Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Capitaville: where local democracy is alive and well

Since it was announced that Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius has signed the contracts with Crapita, regardless of any further appeal to the Supreme Court, there has been, in certain quarters, a sudden enthusiasm - a born again evangelism - on behalf of the joys of outsourcing.

This miraculous epiphany has spoken in tongues in perhaps the most unlikely of places: the very temple of what passes for radical thought, amongst the intelligentsia and political pundits of the mainstream media. Yes, I'm talking about the Guardian. 

No, really.

First of all, at the end of last week we were treated to a piece of churnalistic guff by 'the contributing editor of the Local Leaders Network', whose 'Service Delivery Hub' is suitably 'supported' by, go on guess, no, not Crapita, Serco ... This marvellous piece - 


originally was headed - oh dear

The One Barnet decision shows local democracy is alive and well ...  

After the laughter abated, outraged residents left some pointed comments, in the interest of balance, which showed, in no uncertain terms that local democracy may be lying half dead in the swampy backwaters of Capitaville, but the fighting spirit of residents is, oh - alive and well. 

And then, by sleight of hand, the headline was surreptitously transformed into something entirely different, and still inaccurate - my emphasis in bold: 

The One Barnet campaign shows democracy is alive and well ... 

As one commenter remarked, 

Arguing that there is a local democracy because there is a resistance to the council policy is a logical fallacy. Just to demonstrate the absurdity of the argument, lets stretch it a bit: (does) the resistance to the Assad regime mean that there's a democracy in Syria?

 Take a look at the follow up piece today, which is a continuation on this theme ... 

In what was a pretty spectacular piece of complete misinterpretation of the truth, Friday's article had informed readers that the Appeal decision ... inaugurates a new era of local government, and changes what is meant by the term "council". We also learnt that the democratic process is triumphant because: Local democracy is alive and well: if they don't like what they see, the people of Barnet will make their voices heard at the ballot box next year.

Erm: no, actually - it will be too late to do anything, as we will be locked into ten to fifteen year contracts, over which we were never consulted, as noted in Judge Underhill's ruling, and, as Mrs Angry commented:

It is simply untrue to say that One Barnet is the beginning of a new era in local government. Such wholescale privatisation is out of step with government policy, which favours a more pragmatic and varied approach to service provision. And the ease with which Capita was accommodated in Barnet, thanks to the newly defined law on consultation, is now unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Our loss is the future gain of communities all around the country — but what a price we will pay.

There is more. This morning Mrs Angry stumbled across something else on the Guardian online which nearly made her choke on her toast:

Not content with swallowing and spewing forth the council's spin on the One Barnet privatisation - sorry, I should say, what is it called now .... not privatisation ... ah yes, change programme ... here we are with a lovely piece by a Ms Helen Randall, of a legal firm by the name of Trowers & Hamlin. Ring a bell? Yes, that Helen Randall, and that Trowers & Hamlin, the legal advisers for the One Barnet procurement, and responsible for the Capita contracts, and the recipients of bucketloads of cash, courtesy of the taxpayers of Broken Barnet-Capitaville, not that you would know it from reading Ms Randall's article.

The question is put:

Does One Barnet mark a change in how services will be delivered in future

Barnet council's outsourcing agreement provides a new template for reconfiguring public services in the age of austerity ...

Hmm. Mrs Angry decided to leave a response.

Helen Randall does not mention that her firm acted as legal advisers to Barnet Council during the One Barnet tender process. She also fails to mention the finding by Judge Underhill that Barnet acted unlawfully in failing to consult residents over this massive act of privatisation of council services. Why was this requirement overlooked?

Her article implies that the two contracts signed with Capita deal with relatively trivial council functions - 'back office' services, and overlooks the simply staggering range of council functions which will now be at the mercy of a profiteering private sector company. 

Much of the aspirational savings promised by this deal come from procurement: Barnet has an appalling record of inefficiency in this area, and could easily have made savings though an in-house solution rather than extend the opportunity to Capita to make profit from their failure to manage this crucial function - a move which will largely benefit their shareholders rather than the taxpayers of Barnet. An in-house solution, of course, was never allowed as an option for consideration: one might ask why that is the case.

