Monday, 6 January 2014

Questions, so many questions - and look: Mrs Angry gets some answers, from Mike Freer, MP

Ho ho ho? The eyes, the eyes ... look away, now, children, and some of our more sensitive Tory councillors ... no: this is not the real Santa, but Mike Freer, MP:  full of festive spirit.

Mrs Angry lives in the constituency of Finchley and Golders Green, and her MP is Mike Freer, proud successor (sort of) and rightful heir, or so he would like to think, to the toxic legacy of our former MP and PM, Margaret Thatcher. 

Just before Christmas, he thoughtfully sent Mrs Angry a festive email, with a rather disconcerting photograph of himself - see above - wishing her a Happy Christmas, Chanukah and New Year. 

(In fact, Mike, Chanukah had been over and done a couple of weeks beforehand, as you would have known if you had called by to visit the occupiers protesting about homelessness and your squatting law, outside your offices at Margaret Thatcher House earlier this month - occupier Mordechai was celebrating with his menorah ... and was pleasingly impressed by Mrs Angry's tuneless humming of Ma'oz Tsur ...)

But anyway. Just before this seasonal greeting, Mrs Angry and Mr Freer had had an even more interesting exchange of emails.

Mike, of course, was formerly the leader of Barnet Council, and when he was in this post he had a very Big Idea, which became 'easycouncil', a new model of local government, we were told, that would endow the residents of Broken Barnet with that thing so dear to Conservatives, and yet so hard to define: 'choice'.

Easycouncil, which became Futureshape, which became One Barnet, was to deliver 'more 'choice' in relation to our use of council services: but, oh dear - by the time easycouncil had become One Barnet, the choice as to whether or not residents wanted their council services handed over to Capita for their profiteering pleasure was not one that they were allowed to make. 

And, ha - 'Your Choice Barnet' provided further proof of this particular Tory lie: a company set up to make profit from care to the disabled was imposed on users without their preferences being taken into consideration, and is currently in a state of terminal collapse, being bailed out of trouble for the time being by Barnet taxpayers, to the tune of £1 million.

Still, nice idea, Mr Freer, the old outsourcing thing. What a shame that, as we are seeing so dramatically now in Birmingham, with Capita's Joint Venture falling apart, while the cash strapped council watches it grab £58,000 A DAY in profit ... it only benefits the commercial partners, and not the residents and taxpayers providing such easy pickings.

All this is immaterial to the only begetter of easycouncil now, of course, as he is happily ensconced in parliamentary life, working hard on behalf of his constituents. 

Is he really working hard, you may be asking? 

Yes, oh yes, really he is. 

Or at least he certainly seems to be. 

One way we know this is through the huge number of written questions he has submitted over the course of time, since being elected. 

Ok, they are rather repetitious in subject, style, and content, but still. Let's see. (You can look at the actual breakdown by session via Hansard online).

Since taking office, Mr Freer has submitted hundreds of written questions - but most of them are the same small set of repeated questions on half a dozen distinct subjects:

Mobile phone contracts: which companies provide these?
The use of paper rather than electronic invoice processes
The use of print newspapers rather than online subscriptions
The number of staff vacancies
The use of agency staff
The number of staff on sick leave

Roughly speaking, of around five hundred or so questions, nearly four hundred are on these same subjects, worded in the same way, but addressed in turn to each government department. 

For example on July 1st this year, Mr Freer asked the following:

Mobile Phones

Mike Freer: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office which companies supply (a) mobile telephones and (b) mobile data services to his Department. [162681]

Miss Chloe Smith: The Cabinet Office has a single contract in place with Vodafone for the provision of mobile services.

In fact in July alone, our MP asked seventeen questions on this subject, seventeen on billing, eighteen on press subscriptions, eighteen on sick leave, seventeen on vacancy rates, and sixteen on agency staff. The only other written questions that month were one on pensions,one on aid to Palestine a further one on pensions for civil partners, and another regarding Russian anti-gay laws and the Olympics. 

And this is roughly the pattern throughout the present government session: a few broadly based queries, and a relentless series of questions on these same topics. Of the enquiries that are not part of the same old themes, very few of those, if any, have any specific local context.

According to parliamentary estimates, it costs taxpayers £164 to respond to each written question submitted by an MP. And four hundred questions would cost an alarming total of £65,000. 

Mrs Angry decided it was time to ask her own  written questions.

