Their Choice, not Your Choice: Gabi Maddocks questions councillors - and gets no reply
Safeguarding is something that Barnet Tories like to think they are very good at.
They often congratulate themselves on how well they manage this responsibility, and present the successes of hard working council staff, social workers, support workers, care workers, as their own achievement.
And when it all goes wrong? It doesn't go wrong. Even when it does.
Just to prove it hasn't gone wrong, they set up a group to study the matter, and report back to a committee to tell them: look, some people have said it is going wrong, but we don't believe them, and here is £1 million to put it right.
That, in short, is the outcome of the report submitted last night to Barnet's Safeguarding committee from a 'Task & Finish' group supposed to look at the catastrophic 'Your Choice Barnet' venture, an 'independent trading company' set up by the council to run care support services for disabled residents. They looked at it, and have failed to recommend any really effective response.
Your Choice Barnet was launched on the basis that it is possible to make a healthy profit from the provision of care to such vulnerable people, and that such profit would be used to subsidise the activities of Barnet Homes, another part of the 'Barnet Group' ALMO - 'At Arms Length Organisation' which is meant to run certain council functions as a successful business.
Political ideology in Broken Barnet, of course, demands that the market is brought into every aspect of life, hence the recent billion pound deal with Capita to provide almost every other service not already privatised by our Conservative easycouncillors, eager to swallow any half baked suggestion from their private sector groomed senior management, and their multi million charge account consultants.
It was Agilisys/iMPOWER, the consultants now feasting off Barnet taxpayers with their multi million bills for the tendering of two massive contracts given to Capita, who created the original, disastrous business plan for Your Choice Barnet.
Within a year of YCB being in place, it became clear that, not surprisingly, there is no profit to be made from the meagre payments and personal budgets of disabled residents, and a financial meltdown was looming. The council was obliged to offer £1 million to bail the venture out of trouble. Despite a tidal wave of protest and widespread condemnation, the service was not taken back in-house. The council's only reaction to criticism was to set up a Task and Finish Group to look at the problem.
Except of course, the remit of this group was deliberately limited in terms of scope, and set up to provide exactly the outcome the Tories wanted: a whitewash.
Many residents, users of YCB and carers turned up at the Town Hall for this meeting.
A large number of public questions had been submitted, and others had exercised their right to speak to the committee. We sat back, and watched the Tory councillors move from a position of quiet indifference to one of discomfort and even hostility. For Labour, Kath McGuirk did her best to do what an opposition member is supposed to do: oppose, challenge, obstruct the shameless political game playing of the Tory administration.
Public question time. First one from a Gabi Maddocks, whose brother Carl has attended centres formerly run for disabled residents, and who is deeply anxious at the thought of no longer being able to go to the places which have provided him with care for so long. She asked:
Can you reassure the disabled adults in Barnet that they will continue to have a safe and stimulating place to congregate on weekdays when Flightways, their current centre, is demolished, considering that this is their preference?
The response said merely that 'a service' will continue to be provided in 'various locations' across the borough. Ms Maddocks demanded to know what 'various locations' meant, and asked why they did not understand the enormous anxiety this uncertainty was causing her brother, seated at the front of the public area with another family member, and unable to follow the proceedings due to his profound deafness. Her brother had attended his centre for 8 years, drawing huge support from what was a safe, intellectually and creatively stimulating environment.
There was to be no reassurance for Ms Maddocks or her brother: she was told in a smug reply that the issue of Flightways an 'operational' matter and not part of the remit of the Task and Finish group. They would not even confirm if it was going to close.
Tell Carl that and damn you it is THEIR choice, change the name of your company, she responded, furiously, and who could blame her?
More questions received more evasive or patronising answers from Tory councillors and officers.
Tracey Lees, the Chief Executive of the Barnet Group responded to one question by saying that they had to decide if Your Choice Barnet was an independent limited trading company, or not. It was not, she said, a good thing to interfere ... an ungrateful remark, you might think, considering the bail out of £1 million which this 'independent' venture requires from taxpayers in order to subsidise its acitivities.