In regard to the second contract: the decision to change the business model to an even higher risk Joint Venture was made by senior management, without consulting the elected members of the council. 

Helen Randall tells us this 'could generate several million pounds to reinvest in local services' - this is entirely unproven, and a similar local venture, 'Your Choice Barnet', which, quite outrageously, seeks to make profit from the provision of care to disabled residents in order to subsidise Barnet Homes, is already proving to be a disaster, and requiring support from the council budget in order to continue. 

One Barnet may well act as a template for reconfiguring public services, but not in the way Ms Randall suggests: the ruling by Judge Underhill means that all similar proposals by local authorites must now be the subject of proper consultation with residents, and what happened in Barnet, the impositon of a large scale act of privatisation, and the outsourcing of our local democracy, is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere.

Time for some more balanced reporting of One Barnet, I would suggest, rather than the regurgitated spin of interested parties.

Clearly Capita, and Serco, and G4S, and BT, the almost entirely exclusive cabal of major outsourcing companies who are stealthily and rapidly taking over control of our public sector services, would love us to believe that what has happened in Barnet marks the dawn of a new era of outsourcing free for all in the new markets of service provision. 

That might be true in the new temptations offered by the Condem authorised rape of our NHS, a crime as yet to be perpetrated, but in the context of local authority privatisation? 

Meh. Not much left to chisel out of that particular seam of profit , and now that it will be impossible to do so without alerting the taxpayers and voters of any likely area - hardly worth the bother.

Still, with the Guardian so keen to offer such uncritical coverage of One Barnet, it's always worth a punt, trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes, isn't it?

Oh dear, except, friends at Capita, the people of Broken Barnet are not going to let you get away with it ... this is, perhaps, just the beginning of a new 'journey' for all of us.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Now we'll begin.


last night Mrs Angry began to look more carefully at the Guardian articles, and speculate as to their peculiar genesis, and the remarkable generosity towards the view of the companies who profit from the exploitation of the public sector. Of course the truth was there all along, and glaringly obvious. That Serco insert, on the 'Service Delivery Hub', part of the tossed to one side 'bringing service to life' ... look more closely:

Now clearly Mrs Angry is awfully naive, and trusting, and has outdated views on the role of journalism, and holding the powerful to account and all that stuff, but really? Does our only left of centre mainstream newspaper have to get into bed with the companies it should be investigating? 

Is the way the paper thinks it is going to survive the long slow death of newsprint journalism, by the careful cultivation of commercial sponsorship? Not only now do we have to worry about the virtual monopoly of public sector service provision by the monlithic companies like Capita, Serco, BT, G4s, we must stand back and read about it in words paid for by their 'support'. 

According to a statement on the Guardian Professional pages, of which the Service Delivery Hub and Local Leaders Network is part:

Guardian Professional Networks are community-focused sites, where we bring together advice, best practice and insight from a wide range of professional communities. Click here for details of all our networks. Some of our specialist hubs within these sites are supported by funding from external companies and organisations. All editorial content is independent of any sponsorship, unless otherwise clearly stated. We make Partner Zones available for sponsors' own content. Guardian Professional is a division of Guardian News & Media. 

There seems to be a blurring of lines here between what is sponsored copy and what is allegedly independent of sponsorship. Clearly 'supporters' are not going to be interested in sponsoring criticism of the very principle (if there are any) of public sector outsourcing. And equally it is difficult to see where the 'community focus ' applies in these articles, as opposed to a focus on supporting and encouraging the ransacking of our public services.

True, after a concerted protest from Barnet residents, some limited right of reply was allowed - although Mrs Angry's piece, which was directly critical of the original article, was virtually beheaded - but why not commission an alternative view from, say, a resident, a union representative, or Maria Nash, or her solicitor?

The mainstream press, national and local, tainted and irrelevant, is dying: social media, new and fresh, and free from commercial influence, is thriving. There is a lesson in there, somewhere: it's no good sticking your churnalist newspaper online, and expecting people to be fooled into thinking it is something it isn't. 

Perhaps we should stop worrying so much about charters, and regulation, and Rupert Murdoch, and worry about something more pernicious: the threat to responsible journalism, and a free press, that comes from snuggling up to commercial partners, and letting them call the shots.

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