, the will of parliament, quite a long time ago ...' Mrs Angry was unable to contain her amusement, and she fears Ms Wharfe may have been disconcerted by her unseemly laughter at this point. Clearly, in Capitaville, all ancient rights and expectations in law are now suspended, if they were enacted prior to the beginning of Year Zero, the new beginning that is One Barnet. Some interesting debate now about the new status of employees, who will, and will not, be employed by both and neither of the two partners of the Joint Venture - remember that in Alice in Wonderland, the White Queen believed six impossible things before breakfast, and similarly in Broken Barnet it has always been possible to be two different things at the same time. Councillor Rayner tried to very loudly inform the public (especially Mrs Angry) that the perception that One Barnet is an officer-led process was wrong (like the Joint Venture? yelled someone) ... it is the members, who must 'educate' the residents and members of the public. That was a popular suggestion, as you can imagine. Alan Schneiderman tried to propose that the meeting be extended to 10.30. He was wasting his time, of course. It was 'against the rules', 'over scrutinising' ... Alison Moore proposed that there should be some sort of consultation with residents. To the lasting shame of the Conservative members of Barnet Council, let it be recorded that, despite everything that has happened, despite the ruling in the High Court by Judge Underhill that the authority had completely failed to consult residents and tax payers over One Barnet, last night they voted AGAIN against the very idea of even the slightest commitment to debate with their electors on an issue of such huge significance, in defiance once more of the fundamental principles of democracy, of the very concept of localism, and, as we expect to see, in breach of the council's statutory obligations.
As the public left the room so the councillors could carry on with the closed part of the meeting, the Chair smiled kindly at us and said: And may we thank you for your co-operation, this evening? Mrs Angry stopped in her tracks: We didn't, she replied. Oh, Mrs Angry, tutted Councillor Finn, as she pointlessly made an insolent face in his direction.
But we didn't: and we won't. And we'll see you, and Crapita, and Trowers & Hamlin, and the rest of you, in court, next month. *The Judicial Review Appeal will now take place on July 15th and 16th, the Royal Courts of Justice, in front of the Rt Hon Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, and two other senior judges.
Mrs Angry lives in the Tory run London Borough of Broken Barnet.
Mrs Angry's Fan Club - rather surprisingly - Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government - "Mrs Angry, (as she had every right to be)" ...
Boris Johnson, sidestepping Mrs Angry's probing questions: Who are these people? ... Ah: Socialists ...
"The Finchley Fishwife" ..: "You - you are a nasty piece of work" - Brian Coleman
The rages and reflections of Mrs Angry -Top London blogger', (even though she isn't a bloke, and doesn't write about cycling) - Dave Hill, Guardian ...
'Why do you have to be so embarrassing? And stop swearing.' Mrs Angry's daughter.