As to the morality of the whole project, making money from the provision of care for disabled residents: Tory Councillor Brian Salinger commented thoughtfully 'I don't have a problem with making a profit' ... if it extends the service, he added, he was 'all for it'. The point is, of course, that the service is unsustainable as it is, let alone capable of being extended in order to benefit users. But Barnet Tories are so ideologically obsessed with the profit motive, they are incapable of admitting there are areas where the market cannot be introduced, should not be introduced.
A questioner asked why Your Choice Barnet had no user or carer on the Board, to represent the real stakeholders in this as is supposed to be the case. Ms Lees said there was a carer representative, but they had still not managed to find a user. In any case once on the Board a member became a Director, and could not represent anyone else. It emerged that the carer representative has stood down, and it seems extraordinary that in all this time no user can be found to join the Board, or that their contribution should be so proscibed, one might think.
Is someone representing Capita? asked our veteran revolutionary commenter Mr Shepherd, from the back row of the public seats. No reply.
Perhaps Question 21 elicited the most telling response of all.
Resident and member of Barnet Alliance Barbara Jacobson had asked why the report had not, as it had stated, acted to ' Consider evidence from parents and service users about their experience of the services ...' Instead of doing so, the study used 'existing readily available information' and some feedback regarding only one centre. The written response said that due to 'time constraints' this was considered a good idea.
The Group did not consider any reports from service users and/or carers and instead undertook site visits to engage with service users and staff.
Tory Brian Salinger seemed to see nothing wrong with the restricted scope of information.
We weren't sitting an exam, he said.
Time for those who wished to address the committee to speak.
The narrow scope of the Task and Finish group had also, quite ridiculously, excluded any input from Unison, representing staff members working for Your Choice Barnet. Labour's Councillor Kath Mc Guirk now asked for Unison to be allowed to speak to the committee, and pushed for a vote on a motion for this to be moved.
Rather astonishingly, the vote went in favour, and Helen Davis addressed the meeting, stressing the link between decent pay and working conditions for staff and a good quality of care for users. Due to the effect on morale of the uncertainty regarding YCB's financial stability, and the threats to staffing levels and terms of employment, many had chosen to leave, replaced by agency staff, which was clearly not in the best interests of users. She criticised the glaring flaw in the business model which had led to false assurance resting on the funding available from personal budget payments.
Service user Janet Leifer addressed the committee next. The picture she painted of the effect on residents who relied on their purpose built centres was bleak, and shaming.
She spoke of users being obliged to spend long periods outside in cold weather, 'out and about in the community' as it is so cynically described. Mrs Angry thought about the group of disabled young adults she saw recently being dragged reluctantly along the road,on a bitterly cold day, confused, accompanied by what seemed like too few carers, not speaking, or interacting, just being moved about for the sake of it.
Janet explained the terrible difficulties caused by lack of transport, or the high charges of transport that was available, and the burden of costs introduced for some activities. All of these changes make it impossible for many former users to take up the more limited services available. The resulting impact was not only on the disabled residents but on their carers, who were being deprived of much needed respite. There was no independent body to inspect and evaluate most of these facilities. And the report was wrong to say they had to create YCB: the alternative of an in-house service would be more likely to guarantee that users were well cared for, healthy and happy.
Mrs Angry thought that perhaps the happiness of disabled residents was not a Key Performance Indicator recognised by the directors of Your Choice Barnet.
Glancing at the committee table then, it was apparent that the hardline Tory councillor Brian Gordon was sleeping through Janet's impassioned speech. To the many disabled users and carers who had come to the Town Hall to hear their elected representatives debate this report, it must have seemed extraordinarily discourteous.
Resident and carer John Sullivan had wanted to address the committee, but is in ill health, and so asked Barbara Jacobson to read his speech for him. John has a fifty year old daughter, Susan, who has Downs Syndrome, and he is deeply concerned at the standard of care that she and her fellow users of care services in Barnet are being offered, since the creation of YCB.
There are many kinds of lie, said John Sullivan: a complete untruth, a partial untruth, inaccuracy, omission ... The name Your Choice Barnet gives the impression people were given a choice. LIE.