Dear Mr Freer

Both as a constituent and a local blogger I must confess to being rather puzzled as to why, in your term of office as my MP, you have repeatedly asked so many written questions of so many government departments on the following subjects:

    ·     which companies supply them with mobile phones and mobile data services

    ·     the processing of and the average cost of payments, made electronically or otherwise

·     how many days sick leave each department has registered 

    ·     the cost of newspapers and trade periodicals
·     the vacancy rate in each department

Are these questions in any way related to your work as MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and if not, why spend so much time asking for such information, at such expense to the taxpayer, when there are so many pressing local issues which you could be raising in parliament, such as the state of our local health services, the increasing number of residents facing real financial hardship as a result of the bedroom tax and other welfare reforms, the failure of 'Your Choice Barnet', the questions raised by the 'upfront' £16.1 million investment by Capita that was never paid, or indeed the failure of the council to reclaim all of the money lost in the Icelandic Bank fiasco during your time as leader of Barnet Council?

I am particularly interested in the first two types of question, and really fail to see why you would want to know in such detail which companies supply each government department with mobile phones and data services. Without implying this is your intention, I feel it is reasonable to ask if any of this information is at risk of being exploited by any commercial interest intent on tendering for contracts with government departments?

I look forward to your response.

With best wishes,

Mrs Angry 

Well, as usual, Mr Freer replied promptly. Ok: he may block Mrs Angry on twitter, because she is far too dangerous to engage with in public, but as a constituent, (or perhaps as a blogger, as well as a constituent) is is only fair to say she always receives a commendably speedy and polite response:

Dear Mrs Angry

The questions elicit information on key items of expenditure across government. They also provide information on the trends and whether government spending is becoming more or less efficient. Mike Freer 

Sent from my iPhone, working on the move 

Hmm. That's interesting. Eliciting information.
Thank you for your reply.

Please tell me where and how you have used all this information to analyse whether or not government spending is indeed becoming more or less efficient, particularly in the issue of mobile phones, and data services.

Mrs Angry 

I have used the information in discussion papers and conversations with colleagues and ministers - thank you for you continued interest in my drive to reduce the cost of government and achieve better value for the taxpayer

Mike Freer

(He is clearly touched by Mrs Angry's recognition of all his hard work, as you can see ...)

You are very welcome, but what I meant was can you demonstrate where this wealth of commercial data accumulated by you has been proven to have, as you say, achieved the admiral goal of reducing the cost of government, or is the truth not that you have in fact increased the cost to taxpayers by asking so many repetitive and pointless questions about mobile phones and similar matters, at the eye watering rate of £164 per question? 

Should you not be focusing on issues more immediately relevant to the residents of Finchley and Golders Green?

Mrs Angry

 As ever I am enormously grateful for your continued interest in my work

 I'm glad to hear it, but please answer the question ...

Please refer to the work of the efficiency and reform group

And then:
Thank you for your continued interest in my work as your MP. (It is continued, my interest, yes.)

Like my predecessor and other local MPs, past and present I use Written Questions to elicit information that may not be in the public domain or available through Oral Questions. The information obtained over several dates allows the information to be compared this showing whether the expenditure or key performance indicators are improving or deteriorating. 

I have had numerous meetings with Ministers and officials relating to the work of the Efficiency and Reform Group. The Cabinet Office has confirmed that the work of the Cabinet Office and the ERG have delivered at least £5billion of savings to the taxpayer.

Mrs Angry had lost the will to continue by this point. But still: she likes the idea of the Cabinet Office confirming that the work of the Cabinet Office is efficient, and good of them to put in a good word for the efficiency of the Efficiency and Reform Group. But ... erm ... can't they collate their own data in a more, well ... efficient way than asking Mr Freer to keep shoving these questions in? Or by him making up his own KPIs? And no evidence presented of any direct benefit from his questions on these specific issues, you will note. 

The savings claimed by the ERG may well amount to £5 billion, but that does not prove that Mr Freer had anything to do with them:as far as Mrs Angry is aware, he is not a member of this group, although on 11th September 2011, he was asking Francis Maude if the Chair of the ERG would please take a look at his new Big Idea to save A Billion Pounds through savings he had identified. History, or at least Hansard, does not record what happened to that wheeze, although Francis did point out gently to Mike that in fact he, Francis was the Chair of the ERG.

And here is a curious thing: a footnote from the history of One Barnet. 

When the first Capita contract was published, we were all rather astonished to find some extremely unusual clauses contained within it in which the company boasts, at great length, of the unique extent of its influence within central government, relationships with senior officials, and taking part in the shaping of policy. 

In this role we worked directly with Francis Maude’s team and the Efficiency Reform group (ERG) to develop various initiatives that improved quality and saved money for Central Government,”
(Page 116 of 135 Transformation Method Statement 4th March 2013 Commercial in Confidence)

Capita got its feet under the One Barnet table well after Freer left for Westminster, of course, but he had prepared the ground for privatisation, and left that for others to pursue.