Barnet Council created Your Choice and foisted it upon users; it did not allow them to choose to keep services in house. The brochure effectively selling this privatisation of adult social services was called 'More Choices' ... LIE: there was no choice at all; all services are administered by Your Choice.
This brochure claimed "the services will not change, only the logo will change" LIE: services have changed out of all proportion to what was available before ...
Your Choice claim they have consulted parents, family carers and clients: LIE. They arranged purely informative meetings, and the leaflets about the meetings that they sent to family carers said there would be no change to services ...
Now, wrote John, we have the absolute farce of an investigation by members of this committee. How many of these concerned parents and family carers did this inquiry consult to ascertain what they think, feel, or fear? None.
These parents collectively have hundreds of years of 24/7 front-line experience in this field, experience far beyond that of those on the board of Your Choice, yet this inquiry chose to ignore them. No investigation into a complax service such as this can possibly be considered comprehensive without that input.
Your Choice have claimed that no staff are having or are about to have their incomes slashed: LIE. As and when staff have had a huge wage cut. Skilled support workers have been demoted to a lower-paid status as assistants, a 23% pay cut, effectively forcing them out, and they have been replaced with as-and-when and zero-hour contract staff at reduced rates ...
It has been lie after lie after lie.
You cannot build a future for these vulnerable folk on a lie, any more that you can build a stable home on the sand.
All Your Choice services should be returned in-house at the earliest possible time, before we experience our own version of Winterbourne View.
The Tory councillors shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Tracey Lees's expression was a picture. And then it was the turn of one of the users of Your Choice Barnet, a resident called Philip Rackham, who has physical disabilities and learning difficulties, but whose spirit, cheerfulness, cheekiness, and hard won independence, is truly inspiring.
His speech must be reproduced in full, delivered as it was with such determination, effort and sincerity.
My name is Philip Rackham, and I want to tell you about myself.
I'm 52 years old and live alone in a flat in Whetstone. I've lived in the borough of Barnet all my life. I have cerebral palsy and a mild learning disability.
When I was younger, I was abused physically and mentally for being like I was.
When I was 34, I moved out of my mother's house into a residential home. I then lived in different places, until I moved into a ground floor flat, where I've lived for eleven years.
In 2001 I got married to Susie, who also had a disability. None of my family came to the wedding. Sadly Susie died in 2005, and I've lived alone ever since then.
I used to be able to get about quite well, with no problems, mainly using buses. But a couple of years ago I was knocked down by a car, and broke my hip. Since then it has been very difficult for me to get about at all, and I have to rely on other people for transport. That means I have to spend a lot of time in my flat, on my own.
So I've had a very difficult life. But I'm a FIGHTER.
I've joined a lot of different organisations that have helped me stick up for myself, such as CADDSS, BAPS, Peoples' Choice and Barnet Mencap. They have all helped me to become more confident, and stand up for the rights of disabled people.
But the council isn't helping much. I don't think they give a DAMN about disabled people, just like the government.
I get Direct Payments, but they're not enough. I think that councillors probably get more, just for coming to meetings. The councildoesn't give me enough money for all the care and support that I have to have, such as cooking and cleaning of my flat, and also for getting about as much as I want and need.
I used to go to BILS (Barnet Independent Living Service) which is run by Your Choice Barnet, but when I became a volunteer receptionist there, my transport was taken away, so I can't afford to go there anymore. I really used to enjoy the company I had at BILS, and I get quite lonely without it. It was an important part of my social life.
Barnet don't want the responsibility of looking after disabled people. That's why they set up Your Choice, so they wouldn't have to bother anymore.
In the end, all that it's about is MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, which seems to be more important than caring for people.
That's why I wanted to say all this today.
I'd like to finish with a question to the councillors.
How would YOU feel if you were in my situation?
When he had finished, and made his slow, difficult steps back to his seat, the room was absolutely silent.
Did I do well, he asked, afterwards, over and over again, with a grin: did I do well?
Because, you know, I've had to learn to stick up for myself.
Yes, Philip: you did well.
There were no questions from the Tory councillors, of course, only from Labour's Kath Mc Guirk. Time then for Barbara Jacobson. Barbara laid into the deeply flawed report on YCB.
She noted the failure to investigate the issues it promised to address, to listen to users, carers, and staff. She referred to the lack of evidence for any of the assumptions, statements and recommendations the report makes, a report whose lack of thoroughness she said would not be acceptable in a sixth-form student essay, and exacerbates the worries of some of the most vulnerable people in our society - real people with real needs, real hopes and real fears.
Our humanity, she said, means that each and everyone of us has a responsibility to them.
All of us here tonight, representing those who cannot speak for themselves, are asking you to examine the matter before you with empathy and the knowledge that it is your responsibility, too, to use your power to protect adults with disabilities. After all, you are the safeguarding committee.
While you might not have the power to order, as we demand, that adult social services are brought back in house, you do have the power to find that this report is only a first draft and demand further, more substantial work by the Task & Finish Group. And so we ask you to do that.
Please do not fail us; do not fail yourselves.
Kath McGuirk asked a question, then at last one came from a Tory: Kate Salinger, wife of Brian. She said that it was fair to say that none of them could fail to be moved by what they had heard. Kate is a nice woman, and thinks the best of everyone. Clearly some people around the table were unmoved, and their consciences untroubled.
Further comments by John Sullivan were read by Tirza Waisel. He said that 'our caring councillors' could not see that attempting to make profits from extremely vulnerable people is 'immoral and reprehensible'.
The only way we will protect these residents from the horrors that the market place brings, such as Winterbourne View and Veilstone Care Home is to bring all Your Choice services back in-house and stop the continual obfuscation, misinformation and smokescreen attempts to hide the truth, such as this inadequate, one-sided Task and Finish Group's inquiry, which is a whitewash and a cover-up.
Time for a Labour member of the Group which produced the report to step up to the table. Deputy Leader Barry Rawlings, the senior member, was absent for some reason, so it was left to the less experienced councillor Arjun Mittra to speak. He was put in a very difficult position, left to carry the can and to explain the objections which opposition councillors had raised in the course of the study. They had wanted to speak to Unison and CADDSS, and had argued that they should visit all sites, not just one. He disagreed with Tracey Lees about the representation on the Board of services, and did not see why it should not work perfectly well. He urged YCB to look much closer at how they engage with users, and to have a more formal process in place for such engagement.
Kath McGuirk asked about morale. Arjun responded. And then at last a Tory councillor who rarely speaks wanted to ask a question. We all looked expectantly at Councillor Barry Evangeli, who proceeded to use the opportunity not to ask anything about the impact of the shambolic YCB venture on disabled and vulnerable residents, but in order to score a cheap political point.
Were the findings of the report agreed unanimously, and if so why was Labour bringing up reservations now?
Arjun said he did not believe it had been unanimous. Both Barry Rawlings and he had agreed they should take direct evidence from the unions ... there had been a necessary compromise ...
In fact the Labour group had issued a press release yesterday before the meeting, stating their position - but only a handful of individuals have seen this:
Your Choice business plan did not stack up
"Optimistic revisions to financial projections" were made in the Your Choice Barnet business plan before Cabinet approved the transfer of some adults social care services to local authority trading company Your Choice Barnet - a cross party scrutiny review has found.
The May 2011 Business Plan showed Your Choice making a loss of £282,260 in the first year of operation, but in November 2011 this was revised to show a profit of £85,337.
The scrutiny Task & Finish Group review of Your Choice was set-up following a request by Labour councillor Barry Rawlings after Your Choice Barnet, which provides services to adults with learning and physical disabilities, reported first year losses of £68,000 and had to be bailed out with a £1m loan from its parent company - the Barnet Group - earlier this year.
The scrutiny review also found that the business planning process prior to outsourcing failed to identify the key cashflow black hole that later required Your Choice to borrow the £1m from the Barnet Group in order to continue operating.
It is not clear from the Task & Finish Group report why the optimistic revisions to the business plan were made in advance of the Cabinet decision to outsource, but Labour councillors believe that Cabinet Members did not challenge the figures in the business plan sufficiently before making the decision.