Mrs Angry's KPIs, incidentally, for elected members of Parliament include - does the cost of questions about savings cost more than the savings made by asking them? 

She leaves it to you, dear reader, to formulate a response to this question. 

Here is a cheque for £0.59, to cover the cost.

Not sure what sort of questions Freer's predecessor used to ask, but I think we can be pretty sure that the late Labour MP Rudi Vis did not spend his time asking about mobile phone contracts, and electronic invoicing. Then again, he was not, like Mr Freer, an expert on the subject of the transformative effect of IT services, with a BT Vital Visionary MBA. (Stand by for a very interesting post on the subject of Vital Vision, by the way ...)

Other backbench MPs, what sort of questions do they ask? A glance at the pattern of other members would suggest it is not the norm to submit so many questions -even less so on the same limited themes - and many MPs dutifully ask perfectly sound questions on local issues, or matters pertinant to ordinary constituents.

Local MPs? Well, as for Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon ... Oh God. Yes. Take a look at the list of questions for last session here. All over the shop. 

From A to Z - Air Pollution to Zimbabwe. Questions on a myriad of subjects, from the mutinous Pitcairn Islands, to how many obsese children there are in England, London and Hendon, and how many of the little blighters are smoking? Equal marriage, with no procreation, fat kids with fags: it's a world gone mad, Matthew, isn't it? 

Dr Offord has also been worrying about how many drivers have eyesight that are not up to standard, (he may feel some sympathy as he suffered an eye injury not so long ago, when a mug flew out of his kitchen cupboard) ...  and conservation and environmental issues in ... no, not Hendon ... Monserrat. 

His questions do appear to be totally random, as if he thinks them up on the tube on the way to work, but at least there is variation, and some amusement to be had from them.

Oh, and Matthew has also asked a question about the use of electric shock collars for dogs, although Mrs Angry imagines this one was submitted by his constituency agent and political adviser, Max, the jack russell terrier, who may well have reason to be worried about the increasing popularity of such measures. Or perhaps Max is thinking of buying one himself, to encourage his master in the best of behaviour?

Of course sometimes our elected members ask very important questions on our behalf, and remind us that their role in the duty of scrutiny is one they take very seriously. 

In June, for example, there was a very important debate in Westminster Hall about the disastrous contract performance by Capita in the provision of interpreter services for the courts. 

Since taking over this function, there have been tales of trials abandoned for lack of interpreters, delays, and complaints from the judiciary. 

One MP asked the following question: 

Has the Committee had an estimate of the impact of the cost of delays, extended custody and the performance off-contract on the expected savings that this outsourcing was meant to deliver?

Good to see a representative of the people holding Capita to account over a contract, isn't it?

Who was it? 

Mike Freer, the easycouncil guru, and godfather of One Barnet, whose Tory colleagues in Barnet have forced residents into the hands of not one, but two massive contracts with ... Capita. 

Dear me  ... the expected savings that this outsourcing was meant to deliver ... 

Such lack of trust in the easypromise of private sector partners. Tssk, Mr Freer.

Mrs Angry imagines that Mike has been impressed by the level of scrutiny focused on the Barnet Capita contracts by those favourite armchair auditors so popular with his new boss, Mr Pickles, and has seen the light re privatisation, at last: alas, too late for Barnet ... 

Or is it?

Just as Mike appears to be taking a position of stern disapproval with the Capita interpreters' contract, what is happening in regard to Service Birmingham might just be pointing to the future of his own futureshaped model for Barnet. 

Campaigners in Birmingham, incidentally, have now launched a petition demanding that the contract be published, with a minimum number of redactions, as has been done - with the maximum redactions - here in Broken Barnet. That this was done here was only because of pressure from local bloggers: proof if any were needed that scrutiny from residents is vital: if your local councillors won't do it, and your local MP is only interested in the failure of private sector contracts not so close to home - well, it is the duty of all of us to keep our beady eye on what is going on, and tell everyone else. 

This is Mrs Angry, then, keeping her beady eye on things, and telling everyone else: what is happening in Birmingham, and in the courts, and in so many other public/private sector 'partnerships' is going to happen here, without any question. It is only a matter of time, and the only advantage we have here is the early warning system operated by all those watching the performance of the contract with such intensity.

And one way we do this is via what is left of our democratic process, here in Barnet: the second contract monitoring committee involving Capita will take place on Monday 13th January. The first one was so much fun: do try to come along, and even better, submit some questions to your new masters.

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