Labour councillors Barry Rawlings and Arjun Mittra who participated in the Task and Finish Group (TFG) both argued that the final report should be delayed in order to take more evidence from parents and service users, and to allow for all of the services to be visited, but this was opposed by the Conservative majority of councillors serving on the TFG.
The Task and Finish Group report will be considered at tonight's Safeguarding Overview & Scrutiny Committee (Wednesday 27 November). Nearly 40 public questions have been submitted to the committee on Your Choice by concerned parents and service users. Labour's Social Care & Health Spokesperson,
Cllr Barry Rawlings said: "There was a complete lack of robust data so the business plan just did not stack up. The Conservative Cabinet did not properly test the figures, or ask for comparisons in other Boroughs. If they had the services may not have been outsourced - it is almost as though they were determined to outsource these services regardless. "The problem is we are now in a catch 22 situation: the council say they cannot afford to bring the services back in-house because so many service users are now receiving direct payments for their care and this money would be lost under an in-house service, but Your Choice must still make cuts to continue operating and this may impact on the quality of the service in the future. It is a very worrying situation for parents and service users."
In the committee room, however, Labour's position had been unclear to the residents present, many of whom assumed from Evangeli's insinuation that they had been sold down the river by the Labour group's involvement in the report.
Here is something that needs to be said.
The Labour councillors' naivete, and innate decency, plays right into the hands of their shabby Tory colleagues. They need to be more outspoken, more assertive and more challenging of the Conservative members, and senior officers, and to communicate better with electors - or the Tories will succeed in deflecting the strength of focus on their own failures and appalling policies, and win another election by default.
In other words, they have to learn to fight, and shout, and scheme, and play tough, or stand accused of facilitating the policies of the current administration, and of betraying the first duty of an opposition: to fight for the rights of the residents who have no voice, and are effectively disenfranchised by the democratic deficit in this borough.
Tory councillor Brian Gordon was awake now, although clearly not entirely. He seemed to be confused by the prolonged debate. Why the fumbling around, he asked? There was, he thought, a 'huge trade union input' in the discussion, with a 'left wing agenda' ...
Uproar ensued - and a certain amount of hilarity at the thought of left wing agendas driving Barnet Labour policies.
Why are you still living in the 1970s? yelled Mrs Angry (amongst a few less polite observations). In fact this was unfair. Gordon and his Tory colleagues are still lingering in the Thatcherite glory days of the 1980s.
Unions don't exist in fascist states, Mr Shepherd observed, loudly, from the back of the room.
Most union members are low paid women, struggling to provide for their families, added Mrs Angry ...
Women don't get the vote in a theocracy, replied Mr Shepherd, trying to rile the traditionally minded, shamelessly authoritarian Gordon.
Tory Brian Salinger summarised his view on the outcome of his Task and Finish report. No change is never an option, he said. We have to live within our means.
All the more reason, you might think, not to throw good money after bad, in the cynical exercise of propping up a failed venture, on grounds of political expediency.
The Salingers have a good understanding of the needs of those with disabilities, having a family member with such difficulties. Of course one family's experience is not easily comparable to that of any other.
To some extent Brian thought he could see John Sullivan's point of view. But there had been a 'sea change' in the management of disability in the last fifty or sixty years. In the past, disabled people were institutionalised but now parents were looking after children, and for longer. Those parents were getting older, struggling to look after the children who had outlived their expected span of years.
Go and shoot them then, suggested one resident and carer, seething with fury.
Councillor Salinger was not going to support asking the Task and Finish Group to do any more on this issue, it was too much of a demand on resources.
And we've discussed it for nearly an hour and a half, agreed his colleague, Councillor Gordon.
Kath Mc Gurk insisted a vote should be taken on whether or not the report was recommended for approval. The Tories refused to consider this, despite protests that the constitution allowed it. The meeting broke up with residents shouting in disgust at the councillors, and one or two officers.
Is it payment by results, asked Mr Shepherd, as Tracey Lees, the Barnet Group Chief Executive who earns a six figure sum salary for her efforts, left the room in something of a hurry.
Clearly not, Mr Shepherd.